Brandon Maxwell has a new gig.
The New York designer and “Project Runway” judge, who hails from Longview, Texas, has been named the first creative director for Walmart Inc.’s exclusive fashion brands Free Assembly and Scoop, where he will be responsible for designing seasonal collections for men, women and children, as well as accessories. He will also be involved in brand marketing initiatives and campaigns.
Free Assembly is comprised of elevated everyday essentials and is stocked in 500 Walmart doors. Scoop is more trend-driven, building on the legacy of the late New York boutique of the same name, and stocked in 250 doors. Maxwell’s guidance on the collections will begin to be seen for holiday; his first fully designed collections will make their debuts for spring 2022.
“When I started my brand, I wanted to make things that help people feel their best and do that for everyone,” said Maxwell, who came to design through styling, most notably for Lady Gaga, and launched his namesake collection in 2015. “This partnership allows me to make beautiful designs accessible for all and I feel really proud and excited to do that.”
Like most Southerners, Maxwell has a long history with the Bentonville, Ark.-born retailer.
“Growing up, my friends and I would go to Walmart a lot. And I still go to Walmart several times a week,” he said via Zoom from his hometown, where he was visiting family. “So I feel like I know the customer quite well, the customer is my friends and family, the customer is me.”
The news comes just weeks after the retail giant promoted Denise Incandela from executive vice president of the women’s group to its new head of apparel, and tapping Maxwell is a hint at where she plans to take Walmart as it drives deeper into fashion.
“Everything is on the table,” said Incadela, who came to Walmart in 2017 with executive experience at Aldo Shoes, Ralph Lauren and Saks Fifth Avenue.
“I’m thinking about what the position of Walmart apparel should be going forward and how we continue to evolve and build on what has traditionally been a basics business. Brandon is emblematic of that,” she said, explaining that when they met in November 2019, she was not initially looking to hire a creative director. “I loved his vision and how passionate he was about giving the Walmart customer a more luxury shopping experience.…I love what he’s done with both lines. I love his perspective on color and print and he styles with a feminine touch.”
Over the past few years, the retailer has been polishing its fashion image by adding 1,000 brands to its offerings, including Levi’s, Champion, Free People, Jordache, Lee, Reebok, Bonobos and Eloqui, as well as private lines Sofia Jeans by Sofia Vergara and Free Assembly. Walmart has said that three of its apparel lines are $2 billion brands.
“Brandon is not someone you might have thought we’d partner with because of his luxury background, but our goal is to establish ourselves as a fashion destination, get a bigger percentage of a woman’s closet, and attract new customers. There are many ways we will do that and designer collaborations could be part of it,” she continued, acknowledging a strategy that’s been successful for competitor Target, as well as countless other brands at the high and low end of the market.
In her new role as EVP of apparel and private brands, Incandela oversees all apparel offerings online and in stores.
“We are also investing in the in-store experience for Free Assembly, new mannequins, fixtures and hangers, so it’s a full 360,” she said.
How will content fit in, something that competitor Amazon has been working on integrating into its retail experience with streaming Amazon Prime fashion-based shows such as “Making the Cut” and “Savage x Fenty?”
“It’s increasingly important and not just our own content, but user-generated content and influencer content,” Incandela said of Walmart’s content strategy, which has included two recent live shopping events with influencers on TikTok. She added that Maxwell “will have a strong voice in content, marketing and creative — that’s part of his role for those two brands. Not just designing clothes, but communications.”
Maxwell, who presented his spring 2021 main line collection in December and has yet to reveal plans for fall, has been working with the Walmart design teams based in New York. “From the first time I was cutting rolls of fabric in my grandmother’s dress shop, it’s always been a chance to learn. I don’t believe clothes are just clothes, they allow you to see the world in a different way and express yourself in a different way. To bring that to more people is the journey I’ve been on, and bringing my life in New York and my life in Texas together feels great,” he said.
Store appearances are definitely in the cards, he said.
“I hope to do as many things face-to-face as I can, when it’s safe to do so, because my job as a designer is to be of service, to bring high-quality, beautiful design to everyone. And you can’t get there without understanding their lives, and what purpose they need a fashion piece to fulfill.”
Naturally, some of what he does will find its way to Walmart. His spring collection, in particular, featured several more casual pieces, like twist-waistband sweatpants and a sweatshirt with a train, that one could see translating easily to lower price points.
To mark the announcement of the partnership, Walmart is rolling out a line of face masks designed by Maxwell available online, and donating $100,000 to DonorsChoose.org, a charity he chose because of its dedication to helping public school teachers get materials they need for students to learn. “My sister is an educator, so it’s one thing I’m passionate about,” the designer said.
On plans for a future season of “Project Runway,” he was mum. “I love doing it, and my connection with the show has only strengthened my ability to talk to people who want to go out and start their own collections,” said Maxwell. “That will be the most inspiring thing for me if someone comes into Walmart and sees design there that inspires them to want to go out and do this, too.”