Over the summer at the Brooklyn Museum, Brandon Maxwell accepted the CFDA’s Womenswear Designer of the Year award. His emotional acceptance speech gave both the industry and outsiders a look into the story of his blended personal and professional life.
On stage, he clearly had not expected to win. He thanked an array of individuals, including his mom, who taught him that beauty is kindness. As a stylist for 10 years prior to founding his eponymous label in 2015, he had worked with nearly every designer in the room, so he took another moment to recognize them and how far he’s come.
It’s been a busy time for Maxwell. In addition to creating seasonal collections and red carpet moments, he’s also filming as a judge on Project Runway. In the fall, he debuted his Spring/Summer 2020 collection, and celebrated in London on October 2 with Moda Operandi’s Lauren Santo Domingo.
Whitewall caught up with the pair to talk about the Maxwell’s beginning (and learned how he recently thought it was the end), his big moments in 2019, and how his collections reflect his experience.
LAUREN SANTO DOMINGO: You consistently refer back to your Texas roots. What specifically about your upbringing has become part of your DNA, and how did your study of art and photography move you to design and fashion?
BRANDON MAXWELL: Through a photograph is always how I’ve seen everything. I’m someone who thinks really visually. I don’t get caught up in the tiny details. I think about what it will look like on the runway, on the carpet, at a party, on the woman, in a photo.
I started taking pictures when I was 11 or 12 years old and competing in that. I took fashion photographs when I was in junior high school and did competitions, and learned how to do hair, makeup, and nails to be a one-stop shop for myself. I moved into styling and created an almost decade-long career in that.
After a while, my goal was to really make my own collection, but I didn’t go to school for that and I needed to give myself my own master’s education, which I think styling really was for me. I learned about what a woman really does want. And that is the only thing I think about in my job.
My parents say I’m a little bit of a control freak, but if you were to ask anybody in my office when they truly see me the happiest, with joy radiating everywhere, it’s probably when I’m behind a camera.
LSD: What do you think women want today?
BM: I think what every woman wants is different. What I tell every bride or private client that comes in is, “Forget my aesthetic when you walk in the door. Tell me what you want and how we can best achieve this common goal, which is you being happy and feeling good.”
I’m not solving a big mystery. In the collections, I try to say what I think is beautiful that season. But, ultimately, the customer dictates that.
LSD: Do you collect art and photography?
BM: I do. My house is filled from floor to ceiling. Primarily artists and photographers from Texas—painters and friends. Texas is a big part of my life, and I love being around creative people and collecting work. If you were to come into my house, it’s everywhere. I love to live that way, where everything is very visually stimulating.
Hanging above my bed is Inez & Vinoodh portraits. In the stairwells is work by Ashley Longshore, who is a friend of mine. We have Steven Klein photographs in the kitchen. I have massive ones from Jules Buck Jones, who is a beautiful artist and painter from Texas. I have many, many, many artists and friends from Texas.
We also collect Earl Swanigan, so in every bathroom and everywhere else, we have these Earl paintings that are like a goat in Chanel, or crazy things that are just fun.
LSD: You have been quoted as saying you feel like a bit of a fashion “outsider.” This year we’ve seen your success unfold—from being a judge on Project Runway to Lady Gaga’s Met Gala looks, and the big kicker, winning the 2019 CFDA award for Womenswear Designer of the Year. Is this still the case?
BM: At this point last year, I absolutely thought, “The career is over. Let’s move on to something else.”
The truth is that from the time that I was nominated to the night that I was there, I had a really hard time. I really struggled with it. On the morning of, I thought, “I don’t know if I should go. People will laugh at me.” It was so out of body. But then I thought, “I’m going to be so blessed to be here today.”
I try and be open about this, but I have really suffered from debilitating insecurities and anxieties and self-love issues, and the idea that I would look out in front of me and Valentino [Clemente Ludovico Garavani] is right in front of me, and I’m standing up winning something . . . that will take a lifetime for me to process. It’s also very hard because that is not a job that I did alone.
I’ve also been really blessed to have people pick me up off of the floor many, many times. This year, as beautiful as it was, was probably the most trying emotional year of my life So, to all of a sudden be there, in a year you really didn’t plan to be there, in front of all these people, was so mind-blowing. It’s the thing I’m most grateful for.
LSD: Fashion has the reputation of being a difficult industry to enter. Tell us about being a judge on Project Runway and what you’re looking to teach those that are there.
