Walking into Onion Cut & Sewn’s East Harlem studio is walking into a world of very pretty possibilities. A spectrum of vibrant fabrics are stacked to the ceiling, while dress forms stand half-draped in fabric, soon to join the rack of garments hanging along one full wall. In a corner beneath dozens of spools of thread, two industrial sewing machines sit lit and ready to turn out more of designer Whitney Mero’s coveted creations.
Mero created the label over two decades ago; when asked for the origin story, she tossed back her trademark halo of tangled golden curls in laughter: “There’s a respectable version, and there’s a messy version. Which would you like to hear?” Of course, The Glow Up wanted to hear both.
“I’ve always been shapely—even as a child, I had a shape that was challenging for my parents to shop for,” she shared. “And as a result of that challenge, they put me in very ugly clothes. ... How do you dress a 12-year-old shaped like a grown person?”
An adolescent Mero took matters into her own hands, getting an after-school job to fund her own clothing budget, shopping at thrift stores and then redesigning her finds into fresh styles. By her junior year in high school, she was making prom dresses for classmates when an older boyfriend suggested that she turn her talent into a business. The prospect was daunting but exciting:
I remember taking a trip to Buffalo to visit a friend. I was talking to her mom about my idea and what I wanted to do, but having no clue how to do any of it. And she’s like, “Well, with all that ass you need to call it ‘Onion.’”
That’s the messy version. The respectable version is I’m answering the question, “How to dress for different kinds of women—different sizes, different shapes, different needs, all while being stylish and comfortable.” And for me that answer—[from] that time onto this time—is Onion.
As Mero tells it, despite any more lascivious overtones, the term “Onion” originated as a Southern euphemism for shapely figures. Forgoing fashion school in favor of Spelman College in her native Atlanta, she majored in sociology while continuing to hone her craft.
After graduation and a stint in China, she based herself and her burgeoning business in New York City, where she began hosting trunk shows for her growing clientele. That’s how Mero, an introvert who admits to being leery of the social aspects of retail, likes it:
Growing up, the idea of having a store where somebody would just have access to me was just not going to happen—me having a place where you could just walk in? Fuck that. So I started at an early age, very early in the business, having these trunk sales. And then you can invite the people. You can set the tone, you get to control the setting ... it never occurred to me to have brick-and-mortar—not just for that reason; the overhead is murder.
Her lack of overhead, coupled with the growth of online retail, provided a model that perfectly suited both Mero’s personality and the growth of Onion Cut & Sewn. Her line is a rarity in the retail sector: There are no manufacturers, and everything is truly cut and sewn by hand from whole cloth in the workshop that Mero also staffs and owns. Orders are as made-to-measure as possible and take 12-14 days to produce.
Mero describes it as “pret-a-porter meets couture,” yet amazingly, every item in her extensive line of dresses, separates and jumpsuits retails for under $200. It’s a point of pride for the designer, all due to the strength of her online business:
Onion should not be here; it’s a beautiful accident. It should have been a lot harder for me. Having a store online and being able to take payments from damn near anywhere from anyone is really what grew the business.
But while technology makes it infinitely easier to sell, it’s Mero’s technical skill that developed her faithful following. She loves draping and primarily cuts on the bias; in her words: “I love it when fabric moves with you, as opposed to you trying to make fabric do something that it doesn’t do.”
As a result, her designs—some with names like “trap dress” and “fast lady”—naturally flatter a variety of figures. While undeniably feminine, they are never fussy, and remarkably feel as good as they are fashionable, thanks to Onion’s signature fabric: jersey. Mero stumbled upon her favorite fabric almost by accident, but it’s since become instrumental in creating the comfortable couture Onion is known for:
I got really sick about 10 years ago, and I needed comfortable clothes. My skin was really jacked up, and I needed something that actually was soft and comforting. I started working with jersey, and then I just fell in love with it. ...
I mean, I’ve seen dresses fit a size 2, put that dress down and [get] picked up by a size 16, and it worked. You know, Miss Celie’s pants. But I’m a huge fan of jersey.
Along with her love for the stretchy, travel-friendly cottons and rayons she uses in most of her designs, Mero is seemingly also her own muse. Her enviably compact and curvy frame is an ideal and relatable mannequin for her array of body-conscious but very forgiving silhouettes, and visitors to Onion Cut & Sewn’s site will find the designer herself modeling most of her collection.
It could be argued that Mero represents the type of aspirational yet accessible allure her customers are seeking with every Onion purchase. But in her studio, she is refreshingly frank and unassuming, dressed down in a hoodie with her incredible hair in orbit around a bare face, while her impeccable cobalt manicure makes one wonder how she so effectively maneuvers a sewing machine. It’s all part of Mero’s personal credo, which extends to Onion Cut & Sewn’s philosophy:
You put something on, and you feel great. I need it to feel like pajamas. ... But you know, the goal is, at the most, fundamental: Put one thing on and be able to leave the house and feel completely comfortable and confident in what you’re wearing ... I want to design a star for people—something that shines on you, without you necessarily having to shine.
And women truly do shine in Mero’s designs. Just ask good friend and #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, who wore a sequined black dress designed by Mero to grace this year’s Golden Globes carpet. As Burke told The Glow Up:
Whitney is a friend, but I have a very separate obsession with Onion Cut & Sewn. There was no question that I was going to wear one of her amazing creations on the red carpet at the Golden Globes. All of the women that night shied away from questions about who they were wearing, but I couldn’t wait. I was proud to wear a black designer and proud to be wearing my girl’s design. She makes impeccably tailored, comfortable, beautifully designed dresses, and the world should know about them.
But while Mero finds Burke’s choice to wear her design to the Golden Globes deeply meaningful, she says she couldn’t care less about courting celebrity:
You know, people are celebrity-obsessed—actually starstruck in a way that makes no sense. And I get that question: Well, what celebrities do you dress? And I’m like, “What the fuck [do] I need to dress celebrities for? I dress you. And unless you’re telling me that you’re not good enough—which is not something I’m ready to accept—then stop asking me about celebrities. I don’t care about a celebrity; ask them.”
I think that for Tarana to have basically lived a life of service without expectation, to be on the red carpet ... I love that version of it better than a model or an actor trying to be an activist, as opposed to a fashionable activist. I’m not denigrating anyone, but you know the work has meaning. ... I’d rather those people than celebrities, frankly, because celebrities have access to everything.
You likely also won’t see Mero showing at New York Fashion Week, since she also doesn’t do seasonal collections, telling us: “That means nothing to me. Whenever I want to introduce something new, I just introduce it.”
Whitney Mero is a woman who plays by her own rules. Similarly, her clothes represent a woman who has found both herself and her style, caring more about looking good than any fashion trend. Ironically, that’s exactly what keeps an Onion Cut & Sewn design—and its enchantingly irreverent designer—always in fashion:
It’s an interesting company, led by a ridiculous person, who has basically been enabled by the internet.
I come into [my studio] and it feels like Playland. I don’t know how I get to live this life. I’m only four generations out of slavery. I’m extremely grateful. I don’t know how you go from basically being a crew of enslaved people to being like, “Me and my whole crew going dressed up for Black Panther.”
I just want to have a life of my own design, and Onion has allowed that for me, personally. I actually hope that it’s allowed that for a lot of people. Because I know a lot of people have found freedom once they figure out their look. And if I could give a seminar on, like, how to stop giving a shit about shit that doesn’t matter, I would do that, too. “No” is free; we care too much, and we should not.