Behind the Scenes Exclusive with a Fashion Insider
With her creative work featured on billboards, magazines and catwalks across Northern Ireland, local stylist and illustrator, Sara O’Neill is one of the most inspiring individuals in the fashion industry. I caught up with her for an insight into what really goes on behind the perfectly coiffed glamour on fashion shoots, with exclusive tips for anyone stuck in a style rut!
'She's the coolest player in Northern Ireland fashion and now stylist Sara O'Neill has shown she's a talented artist as well' - Daily Mirror
Q. Most of us don't cross paths with a stylist every day... tell us what the role involves.
Basically, a stylist’s role is to make a creative idea a reality. My work tends to involve styling shoots and shows for ad agencies, magazines, hair companies, production companies. I’ve been doing this for eight years now and I have a great client base so I tend to work with the same teams season after season which is wonderful as we are all on the same page and can push ourselves and each other to create strong work.
Q. How do you go about setting up a shoot?
When I’ve been booked for a shoot I’ll have a meeting with the client, liaise by phone or email, we’ll come up with a concept and swap mood boards or inspirational imagery. I chat to the photographer about location, lighting and model choice. A week or so before the shoot I’ll start looking around the shops, contacting designers and track down any specific garments or accessories needed, making them if needs be. A couple of days before the shoot I’ll get retailers to hold items from me which are collected or delivered the day before and I’ll finalise the looks, although these can change as sometimes things just don’t look the way you imagine due to location, model, lighting or image composition. On the day of the shoot I’ll lay everything out, chat through the outfits with hair and make-up so that the entire look works. Throughout the shoot my main priority is to make sure everything in front of the camera looks good and that the clothes remain pristine. After the shoot the clothes are returned and credits and information must be typed up.
Final touches backstage. Photo: Gavin Millar with Maryam from Style Academy
Q. I'm guessing there's no such a thing as an average day in the life of a stylist... can you share the highlights of a typical day or week?
There really isn’t! I live in Portrush now, as I love the coast, but my office is in Belfast so I work between home, office and various shoot locations. My busy styling periods tend to be February-April and August-October, S/S and A/W seasons. During these months I could have three or four shoots or shows a week, so most of my time is either spent on location or sourcing and tracking down outfits and I tend to work seven days a week, from early morning into the evening, or until after midnight if I’m working on illustrations as well. Illustration tends to be about half of my work, and while I have more time to concentrate on that in summer and winter, out of shoot season, things aren’t as simple as that, so sometimes all-nighters have to be pulled, especially if I have an exhibition looming or a commercial deadline. I tend to get very wrapped up in my drawings, and could easily work on them all day long. One very intricate piece had me completely absorbed for 30 hours with no break. I also write for magazines and blogs, so in short there is no such thing as a typical day but every single day is very busy, exciting and fulfilling.
Q. What's the most inspiring project you've ever worked on?
I think the most inspiring project is my current one, Éadach, which combines my styling and illustration work to produce a range of printed silk. I’ve always loved Irish mythology - my grandparents used to tell me stories of the Children of Lir, the Salmon of Knowledge, of Changelings and Banshees. These stories have inspired my recent illustrations and I’ve blended them with coastal sunsets to create abstract patterns. These are printed on silk for scarves and onto t-shirts, and have provided the basis for my second collaboration with designer Una Rodden. She has created some stunning garments with the silk and they’ve had loads of media attention and been featured in Grazia, The Mirror, Northern Woman etc. I was lucky enough to receive the Creative Industries Innovation Fund from the NI Arts Council, which allows me to really push this project forward and get my teeth into it. I love Irish heritage and want to create something contemporary, desirable and totally wearable.
Sara's illustrations printed on silk in collaboration with local designer Una Rodden. Photos: Khara Pringle. Model: Úna G
Q. How does the hard graft:glamour ratio pan out behind the scenes?
Ummm, behind the scenes there is basically zero glamour. There is a lot of hard graft but there is also a lot of fun, job satisfaction and freedom so it’s well worth it. But the glamour quotient is very low - pretty much non-existent. Shoots are long, often outdoors, can be cold with a lot of running about and carrying, so practical clothes are essential. All the glamour is in front of the camera. Shows and shoots are a bit like a swan, beautiful and effortless on the surface, manic underneath. I do get invited to lots of fab events though so that’s where the glamour kicks in. And I have styled shoots for some fab hotels - The G, The Merchant, The Gibson - in that case I stay in a suite for a few days, eat delicious food, wear amazing dresses - those have been pretty glamorous jobs.
