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Markarian Founder Alexandra O’Neill Interview: Her Favorite Things

Markarian Founder Alexandra O’Neill.

As the founder and designer behind New York City-based luxury womenswear label Markarian, Alexandra O’Neill counts celebrities, royalty and even first lady Dr. Jill Biden among her clients. But growing up in rural Colorado, O’Neill’s grandmother was her earliest supporter—and also the person who taught her how to sew in the first place. “My grandparents had a fur shop, and my grandfather used to design and sew the coats with my grandmother’s help,” O’Neill tells Observer of being surrounded by design from an early age. 

Even after O’Neill’s grandmother stopped making furs following her grandfather’s passing, she continued to keep her sewing box by her side, mending clothing and teaching O’Neill those same skills. “I would lay the fabric out on my grandmother’s floor in her bedroom, and she would help me put together whatever I was trying to make,” she says of getting her start at 10 years old. “I didn’t even work with a pattern when I first started; I would basically just drape the fabric.”

Before she graduated from college, O’Neill, who had relocated to New York City, had already founded a contemporary clothing line with the help of her older sister. But after eight years, the New York University alum was ready to try something new. “I wanted to do something that felt very slow fashion and offered women a service that’s not really offered as widely as it is to men, where women could come in and have a hand in designing their own pieces,” explains O’Neill, who officially launched Markarian in 2017. “I put together a ready-to-wear collection, but from the beginning, I knew that I wanted a customization element where girls could get involved and they could come in, pick out their silhouette, pick out their fabric, change a few things around and have a dress that was all their own.”

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Alexandra O’Neill at Markarian’s Fashion Week show. Taylor Jewell

Equally important to O’Neill was producing every made-to-order piece locally, in New York City’s historic Garment District. “Fifty years ago, that was really the hub of fashion, and it’s completely declined over the years, which is sad because those resources in the garment center are really important,” explains O’Neill. “We’re in the factories every single day, we know the conditions under which our clothing is being made, we know that we’re paying a fair wage and it’s also easier to oversee everything,” she continues. “I would rather make fewer pieces, and make them well, than mass-produce anything. We want to train our clients to really think about investing in fewer pieces, but pieces that are better made and are going to last a lot longer.” 

That unique business model, paired with O’Neill’s expert mix of classic pieces and playful designs, helped Markarian to quickly find a following among celebrities like Lily Collins and Kate Hudson. But O’Neill’s “career-changing” break came when she received a request at the end of 2020 from Dr. Jill Biden’s team. Markarian was in consideration to design the look that the first lady would wear to the inauguration of her husband, President Joe Biden—a ceremony that would be watched by more than 30 million people.

Joe Biden's Inauguration As 46th President Of The U.S. Is Celebrated With Parade In Washington, D.C.Joe Biden's Inauguration As 46th President Of The U.S. Is Celebrated With Parade In Washington, D.C.
Dr. Jill Biden wore a blue Markarian dress and coat to her husband’s inauguration in 2021. Getty Images

“I think I looked at what every single first lady in history wore to the inauguration, and then any other first lady, or monarch or leader from other countries, too,” O’Neill says of getting the final look, a tapered blue tweed dress and matching coat, just right. With about a month to design and create, O’Neill and her team shipped the pieces off to D.C., and waited for the big day. “We didn’t know that she was going to wear it until she walked out,” recalls O’Neill. “It was incredibly exciting, especially in such a challenging time in the world at the height of the pandemic.”

In the years since, Markarian has continued to present ready-to-wear and bridal collections, and most recently, teamed up with Italian footwear brand Vibi Venezia to create a collection of Venetian slippers in Markarian-designed floral brocades and embroidered linens. Observer caught up with O’Neill to get the details on her current essentials, from her favorite bar in New York City to her next travel destination. 

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Alexandra O’Neill. Matteo Prandoni/

Morning skincare routine:

I always wash my face first thing after I wake up. I have really sensitive skin, so I use a few products by SkinCeuticals that I’ve been using forever. And then there’s this amazing range of Clarins products that I swear by. I use the V Shaping Facial Lift Serum in the morning, and it’s supposed to help de-bloat your face. There’s a mask, too, that you can use before events or before you go out at night. You put it on for 10 minutes, and it shapes your face unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing—it’s like getting a lymphatic drainage massage, but without actually massaging your skin.

What she’s currently reading:

I really love Greek myths, and Madeline Miller has these two books that are beautifully written. The first is called The Song of Achilles, and then the second is Circe, which is kind of a different spin on ancient Greek myths.

NYC restaurant favorites:

I love Via Carota and Bar Pisellino. They have outdoor seating, so it’s fun to go to in the summertime, and if you put your name down at Via Carota, you can go get a drink at Bar Pisellino [across the street] while you wait. I love Minetta Tavern, and then my old go-to is Il Cantinori, which I’ve been going to since I was 18. 

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Tracy Anderson. Tracy Anderson

Her wellness routine:

I’m so out of my workout routine right now, but whenever I’m traveling, I like to go on really long walks. That’s usually how I learn a city and how I get my exercise in. But I also love my Tracy Anderson, even though I don’t do it as often as I’d like to. And I try to get acupuncture a couple of times a month; I find that it’s really helpful with how my body feels.

What she’s binge-watching: 

I think I’m binge-watching what everybody else is binge-watching, which is 3 Body Problem on Netflix. I’m only a few episodes in, but it’s really good, and I’m thinking about reading the book series it’s based on now.

Favorite vacation spot:

I love a beach vacation or anywhere in Italy, but I’ve been going to Africa a lot lately. It’s so beautiful and it’s so different from anything that you’ve ever experienced before. I’m going to Rwanda next to see the gorillas, and then to Tanzania, where we’re seeing the Great Migration. 

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Away. Away

What she’s traveling with:

I’m a carry-on girl; I never check a bag. I will squeeze everything into a carry-on or I will risk not having the right clothing just so I can pack it in my Away carry-on. My contacts are always at the top of my packing list because for some reason I tend to forget them, and then I always pack my face products and usually some kind of scarf or bandana, because it always adds to an outfit. 

Her packing hacks: 

It’s really important to pack in outfits and limit it to the number of days that you’re going to be there. I like to pack outfits that you can remix with other pieces, and then Paravel packing cubes are a lifesaver—you can fit triple the amount of clothing with packing cubes. 

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Alexandra O’Neill. Madison McGaw/

The one thing in her wardrobe she refuses to part with: 

Anything from my grandmother. My grandfather used to make a lot of clothing for my grandmother, and I have a lot of her jewelry. There’s this one cobra head ring that’s so beautiful, which is painted with enamel, and then she also has this really cool opal chain belt. Otherwise, I’m ruthless when it comes to my clothing; if I haven’t worn it in a year, it’s out.

The Essentials With Markarian Founder Alexandra O’Neill: Face Masks, Greek Myths and Slow Fashion

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