On January 20, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in as the President and Vice President of the United States. For the occasion, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden had her pick of sartorial options. In what some viewed as an unexpected choice, she wore a custom blue coat and dress by Markarian, Alexandra O’Neill’s New York-based ready-to-wear and bridal label that was founded in 2017. (In the past, First Ladies picked world-renowned designers like Oscar de la Renta and Thom Browne for the day.) Viewers praised the elegant ensemble not only for its look but the message that her choice to wear an emerging American designer sent.

“We didn’t know for sure that she was going to be wearing it until she walked out on Inauguration Day,” O’Neil told Refinery29 a week after the Inauguration. “I couldn’t have been more honored to have been chosen on such an important day.” She describes the moment as “the highest of the highs” for herself and Markarian: “I can’t imagine a more exciting, important moment for us.” But while the sight of the First Lady donning a look that O’Neill, just nights before, was beading by hand, won’t soon be forgotten, it’s the aftermath of the day that will shape her and her fairly new brand going forward. 

As an American designer who’s adamant about supporting New York’s Garment District, being selected felt like a win not just for her, but for all of the local garment workers who helped get her there. “It’s dwindling,” she says of the Garment District. “They have incredible resources there, not to mention incredible workers and artisans. It’s important to give them support even more so now during COVID; everybody’s struggling, so the more attention that I can draw to the Garment Center, the better.” Much of Dr. Biden’s dress was created there, before it was later taken to O’Neill’s studio to be hand-beaded with Swarovski pearls and crystals.

In addition to designing a look worthy of Dr. Biden’s First Lady debut — while competing against a number of other prominent designers for the job — O’Neill was also tasked with selecting dresses for President Biden’s two granddaughters to wear for the latter portion of Inauguration Day. Both Natalie’s yellow sequin dress with white straps and Finnegan’s coral-colored sequin dress with black details were likewise sartorial hits. What’s more, O’Neill did all this while continuing to work on her fall collection of both bridal and ready-to-wear. 

O’Neill, who says she slept properly for the first time in six days on the Sunday after Inauguration Day, is used to juggling several things at once, running from her West Village studio to the Garment District and everywhere in between, on a daily basis. After soft-launching the brand during the spring ‘18 season in 2017, Markarian’s debut collection was quickly picked up by popular luxury e-tailer Moda Operandi — known for its trunk shows — catalyzing the brand’s success. “My one goal for the first year that I started the company was to do a trunk show on Moda Operandi, so to have that happen for our first season was really, really special,” she says. 

Since, Markarian’s become a New York Fashion Week darling, with editors and influencers alike making sure to attend its presentations, the likes of which took place (pre-pandemic) on hotel rooftops as lavish as the sequin and feathered dresses displayed there. She also launched bridal in 2018, as well as knitwear and jewelry in 2020, and she intermittently designs handbags to incorporate into collections. “I always get really excited whenever we launch a new product,” she says. For her upcoming fall ‘21 collection, she has another new launch. Hint: it involves sustainable cashmere.

“We’re just trying to get through this week,” she says of her current schedule which involves the photo shoot for the new collection, “we” being her six-person team, which she calls “incredible.” “I’m so lucky to have them and to be able to work with them. They’re all very capable. So, I know we’ll manage to get it all done.” 

“It’s been amazing for us because we’ve never had anything like this before, where we’ve had a global spotlight shining on us.”

– Alexandra O’Neill

According to her, the fall collection was at first inspired by ancient Rome and the gods and goddesses of that time. “That said, it always starts somewhere and ends up in a completely different place.” One thing she does confirm is that the collection will mark the first time Markarian knitwear is designed entirely with recycled cashmere. “We’re trying to use more and more sustainable fabrics in our collections,” she says. “Knitwear is one of the first big steps that we’re taking, so we were insistent about making sure it was fully sustainable.”

But while the brand has experienced one of the most exciting moments in its history, O’Neill says that she hasn’t had time to fully process the events of the inauguration with the new collection looming. 

According to her, once fashion week is over, she’s hoping to finally be able to bask in the glory of dressing the First Lady on a day that was viewed by 33.8 million people. “There’s been an outpour of support and congratulations, which has been really kind and really humbling,” she says, adding that interest in the brand has increased, too. “It’s been amazing for us because we’ve never had anything like this before, where we’ve had a global spotlight shining on us.”

As for what’s next? Right now, she says she’s just “trying to take it day by day.” After all, with a forthcoming collection that’s not yet finished, there isn’t much time to think about the future. If you ask me though, the future of Markarian is crystal clear: This was just the first of many highest of the highs to come. 

Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

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