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Alexandra O’Neill was addressing a hole she saw in the market when she started Markarian in 2017. In a world dominated by fast fashion, O’Neill wanted to take the opposite approach and lean into slow fashion where there’s a focus on craftsmanship, quality, and made-to-order pieces. “It’s something that exists pretty widely for men, but does not exist that widely for women,” says O’Neill. She quickly built a clientele that was not only looking for the one-of-a-kind pieces Markarian offered, but also admired the brand’s dedication to sustainability and supporting local artisans in New York City’s garment district. She even caught the attention of the White House. Read more about O’Neill, Markarian, and dressing the First Lady below.
Kristen Maxwell Cooper: When did you first fall in love with fashion? Did you always know it was something you wanted to pursue?
Alexandra O’Neill: I fell in love with making clothing when I was younger. My grandmother, Gigi, lived and still lives with us now, actually. She lived with us ever since I was born. She taught me how to sew when I was young, when I was around ten, and I just fell in love with making clothing. I would go to our local fabric store in Denver and I would get a bunch of remnant fabrics and I’d bring them to my grandmother and we’d lay the fabrics out on the floor and I would kind of make pieces from there. I would take my brother’s old big polo shirts and make different things out of those. It was nice having her not only teach me, but she was excited about what I was doing and excited that I was interested in it too. She’s always been super supportive, which has been really amazing.
KMC: You started Markarian in 2017–what made you want to take the leap and what was your vision when you started?
AO: I knew when I was starting Markarian that I wanted to do it a little bit differently. I wanted to focus on our private client business and offer a service to people where they could come in and have something custom-made. That’s been a huge part of our business. And something that really sets us apart, I think, from other brands is that girls can come in and pick their silhouette and we talk about different fabric options and different beading and embroidery options with them. So they have a piece made just for them. It’s a piece that they’ll only have. It’s something that exists pretty widely for men, but does not exist that widely for women. I knew that was kind of the route that I wanted to take, and I wanted to have a limited number of partnerships with retailers. So that’s been our main focus.
KMC: You had a really exciting year in 2021 when you dressed First Lady Dr. Jill Biden for President Biden’s Inauguration. Tell me how that came about.
AO: I also knew when I launched Markarian that I wanted to do the opposite of fast fashion, which was super popular at that time. We do very much slow fashion meaning everything is made to order. And the majority of our pieces are made in New York City. Some are made in LA. Whatever we can’t have made here, because unfortunately some of the technology or people with certain skills don’t exist anymore, we have made overseas. But the majority of everything is made here, which is something that we believe really strongly in. We believe really strongly in supporting New York’s garment center and the artisans that exist there. So when the Inauguration was coming around, Dr. Biden’s team reached out to us because I think that they were interested in supporting a female designer that does make everything in America, which was incredibly exciting for us. It was such a different process than anything we’d ever been through. And it had very unique challenges because we were doing it at the height of the pandemic. So everything was done remotely. But it was such an honor to even be considered for something like that. It’s just been an incredible journey since we launched the brand, but especially since we had the Inauguration.
KMC: What did that moment do for Markarian?
AO: I mean, I don’t think that you will ever have another moment like that in your career where your work is displayed on such a global platform. People were seeing it from all over the world, which was really exciting.
KMC: What other moments during Markarian’s relatively short time have you been particularly proud of?
AO: My favorite thing is when we see Markarian out in the wild—that’s what we call it, when someone is wearing something and you don’t know that they’re going to be wearing it. Those are always my favorite moments. It’s such an honor when anyone chooses to wear something that you make.
KMC: Since launching you’ve added bridal and jewelry. Were these always a part of your vision or did you see an opportunity and went for it?
AO: I always wanted to do accessories when I was first launching Markarian—I was actually initially going to launch with just handbags. That was my concept. But then I decided that I really missed making clothing, and that’s really where my strength lies. It’s also so much harder to transition from an accessories line into a full clothing line than it is to add accessories to a clothing brand. So I decided launch with clothing and then add accessories, and then bridal came about. I think it’s just the nature of having a custom, private client business because girls were coming in asking for some of our ready to wear pieces to be made in white and it was happening enough where we decided that it would be a good idea to launch bridal. I think people are thinking about bridal in a different way now. At least for our clients, they are looking for a more ready-to-wear type of vibe versus a classic or traditional look, like a big puffy lace gown.
KMC: Your collaboration with Summersalt just came out—what made you want to partner with Summersalt?
AO: We were very excited to start working with Summersalt. I love that their pieces are sustainable and that they don’t sacrifice on quality or on style for their sustainability efforts. That was something that was really attractive. On top of that, I think the Summersalt suits are adorable and they’re well made. I love how they are so inclusive in all of their messaging and in all of their styles. I think all around, they’re just a really wonderful company and they have such a reach when it comes to customers—such a loyal fan base, which is amazing. So they were the perfect partner for us when we were launching.
KMC: What do you hope the customer gets from the collaboration?
AO: I hope the customer gets our Markarian aesthetic but in a swimsuit. And I hope that they see how it all marries together.
KMC: Do you have a favorite piece?
AO: I’m really, really into The Perfect Wrap One-Piece with the little micro ruffle. And that blue print is such a dream. I can’t wait to wear it myself. The other best thing about Summersalt is that the pieces are so flattering on and they fit so many different body types. So with this collaboration, the style is great, the print is beautiful. It has the really beautiful little hyper-feminine details that Markarian is known so well for. And that’s been translated into the Summersalt aesthetic, which is incredible. But the fit on those suits is so good. You really, like I was saying before, you really don’t have to sacrifice on style.
KMC: What is next? What’s next for Markarian?
AO: Oh, man, we’re just taking it day by day. After this launch, we’re just really focusing on our private client business and on our next runway show in September.
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