Each month in 2014 I will feature a female entrepreneur from Northern Ireland. I find these smart and creative women inspiring and I hope you do to. Last month I featured master baker Claire Magowan and this month it’s stylist and illustrator Sara O’Neill.
Was it always your dream to work as a fashion stylist?
I always wanted to work in the creative industry in some capacity, either in art or fashion, but I wasn’t really aware of the role of a stylist until I was at university.
I completed a BA Hons in Fashion and Textiles in the University of Ulster, specialising in fashion design. It was during my degree I realised that although I loved fashion I knew that design was not for me and that I wanted to create entire images, not individual garments, so I started thinking about styling and illustration.
Did it take you long to build up a name for yourself in the Northern Ireland fashion and retail scene?
Not really, it all snowballed pretty quickly. After graduating I waitressed for a while and met a couple of people that were very active in the NI fashion industry- photographers Gavin Millar and Khara Pringle and make-up artist Oonagh Boman. They got me involved in shoots, I built up a good client base from there and I’m lucky to work with a lot of the same creative teams season after season. We’ve built up a great working relationship which allows us to really push ourselves and each other and produce some lovely work. In terms of retailers, it took a bit of time to build up contacts within stores and press offices but I’m so obsessive about clothes on a shoot and have always been able to return everything in perfect condition so I’ve never had any problems there.
You work on some very glamorous shoots but what’s been the most satisfying shoot you’ve worked on?
I have been very lucky with the shoots I’ve worked on. Some of the most memorable have been shoots I’ve done for really gorgeous hotels – an arty shoot for The Merchant, and cool bridal shoots for The G and The Gibson – these shoots usually last a couple of days and I always get a suite in the hotel, we have fabulous meals and get to hang out and do what we love to do. I work on a lot of commercial shoots and big ad campaigns and this season worked on one of my favourite to date, for Rushmere Shopping Centre. We shot in Larchfield Estate with two fantastic models and an amazing creative team. Everyone really pushed themselves and the end result was truly beautiful, with a TV ad, billboard images and a behind the scenes magazine shoot.
In the last few years your artwork has received a lot of attention, tell us a bit about your illustrations.
My illustrations are detailed pencil drawings with soft washes of colour and the subjects are usually beautiful women and interesting, craggy men. I like to show a lot of emotion and mood in my drawings and as I work in pencil light and shade are very important. Working with photographers over the years I’ve learned a lot about lighting and I bring that into my drawings. I’ve had two solo exhibitions ‘La Belle et La Bete’ and ‘Love me to Death’, and have taken part in various joint exhibitions, including a recent one in the Ulster Hall, ‘Graphite’. My first exhibition sold out, most of it before the launch. I signed with a London-based illustration agency a couple of years ago and have since been working on commercial and fashion illustration jobs.
I’m currently working on the cover of a graphic novel for Titan Books.
Where do you get the inspiration for your drawings?
I find inspiration in lots of places – fashion, literature, music, people, places. If it’s a piece for a client I’ll be given a brief, which I’ll research and immerse myself in until I can envisage the image. If it’s a piece for myself it’ll be based on whatever I love at the time.
How do you juggle the demands of your career as a stylist and your work as an artist?
I tend to be very busy for a few months twice a year. February-April and August-October is when most of the seasonal campaigns and shows take place and during these times I can work up to 70 hours a week, usually doing styling work during the day and drawing at night. If I’m very busy with either styling or drawing I’ll completely concentrate on one and leave the other for a few days or weeks, so that I don’t lose focus on the job in hand, although that’s not always possible. I love both aspects of my work and they tend to compliment each other very well. I also write for various blogs and magazines and I tend to concentrate on that for a couple of days each month.
I’m currently bringing both sides of my work together, producing a small range of illustrated printed garments and textiles, which I will be expanding over the next few years.
I recently collaborated with designer Una Rodden, using my printed silk and her wonderful designs.
Who or what drives you to be successful?
I really love my work and know that I’m very lucky to make a living doing this and that drives me to work as hard as I can. I always want to keep my clients and team happy so I always put 100% into every job I do. I’d rather pass on a shoot or commission than do a mediocre job.
How do you like to unwind?
I’m very lucky to live on the north coast, which is such a beautiful part of the world.
Being beside the sea seriously helps me relax. I find it much easier to draw here and then pop to Belfast or beyond for shoots. My work, especially the styling side of things, tends to be very sociable, city-based and can get quite hectic, so walking on the beach or around the cliffs allows me to clear my head and unwind.