It can be difficult to talk about the importance of staying true to yourself without sounding a bit trite, but Brandon Maxwell managed to do just that on Wednesday in a lengthy Q&A with Fern Mallis at 92Y.
The New York-based designer chronicled his career in fashion thus far with wit and candor. Often landing the last laugh at his own expense, Maxwell opened up about his teenage fears; meager early days in fashion; anxiety and insecurities; his family’s unwavering support; breakout moments; philanthropy, and future plans.
Wearing his signature Prada eyeglasses and an all-black Dries van Noten ensemble, Maxwell advised young designers, “Make sure before you do it, that you deeply love it — and that you love it so much when it’s ugly. People always make this out to be more glamorous than it is.”
“It has never been one time in my life, an award-winning, best-reviewed, high-selling moment that I’ve learned something about myself. It has been in the really bad moments, where I think I’m going to lose everything that I’ve learned something,” he continued.
Growing up gay in a small town, Maxwell said his parents enrolled him in art programs early on to express himself. He also started doing friends’ hair and making clothes together, while also getting into photography as a teenager (he later earned a college degree in photography). Looking back, there were times in high school when Maxwell said he felt “scared physically and mentally very broken. I still have not worked through that and have carried a lot of that into my career now.”
Maxwell encouraged gay teenagers who may be struggling similarly “to remember that there is life after that age. It’s so hard to imagine that you won’t be in that space anymore…there is life after and your life will be so much more beautiful, full and delicious than you could ever imagine. Find somebody that you love and trust. Stay with that person. Stay true to yourself.”
After talking his way into Marymount Manhattan College, Maxwell said he was not cut out for the Upper East Side scene in 2003. “I went to a very nice school in my small town, but I had never gone to France for the summer. I was going to the lake with my flip-flops and my Sonic cup. Everybody was like, ‘Want to go to Nice for the summer?’ I was like ‘What is that? Or everybody was like, ‘Want to go to the club?’ I was not, and you are still not going to find me in the club,” he said.
Transferring to St. Edward’s University in Austin was life-changing for its creative intensity. He also met fellow photographer and his longtime partner Jessy Price by asking how to turn on a computer. They later relocated to New York and “lived in a closet” on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, where their mattress “touched all four walls.” He would print out copies of his resume at Kinko’s, place them in envelopes and slide them under creative agencies’ doors. Stylist Deborah Afshani first called him on his flip phone to see if he could intern for her the following day. Maxwell said, “I Googled how to be a stylist. And now we’re on ‘Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis.’”
He praised Afshani for being responsible for so much that he now has. Kind, stern when needed, and always fair, Afshani later connected him with Edward Enninful in his American Vogue days. “I was his third assistant with my fanny pack on,” said Maxwell, recalling being floored working on a Dior campaign on his first day with Enninful, John Galliano, Steven Meisel, Pat McGrath and a young Karlie Kloss, who is now one of his closest friends (and “not, like, a fashion friend”).
After a run with Enninful, Maxwell worked with Nicola Formichetti for years and during that time first met Lady Gaga on one of her early photo shoots with Nick Knight. Formichetti and Maxwell worked on numerous music videos and red carpet moments with the multi-Grammy winner. Zipping the Franc Fernandez-designed meat dress up on Lady Gaga for the 2010 MTV video awards was memorable for Maxwell, who was vegan at that time. “She was hysterically laughing while I was gagging in a mask. I was wearing a mask before they were a thing,” Maxwell said.
Hesitant to comment on the musician as a performer, Maxwell said first and foremost they are friends. “She was one of the first people in my post-small-town life and certainly in professional life to be so right behind me every step of the way. And she made me believe time and time and time again that I was good enough to do it. She’s not someone who is driven by money or awards. She is truly driven by her craft.”
After WWD reported in 2015 that Maxwell planned to launch a signature collection, the designer said that that pushed him to actually do it. Within a year, he created one, hired a team and lined up financing from his father, who continues to help him run the business. Including pockets in his designs became essential, thanks to photographer Inez Van Lamsweerde, who shot the first collection and asked why a pair of cigarette pants didn’t have any pockets for a phone. “Point taken…now I put a pocket in everything,” he said.
Inclusivity is another subject that Maxwell feels strongly about, because “that’s what the world looks like and what my world looks like.” Asked what will be needed for the fashion industry to take inclusive sizing seriously, Maxwell said, “I’m not really here to comment on the fashion industry as a whole. I do feel that my life is somewhat separated from the fashion industry, not that that is a good or a bad thing…I should just stick to what my life looks like and that’s what my world looks like.”
As the designer judge on Bravo’s “Project Runway,” Maxwell said he had watched the program growing up. From his viewpoint, a successful career isn’t just about winning, but “getting up every day and do all the good that you can that [day] and you’re going to keep going and push yourself to be the best.”
Taking the creative director role for elevated brands at Walmart added up for Maxwell, since that is where the Texan grew up shopping. “I believe that people should have access to what makes them feel great…I always felt very strongly that if I went into the world and learned something that I ought to give it back to communities like mine,” he said.
The first offerings will be in stores in February or March. “I work with really talented designers. I always make this distinction because if you are a designer, you’re at the head of design at a company. I just want to be clear that I very much respect that job. That’s not the job that I do [at Walmart.] There are really fantastic people, who work there. Although we work very closely together, I am very proud of the work that they do.”
Maxwell also spoke to one of his career highlights: when Michelle Obama wore one of his gowns for a state dinner in 2016 for Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong. Alone in a hotel room in Austria when he found out, Maxwell recalled thinking at that time “‘Growing up, I may not have been someone who people would have remembered, but maybe I will be someone, if I’m no longer here, people would remember and write about,” he said. “She gave me that opportunity and [stylist] Meredith [Koop] did, too. To be a part of American history in that way I’m very proud of.”
Having volunteered for the Obama campaign made the experience more memorable. “My American dream came true during that time. It was possible for me to achieve what I achieved, because I woke up every day believing it was,” Maxwell said. “I don’t dream of dressing people because they’re famous. I dream of dressing them because of who they are and that can be anybody.”
Maxwell’s company recently relocated to a new showroom that was previously occupied by the company Issey Miyake, and the designer hopes to open a store one day. A home decor line is also on his wish list, as well as shoes, bags and beauty. For his runway shows, he feels it is important to partner with brands that give money to education that benefits young people. Referring to his reputation for Shake Shack burgers and other food at his runway shows, Maxwell said, “I just want people to have fun. It’s not that serious. It’s a dress. It’s good music.”