Sewing the Country Back Together

Alexandra O’Neill, the Manhattan designer behind Jill Biden’s iconic Inauguration outfit, had her hand in a piece of history

| 14 Feb 2021 | 06:24

Although Bernie Sanders’ mitten manufacturer seemed to garner the most sartorial accolades on Inauguration Day, there was a Manhattan-based designer at home in the West Village watching on TV like the rest of us, in utter surprise when she saw that Dr. Jill Biden had chosen to wear her custom outfit for the momentous occasion. “They reached out to us and a number of other designers, so we didn’t even know if she was going to wear it or not until she walked out, which was incredible,” said Alexandra O’Neill.

A native of rural Colorado, O’Neill has come a long way from making the clothing for her Markarian label — named after a group of galaxies as a homage to her stargazing as a child — in her apartment when it launched in 2017.

The 34-year-old NYU alumnae learned the art of sewing from her grandmother at the age of 10, and it was those first stitches that set her on a career path that would lead to New York and eventually, the White House. After getting that fateful call from Dr. Biden’s stylist in December, her team of three worked with a mix of wool tweed, silk chiffon and Swarovski pearls and crystals to create the First Lady’s matching blue coat, dress and mask, a graceful ensemble that will be immortalized in history books.

When asked what the reaction was like once the luxury label, which has dressed other notable names such as Kerry Washington, Lizzo and Kate Hudson, was shown on one of the biggest stages in the world, O’Neill said, “There was just an outpouring of support and congratulations unlike anything I expected.”

Your grandmother taught you how to sew at a young age. When did you know you wanted to make a career out of it?

Basically, after my grandmother taught me ... I became a bit obsessed with making clothing. It’s the thing that I’ve always done and always loved doing. I guess I never pictured myself doing anything else. Maybe aside from being a vet, because I love animals.

You went to NYU and studied art history. What was that like? Was that your first time experiencing the city?

I have a lot of family in New York, actually. And I visited them a lot, but never really in the city; we would take trips to the city every now and then. And I remember going to my first vintage store ever. It was called Patina. She’s still around, actually. And it was in Soho. She closed the store down a couple years ago, but she still sells at the vintage shows and privately. And I found this amazing, beautiful 1950s dress there that I completely fell in love with. And it actually made me fall in love with vintage in general.

You started out working with your sister, right?

I did. So when I was at NYU, when I was 19, my sister and I started another clothing line called Porter Grey. We made everything in the Garment Center and we did that for eight years. I was then torturing my poor sister whose heart is not in fashion. And then I launched Markarian on my own.

Where is Markarian located now? You were working out of your apartment at one point, right?

We have a showroom in the West Village, separate from my apartment, luckily, now. But when we first started, we were working out of my apartment. But we have a showroom in the West Village and then we manufacture everything in the Garment Center.

Your label’s name was inspired by growing up in Colorado.

Yeah, so it’s inspired by a group of galaxies called the Markarian galaxies. I’ve always been interested in space and the stars and all the mythology behind all of it. I was watching the line and decided that would be the perfect whimsical route to go.

I read that you’ve said you like to dress like a Disney princess. How can you describe your clothing?

I would describe it as feminine, whimsical and beautifully made.

When did you first get the news that you were to design Jill Biden’s dress? Had you worked with her before?

No, I hadn’t worked with her before, but her stylist and her team reached out to us in December, so we had about a month to get it all together.

Where were you when you were watching the inauguration and what was going through your mind when you saw that she was wearing your outfit?

I was at home and actually about to be on my way to the vet. [Laughs] It was, I mean, such a surprise and unbelievable and surreal. And such an honor. It was really crazy.

What was the designing process like and how much say did she have in the look?

We worked closely with her stylists; they gave us a lot of creative liberty when it came to the look. They were really open to seeing kind of anything that we wanted to show them. And then we had a little dialogue back and forth until we refined it to be something that she was looking for. They just gave us some direction to start off with, but they were very open to seeing whatever it was that we wanted to show them. They were really wonderful to work with.

What was the meaning behind its color?

When we were designing the outfit, we knew that people would be reading into everything. And I think the color blue is not only beautiful and calming, but it just signifies trust, stability and confidence. And I think that that’s a nice message to get across on the Inauguration Day.