10 Questions: Margaret O’Leary

May 22, 2012

By Hannah Yakobi

Photography courtesy of Margaret O’Leary

San-Francisco based Margaret O’Leary is an emerging favourite among Hollywood’s A-listers. Her clothing company has evolved into a small empire over the last two decades from a hand-loomed knit collection into a full line of innovative knitwear. O’Leary’s pieces can be found in the United States, but also in London and Tokyo, and her style is said to reflect “the urban chic of San Francisco, New York and the Parisian Marais.” Some of the celebrities who have worn her pieces include Helen Mirren, Teri Hatcher, Meryl Streep and Kate Hudson.

FAJO Magazine asked O’Leary 10 questions about her style, work and business.

Margaret O'Leary.

1. What does fashion mean to you? 

Fashion is a means of self-expression. It is art. Some people paint, I express my artistic self through colour and shape that is displayed, not on canvas, but on the body. You can express so much via the colours you wear and the shapes you choose to put on your body. The world around me is a collage of impression and I thrive watching others and observing how they elect to express themselves through fashion.

2. What is your educational background? 

I have a mechanical engineering degree. It may seem unrelated to fashion but my engineering background has, in fact, been a key to the development of my knitwear collections. At the end of the day, executing the perfect knit shape is like building a suspension bridge (but much less dangerous!). My mechanical brain can switch between yards and meters, and convert from pounds to kilos. Fashion design requires more math than most people realize, but using my engineering and math skills for fashion is way more fun than what I thought I would be doing back in engineering school!

3. What was the very first piece that you designed?

I made a colour block, Mondrian-inspired cotton pullover, with purple, orange, turquoise and black yarn. That was about 20 years ago and it is almost cool again now! I should wear it to the Denver Mondrian exhibit and see if anyone can connect the dots…

4. What has been your most successful career moment to date?

When Barneys called and asked me to make hundreds of sweaters right away. I was knitting non-stop for two weeks, as we were not fully automated back then.

5. Who has been your favourite client to date and why? 

We are fortunate to have many celebrity clients, and it is always fun to meet them and see what they are really like. There is no better way to get to know someone than to help them dress.

Meryl Streep is perhaps the celebrity client that stands out in my mind as she was so graceful and accessible as a person and, from a fashion standpoint, she knew exactly what she wanted for the Academy Awards. But I want to stress that our California Chic designs are accessible and easy to wear, so I find myself dressing so many women – this isn’t about celebrity haute couture.

My clothing is for every day and every night. I am so lucky that I get to meet my clients in our stores on a regular basis and every woman who walks out of my store with a smile is my favourite that day!

Margaret O'Leary (left) at her studio.

6. What is your brand’s aesthetic and vision? 

I begin by considering what I would enjoy wearing. This personal point of view has always informed my design aesthetic. The collections are infused with the feeling of the coastline of my beloved Marin County in California, flavoured with a dash of my Irish roots (don’t forget, I grew up knitting from the time I was three!). The fashion press calls our aesthetic “California Chic”.

I think of the vision as effortless and relaxed, while simultaneously chic and sexy.

I work in the finest Italian yarn and cashmere, producing each piece with the care and consideration that can still be found in a family-run business, and that is also an important part of our vision.

7. You have been working in this industry for several decades, with a meteoric rise to fame more recently. If you had to go back five years, is there anything you would do differently? What would it be and why? 

I would expand my Italian cashmere collection, as I adore working with this fibre. I would probably have launched a men’s line and I may still do that soon, if for no other reason than to keep my husband happy. And I would have learned how to Tweet sooner!

8. Who is your biggest critic? 

Unquestionably, me.

9. What do you love best about being a fashion designer? 

Not many people know this, but when I was a girl growing up very poor (second eldest of 12) on a rural Irish farm, I only had two outfits…a daily outfit, and a special Sunday outfit which I kept tucked away in a cardboard box under the bed. At school, I would see that other girls could actually wear different clothes two or even three times a week, and I vowed that when I grew up I would have more than two outfits. Today, I can design and wear whatever I like! What poor farm girl wouldn’t love this job! I have achieved more than I ever dreamed of (but I still tell my husband, “I can’t find a thing to wear!”).

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10. Do you wear pieces from your collection? If so, what are you favourite ones? 

I don’t wear anything but! Because of our weather here in Northern California, I can wear cashmere all year round. Maybe that’s why I love living here! I adore the luxury cotton that we use for our summer collections and…sssh…I wear cashmere sweats the second I get out of bed in the morning… It’s like love at first touch!


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