Drinks With Brandon Maxwell: On Project Runway, the Met Gala, and Yeehaw Culture

The designer and Project Runway judge opens up about all things fashion, TV, and Lady Gaga.


Four-thirty in the afternoon isn’t your typical time to catch up over drinks, but in Brandon Maxwell’s new reality, you just have to make things work. In addition to running his namesake fashion line, the designer recently made his television debut as a judge on the relaunch of Bravo’s Project Runway, on which he stars alongside fellow judges Nina Garcia and Elaine Welteroth, host Karlie Kloss, and mentor Christian Siriano. It’s a new world for Maxwell, who, as the former longtime stylist for Lady Gaga, is used to being behind the scenes when it comes to these kind of things. But we’re meeting in Times Square at this particular early hour, for example, because later in the evening he’ll tape a guest appearance on Late Night With Seth Meyers—which explains why he’s ordered a ginger ale instead of wine.

“I would normally [have a drink], but if I do my face starts to get a little sweaty, and it’s not cute,” Maxwell explains. While live shows are not his “favorite thing to do”—“I can never trust what comes out of my mouth. But it’s fine. I’m sure it’s fear-inducing for my publicist,” he adds—they do bring to light what the fashion world already knows: The Texas-born Maxwell is one of the most beloved figures in the industry for good reason. Here, Maxwell explains how he ended up on TV in the first place, why New York fashion is as important as ever, and how Lady Gaga ended up in that dress at the 2019 Oscars.

What is it like to be on the other side of the camera now?

It’s so bizarre. I have to tell you. It’s really, really bizarre. I’m so comfortable in the background, getting everyone ready to go, so it is odd. On days when I have a lot of press, I’m making sure that everybody has everything, and then I’m like, Oh, it’s me that needs everything. The shows that I’ve been on, though, everyone has been really kind. I’ve not been on shows before, so this is a new experience.

How did Project Runway happen?

The network approached my agent, and we had a quick conversation, quite a while ago. I had kind of forgotten about it. This summer, I met with them via Facetime, and they offered it to me the next day. I knew who they were in talks with, and I’m really good friends with Elaine and Karlie and have known Nina and Christian for years, so we all had a conversation about why we would do it and decided together to hold hands and jump in.

What made you say yes?

I’ve only had my business for four years, so the first question is, Why would you do it? I don’t feel like I need to be on TV, but I think that in this industry we don’t really talk a lot about what it takes. We talk a lot about the glossy stuff. I’m so in the thick of that that I thought I could be helpful both on and especially off camera. Our job is to find somebody who can function within this industry and really have a career. And we wanted to make sure we represented the industry as we see it. We are all really working in it right now, so we wanted to make sure it was well-rounded.

When did you film?

We started in October, right after September shows. I did a very big commercial show that season, not thinking I was going to be on TV in any sort of way. We filmed from October right until Christmas. We went through so much during that time. I’m obviously making multiple collections, and my mom got sick during that time, which the following runway show was inspired by. I don’t remember a ton of it because I was flying overnight to be with my mom and then flying back to film. It was a lot.

I look at that experience now and I’m so glad that I did it with those people, because that was a very specific time in my life. I literally found out that my mom was sick on a bathroom break while the camera was still rolling. That was a really hard day for me, probably one of the hardest of my life, and of course I ruined my makeup, and it was a mess, and production told me we could stop, no problem. But my mom wouldn’t have wanted me to do that. And I’m sure you’ve seen everything Nina has gone through. [In February, Garcia revealed that she had undergone a preventative double mastectomy.] Everybody has that part of their lives.… They really made the environment amazing for us, because I obviously have to make a collection, and so does Christian. Our teams are in the trailers making the collections. So during hair and makeup, I’m going over collections and have a lot of people coming to set.

Was it difficult to make close relationships and friendships with the designers and then still critique them?

No. Capital N-O. The thing that they don’t show a lot is that I usually laugh after I’m giving a criticism. I’m sure it’s good for TV that I look more serious. And sometimes I am hot and wearing two pairs of Spanx and aggravated naturally. I seem serious on the show a lot, but I also did take it very seriously. I would stay after and really mull over the decisions we made. The designers had such a great sense of humor that we would laugh about it after. And some of it is just true. We all know it. And those are conversations designers have in our own studios. I’m constantly critiquing myself.

