Last August, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took to Instagram sporting Teflar's buzzed-about "It" bag. The brand's medium Oxblood shopping bag wasn't just a fashion statement for Ocasio-Cortez—it was a political one, too. "Fun fact. Telfar is now known as a globally celebrated designer, but did you know this Black, LGBTQ+ designer and founder got their start in Lefrak City, Queens?" AOC wrote.
Dr. Biden hasn't worn Telfar at the White House yet—we'll have to wait and see—but she certainly isn't ignoring fashion here at home. It's an industry that employs an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States alone, 232,000 of whom work in manufacturing textiles. At last Wednesday's 46th Presidential Inauguration, she assumed the role of FLOTUS while championing an independent American-made brand by Alexandra O'Neill.
Originally from a rural town in Colorado, O'Neill, 34, founded her label, Markarian, in New York City in 2017. The designer's 94-year-old grandmother, Gigi, taught her how to sew using a vintage 1950s Singer sewing machine. Today, O'Neill runs her business with an intimate team of four full-time employees, headquartered out of her Greenwich Village apartment. Her ethereal, special-occasion pieces are produced locally, using resources that exist within a 3-mile radius of her home office.
Her waste-reducing, made-to-order model employs artisans in Manhattan’s long-respected, but inevitably diminishing Garment District—the result of many brands opting for cheaper production overseas. "I strongly believe in supporting New York City's garment center. That was always really important to me from the beginning," she says.
Back in December, O’Neill—who has outfitted stars like Kerry Washington and Laura Dern for the red carpet—was chosen alongside a small pool of designers to sketch ideas for Dr. Biden’s inauguration outfit. She submitted 10 sketches, including the winning blue tweed coat that she finished with a velvet collar, cuffs, and whimsical Swarovski crystal details. Alongside the coat, O'Neill dreamt up a tapered dress with a chiffon bodice and a scalloped skirt. She chose the color blue to signify trust, confidence, and stability.
When she became a finalist, O’Neill and her team had a month to develop the look from start to finish. They found themselves faced with logistical hurdles amidst the pandemic—like no in-person fittings, a signature with made-to-measure tailoring. In the days leading up to the the event, O'Neill would spend twelve hours hand-beading the floral Swarovski crystal dress collar in her home studio, while an atelier in the Garment District tag-teamed the coat's hand-beaded exterior.
On the Monday pre-Inauguration Day, O’Neill shipped off the finished look to Dr. Biden’s styling team in D.C.—but her career-making moment wasn’t set in stone quite yet. The First Lady’s final choice of dress was kept secret, even from commissioned designers, until she arrived at The Capitol. "I was actually headed to the vet with my dog that morning, but then thought better of it," the designer laughs.
In the blink of an eye, O'Neill and her four-year-old brand were thrown into the spotlight, inundated with an outpouring of congratulations and press. As an added bonus, Finnegan and Natalie Biden wore yellow and orange sequin-clad Markarian dresses for the evening festivities. "It was a crazy, whirlwind kind of a day. It's still crazy. I made myself an Old Fashioned, got through half of it, and then crashed," she recalls. "We're actually in the middle of working on our Autumn/Winter '21 collection, which is launching in two weeks!"
The week after the inauguration, President Biden has signed a Made In America Executive Order to support manufacturers, businesses, and workers, fulfilling his promise to ensure that "the future is made in all of America by all of America's workers." For O'Neill, these values are at the core of her brand ethos. "I feel very proud of Markarian and our team, but I'm really proud to shine a spotlight on New York City made-clothing and all of the people that we work with in the fashion district," she says. "That was the biggest thing for me."