BM: I understand that doing something like that so publicly on television is incredibly hard. It’s something that I’m not able to do. If we can find the humor in it and all laugh about it, then it keeps us—the contestants, me, the people watching—from feeling like it’s this detrimental moment in their life. Because it’s like, this is just one moment in your life. I’ve had many like this.
And I think that’s really helpful for them, even post-show. They are welcome to come into the office and text and have any help that they need. Ultimately, that’s my job there. I’m looking at them like, “I’ve done this. I am doing this.” And because you think that I’m sitting up here on a different stage than you, my life is different, but it’s not. I still have to leave here today and pay my light bill, come up with creativity on the clock with people watching. I see you and understand that experience. I try and make sure everyone is seen in some way.
LSD: What has been your biggest professional risk—like on the red carpet—or do they not even feel like risks at all?
BM: They actually don’t feel like risks. Part of my many years as a stylist is that I’m comfortable working with a woman on a moment in her life. I don’t think of it through the lens of the brand; I think of it for a specific moment. What is she trying to say? What’s great about it is that you’re able to take a risk or not when you’re holding hands.
What was great about The Met Gala with Gaga and so many red carpet moments is that we are literally or metaphorically holding hands. We’re going on a journey together. She’s taking a risk or I’m taking a risk, and we both love it so much that we don’t care what happens. And that’s freeing.
LSD: Tell us about your relationship with Lady Gaga, as your personal and professional bond has grown over many years.
BM: We’ve been there for each other through some of the biggest moments in our lives—publicly, but most importantly, personally. We’ve done the Super Bowl, the Oscars, her tours, the Grammys, really large moments. Not many people get to go on the red carpet with their family. We understand that, and especially understood that at The Met.
LSD: Tell us a bit about your Fall/Winter 2019 collection.
BM: For the [Fall/Winter 2019] collection, I was growing and going through personal things. My mom got sick. If you look at the show, it was tiny. It was actually one-fourth of the size of the actual room it was shown in. I built walls everywhere. People were squished together; clothes were running over their legs. It was closed in in the way I felt closed in. And I wanted it to be very clean and white and pristine—this clinical, gorgeous, elegant world that was the opposite world I was living in.
I had to ask myself then, “What do I do really well?” It was the first time in my life that I could answer that question for myself. I said, “I do make clothes very well. I know how to do this. I know how to do this really well.”
I was really obsessed with health at that time. I didn’t smoke or drink. I really wanted this polished, sporty look because I was dealing with such unhealthy things in my life. I wanted to create clothes with a sense of ease.
When [my mom] was getting treatment, I will never forget realizing the strength that it takes. That is the type of strength that I, at 35, don’t understand yet or think I’m strong enough to have. This is a woman who, like many others in our lives, has raised children and been through hell and still puts her clothes on every day and goes into the world. I’m realizing, as I’m older and more fragile, what I’m not strong enough to do. But I looked around and realized all the other women who do that every day for me.
The show was really honoring that—a strength and an armor that I don’t possess. It was truly the physical embodiment of all the women in my life. I’m just trying to get my dog to pee and I think I have it so hard. But the women in my company have newborns. Are moms. These people are really out here living a life. I’m literally in my pajamas right now!
LSD: Would you say all of your collections are reflective of a time in your life, or the opposite of one?
BM: Totally. I don’t make clothing that you’re going to look at and say, “That’s a really cool trend.” I’m trying to tailor a jacket and give you a little black dress or a fantasy moment. People in reviews are like, “It’s not groundbreaking,” but . . . it was not meant to be. That’s not the point. I want her to wear this jacket a hundred times.
I grew up in a town where if you’re paying three thousand dollars for a jacket, you’d better wear it to breakfast, lunch, dinner, wedding, birthday party—everywhere. Because it’s designed that way, they have to be infused with where you are emotionally. It’s true that designers have a life. That is where the experience comes from.
Every single one of my collections, I can look back and tell you very specifically the life-defining moment that happened.
LSD: What’s next for the Brandon Maxwell brand? What is the new trajectory for emerging designers like yourself?
BM: I still feel like I’m going through things that are emotionally very trying. Getting a business off the ground while everyone is watching you has been terrifying. But I’m also trying to put out an image of what I want the world to be one day. I can’t sell you any other story than that. [For Spring/Summer 2020] I wanted the earrings to be bigger, the clothes to be more free-flowing, natural and colorful, because that’s really what I’m hoping occurs in the future. A world that I’m hoping comes true.