Brandon Maxwell has had it. Holding forth under the Lone Star State flag in his office two days before his New York Fashion Week show, dressed in shorts, Nikes and a Piggly Wiggly T-shirt, he’s on a rant: “I’m so bored with reading articles about whether New York matters. Look at Tom Ford — that was the most gorgeous show. Have you ever seen a Jason Wu dress up close? It takes your breath away. Alex Wang, he makes clothes flawlessly. There are incredibly talented people here — seamstresses, patternmakers, assistants, my former intern Claudia Li, who is killing it. Oh yeah, New York matters, we’re out here doing the damn thing!”
Maxwell, 34, is in a good position to throw a little ‘tude. His business is enjoying double-digit, year-over-year growth; he’s looking for investors to help him expand and “speak to a wider audience,” is a finalist for the International Woolmark Prize, and has a new role on Bravo’s reboot of “Project Runway,” debuting March 14, that could lead him down a similar path to pop culture fame and fortune as his idol, Michael Kors.
“I hope it doesn’t become too much of a distraction,” quips Neiman Marcus fashion director Ken Downing of his celebrity turn. “Because he’s actually a very good designer.”
Last season’s Texas-sized New York Fashion Week runway show generated the highest earned media value on Instagram — yup, higher than Kors at $1.2 million — of any that week, according to InfluencerDB.com. It included a sponsorship package brokered by Maxwell’s agents at IMG that put him in a national Kia car commercial, and gave him enough cash to give back to his home state, in a program providing computers to students in Marfa, Tex.
After that show, he was “on top of the world.” Then, he got a reality check. “My mom called and said, ‘I’m sick,’” he says, voice faltering when sharing her breast cancer diagnosis. “It put everything in perspective because none of this would be worth it without my mom…
“I was a stylist because I grew up in a clothing store with my grandmother [Louise] and my mom [Pam], who was really involved in the Junior League and charity balls, which is why I’m really involved in events dressing,” he says of his growing up in Longview, where after-school hours were spent at Riff’s, a dress shop that catered to oil-rich East Texas mavens. “In that dressing room in that store is where I learned to be a stylist because my grandmother was a buyer who lined up everything for my mom to try on. She was our doll.”
If last season’s show was over-the-top colorful, Saturday’s fall 2019 outing will be decidedly more quiet, in keeping with Maxwell’s mood over the past few months, which have had him juggling his studio, his “Project Runway” production schedule and regular trips home to Texas to be with his mother during treatment. There will be about 200 guests, in a show space he built just for the occasion. Ascending from gritty Seventh Avenue, showgoers will first enter a cocktail party (where chicken wings will be served, because, you know, Texas), then wipe their fingers and head down a hallway with cream moire silk walls and gold accents to their seats. “It’s a safe space amongst the chaos, that’s what I was yearning for.”
The collection reflects his new ordering of priorities. For inspiration, he thought about health, athleticism, and creating a Brandon Maxwell uniform. (His bestsellers aren’t actually ballgowns, but black wide-leg pants and little black dresses.) “It’s a total cleanse from my last collection,” he says of the largely black-and-white offering, noting in the self-deprecating way only he can that he’s been on a cleanse himself for three weeks and still managed to gain a pound. “When you are going through something in your life, you ask yourself, ‘What can I eliminate to make things easier?’ And that’s how I approached this season: If she doesn’t need it, she doesn’t have it.”
He’ll open the show with a classic black tuxedo (“at the core of what we’ve done,”), worn with a moire silk sports bra. “I liked that picture of strength coming out,” he says. There’s a little black dress with welt pockets and a zip front compartment for a credit card and lipstick, “so you can go from desk to drinks,” and a white dual-satin, anorak-style cocktail dress ruched at the waist “that can work with leggings for day or a strong lip for evening,” Maxwell says. “I do love the glamour and the fun of it all, but when broken down, there’s also something for her to wear to the office and on the weekend.”
There are several pieces in fine pleated jersey with shirring details, several racer-back sports bra silhouettes, and a new leopard print with his “B” logo worked into the spots. A renewed focus on accessories will introduce a Lucite picnic bag; satin and moire pouch bags with a locking mechanism; belts with the same hardware, and jewelry made in collaboration with Kenneth Jay Lane, using his “B” logo on earrings, necklaces and bracelets.
In the four years he’s been in business, Maxwell has cultivated an enviable fan club that includes former First Lady Michelle Obama, Meghan Markle, Oprah and Lady Gaga. “Timeless and strong” is how Hollywood stylist Danielle Nachmani describes the designer’s aesthetic, and what she was going for when she put Laura Harrier in his pre-fall black corset dress for the DGA Awards last weekend. “It fit her like a glove…and there’s not much I appreciate more than a quiet statement,” Nachmani says.
But Maxwell’s MVP will always be mom, who will be front and center at Saturday’s show. “She just had her last treatment, and she’s doing really well,” he says, mentioning the support he got after he poured his heart out on Instagram Jan. 24 about his “debilitating inability to control a situation that was hurting the person I love the most.”
“I want to use that tiny platform I have on Instagram to be true. Instead of being like ‘this is my glamorous life,’ it’s, ‘I’m here in a Piggly Wiggly shirt just trying to get by.'”
When asked if his vulnerability is an asset to his business, he concedes it probably is. “I’ve tried to be honest about everything, from hey, I don’t feel like I fit in, to I don’t know which silverware to use. It’s no different just because your career changes. I’m self-deprecating because I’m still uncomfortable in a lot of situations,” he says.
Maxwell learned the importance of being honest, and how to handle female emotions, through his work as a stylist for Lady Gaga, which may help explain why so many stylists have taken the leap into fashion. (Stylist Jason Rembert, who works with Issa Rae and Ezra Miller, debuts his first Aliette collection in New York on Wednesday.) “Where I’ve seen the biggest sales is when I go to big stores and sit with women in a group and we’re really talking,” says Maxwell, who encouraged Rembert to start his own line.
And when it comes to rumors that investors, specifically Sandbridge Capital, are swirling around his line, Maxwell laughs. “I hadn’t heard that, but of course it’s in my interest to expand. Most important now is feeling like I’ve hit my stride and am building a core business off classic silhouettes. Once we have driven that home, we can speak to a wider audience.”
He returns to the topic of New York Fashion Week, suggesting that the industry also might benefit from a reality check. “We are just so obsessed with anything negative….What we really need to do is dig in, show up and feel something because it’s all out there. If we want to ask ourselves the big question of who will be there in 10 years, we have to start laying the foundation brick by brick rather than sitting around talking about it.”
Already sounding a bit like an elder statesman — or, perhaps, someone who has been mentoring would-be designers on what sounds like a more touchy-feely, Millennial version of “Project Runway,” he says the trappings of fashion are the least of it; keeping the lights on is the business. “We have to quit teaching kids what matters is the applause, because it fades and it’s not real. What really matters is opening up a dressing room door and a woman standing there feeling good,” Maxwell says.