The Doyenne of the Runway
The work of fashion show extraordinaire Lynne O’Neill is causing ripples of excitement among her UH Mānoa students, who are ready to unveil their virtual showcase.
Don’t be fooled by her small stature: Lynne O’Neill packs a lot of presence in a tiny package.
You’ll see it come through as she commands the attention of a roomful of industry professionals at one of the many fashion shows or events she’s produced over the years. Her ability to guide these productions is so legendary — she’s been doing it for decades — that she’s been immortalized in pop culture.
(Margaret Cho famously portrayed a character inspired by her in Sex and the City‘s classic episode, “The Real Me.”) She’s even earned the nickname “The Model Whisperer.”
Reputation in the fashion world aside, O’Neill is nothing but warm and genuine when you meet her. And, as synonymous as she may be with fashion shows, another constant in her life is her love for the islands.
Born in Hawai‘i and raised in California, O’Neill would return to the islands often in her childhood — she even has “working at Dole Cannery” cred, and is a former employee of King’s Bakery as well. That siren call of the Aloha State has beckoned throughout her life, and she usually returns annually.
For obvious reasons, that didn’t happen this past year.
However, the doyenne of the runway didn’t let the pandemic stop her from making a connection to her beloved home-away-from-home and impart her wisdom on the next generation of fashion industry professionals. She, along with fellow fashion show producer Amanda Stevens, are co-teaching University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s FDM 430 Fashion Show Production class.
“This is the first time that I’m teaching a class at UH Mānoa,” O’Neill says. “I’ve always wanted to teach a fashion show production class and I finally had the opportunity because the pandemic necessitated virtual classes.”
A veteran of 30-plus years’ worth of New York Fashion Weeks and countless other productions — highlights include Dolce & Gabbana’s fashion show for its Soho store opening and DVD launches for The Rolling Stones and Usher for Best Buy, as well as consulting on Sex and the City, Sex and the City: The Movie, Gossip Girl and Bravo’s The Fashion Show — there’s no doubt she has a lot of knowledge to impart.
“I didn’t want it to be a traditional classroom experience, but rather a real-life fashion show production experience, high-lighting the creative process, communication, organization and team work,” she says. “Also there are no mistakes or bad ideas — learn from everything.”
The class typically culminates in an end-of-semester fashion show. Last year, due to coronavirus restrictions, the show was canceled.
“Last spring … midway through the semester, the stay-at-home orders were issued and right after spring break, we went 100% virtual,” recalls Stevens, who cotaught the class for the first time last year. “It was heart-breaking for the students but we … knew that our students’ safety was the most important thing. Keeping them engaged and letting them know that we were there for them was so important.”
Meanwhile, O’Neill was dealing with something she hadn’t encountered in decades.
“For the first time in 30 years, I didn’t do any shows at NYFW,” she says, pointing out she wasn’t the only one. The pandemic had forced productions to change, and many went to a virtual platform. So, too, did FDM 430.
“When we found out that (co-teacher from last spring) Aly Ishikuni Sasaki would not be teaching this semester, and that the class would be online, I immediately reached out to Lynne because I knew that was something she had mentioned wanting to do, sometime in the future to give back to the local community and future fashion show producers,” Stevens explains.
“Hawai‘i has a great wealth of talent and we are very lucky to have Lynne O’Neill and Amanda Stevens teach this year’s class on Fashion Show Production,” states Andy Reilly, Ph.D., FDM program coordinator. “Both have enormous skills sets and talents and come with a background of producing top-level fashion shows.”
So, from her home in upstate New York, O’Neill co-teaches Zoom classes with Stevens and the students here in Hawai‘i. She is able to relay knowledge gleaned from her time working with design houses such as Hervé Leger, Becca Swimwear, Shay Todd, Duckie Brown, Vivienne Tam and more.
“(She) said something along the lines of, ‘If you do not have the information, you cannot direct,’” says lead student producer Melanie Simmons.
“This stuck with me because it is a fundamental lesson that you can apply to all aspects of life, but it is very important in the workplace. This taught me to value clarity in communication because uncertainty hinders productivity when working on a project.”
That uncertainty is something that almost everyone is familiar with by now, and the FDM 430 teachers and students tackled it head-on.
Because the show is celebrating its 55th year, co-teachers wanted to honor this milestone while also teaching students how to adapt to new ways of showcasing their work.
“Between Lynne and I, the virtual fashion show was the plan from the start,” Stevens explains. “We knew that the students deserved to have a show and that we were not going to teach a ‘conceptual’ fashion show production class.”
“The silver lining is that I was able to co-teach with Amanda Stevens and we were able to connect with the students remotely and produce a PSA and a two-part docuseries that included the virtual 55th annual fashion show,” O’Neill explains.
The docuseries is made up of two segments. First, Road to Runway: Meet the Senior Fashion Design Students includes interviews with the program’s three seniors and debuted April 27. Check out the show’s Instagram (@uhmfashionshow) for streaming updates.
The second part, Road to Runway: The Fashion Show premieres May 10 at 6 p.m. on ‘Ōlelo 53 and 8:30 p.m. on KFVE 6 with a livestream on hawaiinewsnow.com.
In addition to the 55th annual fashion show displaying the work of the students, the broadcast will feature guest speakers such as UH president David Lassner, cameos by Hawai‘i-based fashion designers, a behind-the-scenes look at the fashion show and more.
Silver linings aside, O’Neill is eager to be in Hawai‘i in person, not just virtually.
“I can’t wait to indulge in all my favorite local foods like Liliha Bakery’s Coco Puffs, Leonard’s malasadas, Zippy’s — or the new Papa Kurt’s — for saimin, Waiola Shave Ice, Helena’s Hawaiian Food and the ubiquitous Spam musubi,” she says. “(Husband) Bobby and I usually go to Hawai‘i twice a year, but haven’t been (back) since February 2020. I’m looking forward to seeing my mom, ‘ohana and friends — and just being home.”