Did you watch the original series?

I watched from day one. Unlike Karlie, I was a teenager when it came out. Karlie loves to be like, “I was 12 years old.” I’m like, “Good for you.” For me, it was a real way to understand what this world was like when I had no entrée into it or access to it in any way. It was a real learning tool for me. The fact that I’m on it is mind-blowing. I do think about where I came from, and the fact that I’m here, I think, really speaks to hard work and dedication, which is what the contestants have.

Did you think about what type of judge you wanted to be?

No. They called action on the first day, and I was like, “Well, what do I do?” It took me a while to get my bearings. And I’m sitting there next to Karlie, Nina, and Elaine, all of whom are incredibly beautiful, powerful, confident, strong women, and I’ve been pretty open and honest with them—maybe not in the press—about being insecure about being there with them. I’m not a TV-ready-looking person. And that was the appeal of it, because I know some young people can watch and see themselves in me in some way and think, Well if that guy can do it, I can definitely do it. But that came with its own set of insecurities.

Aside from Project Runway, are you deep into prepping for the Met Gala?

I am. I try to go into the Met Gala every year with an open mind and to be excited about what everyone is doing. More than anything, I think it is such a great program at the Met. I mean, I love the Met. I’ve gone as a designer only once. Every other year was getting Gaga ready. I went previously with her when she performed, but that’s it.

How different is it going as a stylist versus as a designer walking on the carpet?

It’s the same, because I’m always focused on the girls and making sure they feel good. When I’m with Tiffany Haddish and Karlie Kloss, nobody is trying to get my photos. I’m still in the back fluffing trains.

Did you have fun?

Of course. With those two, it’s kind of hard to not have fun. It’s also nice because the industry is so fast, and it’s such a small group that gets to go to that and such a big space. It is a little bit tranquil.

Your runway shows themselves are always very fun and have more of a party atmosphere than your typical fashion show.

Growing up, that’s how I saw fashion. My grandmother would do charity fashion shows every season, and back in those days we were setting up long tables that women would walk on and throwing balloons everywhere. It was sort of a DIY but very glamorous thing. There was a nonchalance, a carefree joy that both of my grandmothers and my mom embody. That’s how I see fashion. I don’t see it seriously.

The last show that I did, in February, was serious in tone and very stripped back. I think you need to be true with your audience. I’ve never said this out loud, but I said to myself the night before, This is probably going to be something that people hate, and a bomb for me. Because people are so used to the supermodels twirling and the fun, but I also have been honest in each show about where I am at. You never sit with me after a show and I’m like, “I was inspired by my trip to Palm Springs.” It’s just not true. I look at the shows as volumes in the overall library of my life. When I did the big show in September, I was in that space: My sister had just gotten married, I had gotten engaged, I was spending a lot of time in Texas. It was a very colorful moment in my life.

In February, I had gone through something with my family that was very dark for me. I was really processing, Why would I have this life if I didn’t have this person who I’ve been doing a lot of this, essentially, for? I had very little time to make that collection because, mentally, I was not there, so I had to go back to square one. It was a quiet moment. I knew that I was going to take a hit for it if people wanted to come and have a party and they didn’t get it. It was a small, intimate room. I wanted to create a closed-off environment that spoke to strength and power and serenity, because during that period, when I was making that collection, that’s what I was longing for. It was like being on a very turbulent airplane and just wanting to be above the clouds. I’m very proud of that show, but nobody really said anything about it. You know what they did say in the reviews? That the clothes were well-made and beautiful. Normally they focus on the party. I felt proud that that was the narrative, because it normally hasn’t been the narrative with me. To have that recognized when I thought the show was going to be a failure was the real joy of it all.

Do you feel that with Fashion Week now people are just trying to one-up each other for Instagram instead of focusing on clothes?

I feel less frustrated about that than I do about the fact that everybody continues to have conversations about whether New York fashion matters or not. That really bothers me because I know what it takes, and you give up so much of your life. We’re very blessed, and there’s not much to complain about; it is absolutely incredibly wonderful to have this life, but it can also be terrifying and tear-inducing, and you’re worrying about how to keep the lights on. I see all these people fighting, and I see in my own studio the level of quality and talent there, and I know it’s everywhere else. We are a community.

