By Max Berlinger
To say that Thaddeus O’Neil loves the ocean would be putting it mildly.
“Not to get overly histrionic about this, but surfing is one of the primary mediums through which I see and interpret the world and construct meaning,” the model-turned-designer says. “Surfers choose to worship the sea and that choice is all-defining. It’s a rebellious act of freedom that can cut out a lot of bullshit, thankfully. Surfing truly is a clash of the physical and metaphysical, which is precisely what we humans are.”
O’Neil, who grew up surfing in Fire Island with his father, channeled his love of the waves into an eponymous fashion label, which he launched in 2013. Described as a “unisex line of American luxury playwear for après surf inspired by the hobos of the sea,” the brand has been a finalist for buzzy industry awards like the International Woolmark Prize and the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. It has both a sense of humor and a sense of mystery, two things that surfers so magically cultivate in their own personas. With his clavicle-length, sea-tousled hair, sinewy frame, and crooked smile, O’Neil is the living embodiment of a summer spent in a sleepy fishing village, carving waves by day and drinking cold beers into the night.
“Surfing itself, which is a means of thinking with and about nature, a way of seeing and understanding the sea with your body, is filled with colorful characters,” he says. “Surfers are strange people.”
O’Neil is packaging his surfer-brah credentials, luxe beach bum attitude, and, yes, strangeness, and putting it front and center in our seaside-meets-sidewalk collaborative capsule collection, Bonobos x Thaddeus O’Neil.
A mutual friend and Bonobos team member, Amber Oxley, put O’Neil and our chief design officer Dwight Fenton in touch and design bromance was set into motion. “He’s a great guy and we just clicked,” says O’Neil. “Bonobos, as a brand, has a real fun and playful sensibility and yet retains a strong practicality with their clothes which is definitely something that resonates with me and made it easy and enjoyable to work together.”
From there, O’Neil brought the work of inventor, architect, philosopher, and futurist Buckminster Fuller to the table to serve as a sort of spirit guide for the collection. “I’d been reading a lot of his work and it just really resonated with me given the state of things right now — the palpable sense of urgency about our future on this planet. And because Bucky was an avid sailor he shared a surfer’s affinity for the freedom and mystery of the sea,” he said. “Bucky was a renegade, out-there world-thinker who based the origins of civilization in the seas. One of my first loves is poetry and he would also express many of his very complicated ideas in verse. I just had a lot of affinity for his ideas and for him as person.”
The result takes go-to warm weather staples — short-sleeve button-ups, T-shirts, swim trunks, lightweight pullover hoodies, and, of course, chinos — and remakes them in looser, relaxed shapes, in vibrant summer hues and with beach-friendly patterns. From pleated, cropped coral pink trousers to a seagull-printed airy sweater to a blue plaid jumpsuit, the collection offers up something for everyone.
“For me, the play of color and texture is very important and we injected this into the entire collection,” O’Neil says. “Lots were completely new silhouettes and some, like the shirting for instance, were existing shapes that are go-tos for the Bonobos customer to which we introduced new details.”
The seagull motif which carries through the collection is anything but incidental. “The seagull is doubly implicated as a symbol of freedom guiding us back to the life source and wisdom of the oceans, and yet also as a harbinger of our misdeeds coming back for us in some form if we don’t change our ways and behave with a more holistic intelligence — which is an oxymoron because intelligence is holistic, properly speaking.”
O’Neil’s favorite piece is, naturally, the wildest: the jumpsuit. He suggests just going for it, and wearing it with white sneakers and a mix of confidence and mellow attitude — i.e. classic surfer ~vibes~. That’s how he thinks guys should approach dressing generally. “Just have fun with it,” he says. “If there’s a poppier color you like but aren’t sure how to wear it, play the bright colors off some solid neutrals to start, and then find your own rhythm for working brighter colors together. Colors are interactive so you’ll find it’s much more wearable than you think if you’re open to experiment. But seriously, just have fun. Have serious fun.”
Max Berlinger is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. His work has been seen in The New York Times, GQ, and Bloomberg. He’s currently wasting time on Twitter.