To use the parlance of every wide-eyed bumpkin who has ever hightailed it to New York City, Brandon Maxwell “dared to dream.” This was a constant refrain during my interview with the fashion designer in his bustling midtown studio (his entire collection, from samples to production, is made locally).
But all the twee confidence in the world could not have prepared the small-town Texan for the accolades that would follow. Among them: snagging a Council of Fashion Designers of America award, dressing a first lady (Michelle Obama), and winning the unfaltering patronage of an icon in her prime (Lady Gaga). And he’s only been at it for two years.
Already salt-and-pepper-haired at 32, Maxwell assisted some of the world’s most influential stylists for a good six years before launching his namesake label. He took his initial stab at the New York dream when he entered a painting program at Marymount Manhattan College right out of high school, but painting, as it turned out, was not his thing. So back to Texas he went, to study photography at St. Edward’s University, in Austin, where he also acquired a group of friends and collaborators, before heading back to New York for round two. That time, everything clicked.
Comparisons to bygone fashion greats are inevitable—Halston, in particular, springs to mind. Much like that Iowa native synonymous with ultrasuede pantsuits and disco chic, Maxwell specializes in streamlined evening looks infused with a heartland sensibility. Think tailored jackets, cigarette pants, jumpsuits, and halter dresses in black or ivory crepe and satin. In other words, luxury that can be easily understood. According to Maxwell, it’s a matter of respect: “For a girl to get a dress off at the end of a night, pulling that zipper down by herself can be like a Cirque du Soleil act. What can I do to make that easier?”
Unapologetically non-conceptual, with nary an arch statement in sight, Maxwell’s collections are perfectly in tune with his customers, giving them license to feel good about themselves—just as his models do when they smile and twirl down his catwalk à la Pat Cleveland, the ultimate Halstonette.
“Shows, in general, tend to be very homogenized—same hair, same makeup, same slightly angry walk,” he says. “But I think there should be joy in clothing. When I’m selling clothes in a store, it’s not to an angry woman who’s walking fast with a bowl cut. The most important thing for me to know, as the protective older sibling of a bunch of sisters, is that when a young girl in the middle of nowhere comes across an image of my collection on social media, that she sees someone like herself. Not just African-American, but also Indian, Asian, Hispanic.”
Not surprisingly, Maxwell has surrounded himself with an assortment of muses. “Growing up in a small town, especially in the South, where many people don’t always understand you, or what you are, often it’s the women in your life who do,” he notes.
Much as Halston was inseparable from his confidante Liza Minnelli, Maxwell’s megawatt champion, Lady Gaga, is such an advocate of his work that she personally helped out backstage at his first show. In this business, that’s how legends start.
Maxwell, who created many of the looks for Gaga’s tour with Tony Bennett, is now her primary stylist—nay, fashion director. Early on she encouraged him to start his own line, and, when she sensed his pre-show jitters were getting the best of him, sent shirtless hunks to wave giant balloons spelling his name outside his apartment. “Her support is as authentic as you’d expect from someone who writes every single one of her notes and lyrics,” he gushes. “But it’s been hard to express that because I don’t want to cry in every interview.” He counts the avant-chanteuse among the 40 or so family members—“Mom, Dad, every grandparent, every aunt, every uncle, every cousin”—who make the pilgrimage to see his collections, without fail.
But in many ways, Maxwell is a one-man show. He owns up to working seven days a week, 18 to 20 hours a day. Designing begins in the evening and often lasts until morning, when he switches over to his styling and creative-directing gigs. And, because he doesn’t sketch, every look in his collections is laboriously draped on a fit model or dress form. (Of 100 or so initial ideas, only about 50 make the cut.)
And then there’s the constant traveling: “I always have that bag there,” he says, nodding to a Louis Vuitton carryall. “And I always have a flight to catch in an hour.” That doesn’t leave much time for his daily prayers—yes, he prays every night, just as he went to church every day growing up.
Recently, the pace of it all got so out of hand that, on the advice of a doctor, he relented and took some time off. “I was so terrified of letting anyone down, that I was becoming Miss America.” So he went on a vacation to Hawaii, where he says he realized that “ultimately, no one gives a shit what my job is. They just want to make sure I’m home for Christmas on time.”
The presidential election also proved quite difficult for Maxwell, who proudly campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008, riding on a bus with strangers and canvassing door-to-door across multiple states.
“I was so angered by some of the things that were said about women this time around. Women’s rights and gay rights are really important to me. During the worst times of my life, when I’d go to school thinking I’d be beaten up or something terrible would happen, I retreated into art and the things that made me feel safe.” He pauses. “All we can do is be a light in some way. My goal going forward is to make sure that women know I stand by them and that I’m here for them.”
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