As a designer, you don’t have a lot of time to be looking at what other people are doing. When I was a stylist, I worked with most of the designers who are one the calendar, and I have a lot of love and admiration for them and believe we are better together. I’m excited for what everyone’s doing, so if they are trying to get attention on Instagram, good for them. The week needs to get attention. If you are doing it in a quality way, and it’s about the work, why not?

Would you ever show outside of New York?

If I didn’t do it here, I’d probably do it at my house. Maybe Texas? I’m pretty thoroughly American. If I were to go to another house, then of course I would adapt to that and really honor that legacy, but my legacy and my history is really rooted in the South and where I come from, so it makes sense for me to do it here.

Have you had conversations about designing for a house? Is that something you think about?

I have. And I do think about that. You would be ridiculous to say you didn’t think about it. Not a ton of people have a brand with their actual name on it. It’s my name. I do think about what happens when I’m not here. So of course it is interesting to think about what I would do if I went somewhere else, knowing that I would want someone to really try as best as they could to honor the morals and ideals that I hold dear. It’s not necessarily coming from specific conversations, but from these conversations that I’m having with myself all the time.

When you’re designing runway, how much do you think about red carpet?

None. I don’t think about it, because all the women we work with are very modern, and they would find a way if it were just a T-shirt and jeans to make it work on the carpet. In terms of business, it’s not our biggest category. Day dresses are 40 percent of the business. And obviously evening makes up a big chunk of it. It’s something I love very capital-D deeply, and I give myself those moments at the end.

When you sent that black dress down the runway in February, did you know that Lady Gaga would wear some version of it at the Oscars?

So, her stylists Tom Eerebout and Sandra Amador, we worked together for years and years. That’s very well-documented. Sandra was my assistant for a million years and is like my sister, and she comes into the office a lot anyway. I was on vacation with my fiancé, and another stylist had asked for a couple of dresses, and my office kept saying, “We don’t know where they are.” Sometimes, after the collections, the clothes are shipped to retailers to be photographed. So Sandra never told me.

On Oscar morning, I was like, “So what is she going to wear?” And she was being very coy with me, like, “I’m very busy.” Oscars is, like, my favorite day of the year, so I’m always on it. I was outside having a glass of wine right before her category, and Sandra texts me, “Turn on the TV.” And I’m like, “Duh, the TV has been on.” Of course I had talked to them as they were going to the carpet, and Gaga on the day of, and no one had ever mentioned anything to me. It was one of my biggest dreams as her friend to see her win an Oscar. I’ve been super vocal about that. I’ll cry thinking about it. But basically, we went to the TV, and I realized she’s wearing my dress. Sandra was like, “She’s going to keep it on for her category.” Gaga Facetimed me when she got offstage, and, you know, that’s what friendship is. Seriously.

It’s hard for me to talk about it now in the press because we truly are friends, not friends on a carpet. We’re a decade in of brother-sister friendship. So much of my life is wrapped up in her. And Sandra, too. It’s one of those moments that you can’t make up. And it’s not about the dress; it’s about loyalty and dedication and sticking with you through thin and thick. Something that Tom and Sandra and Gaga have done is love me as a person. Whether I made a collection or decided to be a gardener, she would have showed up for me in the same way. When your friend is celebrated in such a global way like that, and so rightfully so, there is a deep burning joy that I really cannot articulate yet, what it felt like to see that moment for her. And to be a part of that day for her, when I’m not there, is just too much, really.

One last question. Being from Texas, what do you think of yeehaw culture?

What’s yeehaw culture?

Think, like, Kacey Musgraves.

I’m obsessed with Kacey Musgraves. We’re from the same area code. I’m obsessed. I have dressed her, I have messaged her. My fiancé made a documentary about me moving to Texas to make a collection, and Kacey Musgraves gave us the music for it. She’s an East Texas girl through and through. Miranda Lambert’s from the same town. Then what’s not to love?

It’s gone very mainstream.

Good! One hundred percent, it should be everywhere. I think that’s great.

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