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Behind the Scenes with Markarian’s Founder and Designer, Alexandra O'Neill

By Nina RuggieroOct 13 2021
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Womenswear label Markarian and Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room have one thing in common: They were made for special occasions.

“It’s one of those iconic New York City places people still get dressed up for,” Alexandra O’Neill, Markarian’s sequin-loving founder, said of the event space that hosted her New York Fashion Week debut in September.

“You never know how things are going to work out, especially for your first show, and everything fell into place so beautifully,” she said. “The light at that time was so perfect. It was hitting all of the crystals… it had those little rainbow prisms all over the place. It was really special.”

Photo by Hao Zeng

O’Neill, whose whimsical designs have caught the eye of many a celebrity — from Emma Roberts, who wore the label the first week it launched in 2017, to First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, who wore it to her husband’s presidential inauguration in January — experimented with more elaborate beading for her Spring/Summer 2022 collection.

“I thought it felt particularly right, starting to come out of the pandemic a little bit, to do something that was more exciting and fantastical, especially for a show, especially in such a beautiful, upscale location,” she said.

Over the past four and a half years, she has worked to cultivate an atelier that women choose to visit when they have something to celebrate, be it a wedding or red carpet event. And although she acknowledges the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over yet, O’Neill believes people, and perhaps New Yorkers in particular, are finally ready to get back to celebrating. Except this time, no occasion is too small, so long as it involves leaving the house.

“People are really excited to be getting out there again,” she said. “I think people are really over wearing sweatpants and leisurewear… they’re looking for something that’s more exciting and over the top. We have people coming in looking for sequins to go out to dinner in.”

Each Markarian piece is made to order, and clients are invited to visit the West Village showroom by appointment to make modifications that suit their style and personality. Want to turn a gown into a minidress or mix and match tops and bottoms for a more dramatic silhouette? O’Neill is all for it.

Photo by Hao Zeng

“I really wanted to offer women a service where they could come in and have something made just for them that nobody else has,” she said, “a service that I think exists pretty widely for men; a man can walk in and have custom shirts and suits made, and they do that all the time. It’s not necessarily something that women really do anymore.”

Almost all Markarian looks are created in New York City — save its sweaters, made in Los Angeles, and select handbags, made in Beirut. O’Neill’s love for the city, her brand headquarters and home, is rooted in her fierce dedication to its Garment District, an invaluable piece of old New York she worries is “slowly disappearing.”

“One of the reasons why I was able to start my line is because you can really find anything you want to do in the garment center,” she said, “from pattern makers to sample rooms to production houses. We believe strongly in supporting the garment center here and the artisans and the craftsmanship that New York City has to offer.”

Photo by Hao Zeng

O’Neill herself has been sewing clothing since her grandmother taught her as a child and is often found beading and stitching finishing touches by hand, from Swarovski crystals on the waistline of a wedding dress to pearls on the collar of that now-historic ocean-blue dress for the First Lady.

“I’m always excited when anybody chooses to wear Markarian for anything,” O’Neill said. “It’s always exciting when somebody picks one of my dresses.”

But, of course, watching Biden emerge from the U.S. Capitol in her design was a milestone moment, and one that came as a bit of a shock even after weeks of planning and cramming.

“We got a call from her team in December saying we were one of a number of designers they were considering for the inauguration, and they asked us to submit some options and sketches that they could review,” O’Neill said.

The list was then narrowed down to a few designers, and all the Markarian team could do was fine-tune their creation and wait.

“All said and done we had not that much time to make the final piece,” O’Neill said. “It wasn’t confirmed she was going to wear it… we didn’t really know until she walked out in it. We were all so surprised.”

Biden’s team did offer some direction for the project, but the metallic tweed dress and jacket — with extra beading and crystals, and a mask and gloves to match — was a perfect example of Markarian flair. “I wanted to make something that was elegant and classic but still kind of modern,” O’Neill said, and the same description could be used for so many of the pieces she designs.

With vintage-inspired bodices, asymmetrical sleeves, bold prints and intricate embroidery, no two Markarian looks are the same, and that’s exactly the point. Whether you’re talking to O’Neill about her latest collection or asking for her fashion advice, there’s one word that comes up most often: “fun.” Above all, it’s her objective to ensure a woman wearing a Markarian dress is always having fun.

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