Q. Do you people watch when out and about, silently restyling them in your mind?
I always people-watch, I get a lot of ideas from seeing how people dress. Fashion can be construed as frivolous, but we come into contact with hundreds of people every day, and only speak to a handful of those, so how we dress and present ourselves is a very powerful means of communication. The only time I really want to intervene is in the changing room of a shop, when I hear people getting bad advice from their friends or shop assistant.
Photo: Khara Pringle. Model: Holly K
Q. How would you sum up Belfast style - and how do we compare to other European cities?
Like any city, Belfast has a lot of different styles but because it is such a small city all those styles tend to mingle together in one big melting pot, which you don’t get so much in larger cities like London, where different style tribes stick to their own area. There’s a good music and subcultural scene in Belfast and there are a lot of bars and clubs for such a small place, so that allows people to be more individual and experimental in their style. Belfast loves its high street and seasonal trends, mixed with a bit of vintage and designer. I think social media and ever-present cameras have put a lot of pressure on people to look good all the time and girls here put a lot of effort into their appearance with tan, professionally applied make-up, a trip to the salon and nails all de rigeur (or is that just in my newsfeed?). Male style in Belfast can be summed up in one word right now: beard.
Q. Any tips for the average person stuck in a style rut?
It’s so easy to get stuck in a rut, people have such busy lives they generally just throw on whatever is to hand and easy. It is said that women only wear 20% of their wardrobe and I do believe that. If you have a free few hours go through your wardrobe, you’ll probably find a few forgotten gems that will perk up your on-rotation outfits. We all buy things we’ve never worn and hold on to things much longer than we should. Get rid of this clutter, clear your wardrobe and donate to your local charity shop getting a double whammy feel-good factor. Organise your wardrobe to make it easier to work with, see what you’re missing and need to invest in. Look through fashion magazines, at celebrity style you admire and next time you go shopping try on something different - a colour, a cut, a fabric you would usually admire but walk by, you might surprise yourself. Figure-wise, a general rule of thumb is to balance and distract from problem areas - if you worry about your hips, balance them by building your shoulders with a well-cut jacket or a wide neckline and draw the eye up or down by wearing a statement necklace or shoes.
Q. Which came first: styling or illustration - and which is your greatest love?
I’ve been styling for eight years and illustrating for four. I’ve loved both fashion and art since I was a little kid and always knew I wanted to work in this area. After I graduated from UU with a BaHons in Fashion and Textiles I sort of fell into styling and it escalated very quickly. A few years back I was bored one weekend and started drawing again and just kept going. I was quickly offered a solo exhibition, which sold out, and had another the following year then signed with Lemonade Illustration Agency. I genuinely love both, I really enjoy working with creative teams in my styling work and bouncing ideas about, but then I take such pride in my illustration work because it’s just mine.
Illustration by Sara O'Neill
Q. Tell us about your work as an illustrator: what inspires you and what are you most proud of?
My illustration work is heavily influenced by my fashion work, I’m lucky to have lots of model friends that let me draw them, I’ve picked up a lot from photographers about composition and lighting. Subject-wise I take inspiration from music, fashion, film, pop-culture, literature - specifically Irish at the moment. I’ve had some really lovely commercial jobs in the past year - for the Fitzwilliam Hotel’s giant birthday card, for the Fashion Souk and for jewellery designer Bohemian Vixen. I recently completed the cover of a graphic novel for Titan Books - totally different for me, but I was a teenage goth comic nerd so my inner teen is very happy (in a deadpan way) .
Sara with her Studio Souk illustration
Q. Your working life seems pretty full on - what's your favourite way to unwind?
It is, but I’m very lucky in that I get to be on the beach every day, at least once a day and being beside the sea is my ultimate relaxation. Messing about on the beach with my fiancée, Al and our golden retriever puppy, Blyton always makes me laugh and unwind. Al is a big wave surfer and his schedule is as full-on as mine, but even if we’re doing a twelve hour day we make time to get out for a walk and a coffee. Plus, we both work for ourselves so can often work side by side and bounce ideas off each other, which makes things more fun.
Stylist and Illustrator, Sara O'Neill is represented by Lemonade Illustration Agency, London.
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Nic is a Belfast beauty blogger, freelance writer and mum, with a penchant for Chanel lipstick, shopping & strong coffee. As editor of Strawberry Blonde Beauty, she helps steer women through the beautysphere with reviews, tips and the lowdown on the latest releases. Nic loves exploring Belfast's thriving cultural scene and agrees with Dorothy that there's no place like home.