Designer Brandon Maxwell On The Pressures Of Working In Fashion

At a time when fashion is in a state of flux, we're looking to the industry's next generation of influencers as a guiding light. This New York Fashion Week, Refinery29's Future of American Fashion series is highlighting the designers, brands, and retailers we're betting on big. The future starts here.

When you count two of the biggest celebrities in the world — Lady Gaga and Naomi Campbell — as close personal friends, one might think that designer Brandon Maxwell is out on the town every single night. Add the rapid-fire success of his two-year-old namesake label (he was a finalist for the 2016 LVMH Prize and won the CFDA Swarovski Award for Womenswear the same year), and it’s practically guaranteed. But 32-year-old Maxwell is far more cerebral than that. “I don’t look like a model and I’m not the fun party boy,” he offers. “I’m not even someone who loves the experience of having my photo taken or having a lot of attention on me, when something really great happens I don’t just pop over and open a bottle of Champagne.” It’s not that Maxwell isn’t grateful — he practically cries when talking about his humble roots — but the stylist-cum-designer contends that a seemingly dreamy life is just not what he or his women want.

This content is currently unavailable. Check it out from your desktop or on our web app!

Modest Beginnings

Maxwell fell in love with fashion and women at a young age — he often helped his grandmother at Riff’s, the Longview, Texas women’s clothing store where she worked as a boy— and had a penchant for cutting up Goodwill dresses. After studying photography at St. Edward’s University in Austin, he began assisting stylist Deborah Afshani, followed by now British Vogue editor Edward Enninful, and Nicola Formichetti. Styling came naturally to Maxwell, who says it’s very much like being in a store’s dressing room. But he also realized that Enninful and Formichetti’s careers were hybrids. “They have lots of jobs and they never thought you had to be one thing,” he says. “Growing up, I was taking photographs, doing the hair, doing the makeup, making the clothes...I always had more than one interest.”

This content is currently unavailable. Check it out from your desktop or on our web app!

Standing Up To Pressure

When he presented his debut collection in 2015, Maxwell had already transformed Gaga into her more glamorous self (remember that custom white Azzedine Alaia gown she wore to the Oscars — that was all him). Still, he was convinced no one would come to his debut show at Mr. Chow. “I spent all my money renting out this space and getting everything ready and my dad came backstage being like ‘Yeah, I don’t think anyone’s coming,’” Maxwell remembers (his father happened to not understand that fashion shows start incredibly late). “I was like ‘Oh my god, literally no one has come, like at all, it’s my mom, my dad, my grandparents, and the seamstresses. We put on a fashion show for ourselves.’” Of course, friends and fans alike came out in support, including Lady Gaga, Steven Klein, Inez and Vinoodh, and Alexander Wang.

Two years later, it’s been a steady ascent up, one that Maxwell likens to being on an airplane. “It’s like taking off at JFK in the storm and we’ve just sort of leveled off at 34,000 feet and the seatbelt sign has come off,” he jokes. But not all has been easy — in fact, Maxwell admits to being overcome with severe anxiety. “I lived the first two years honestly being like ‘What the hell is going on right now?,'” he says. “Once you start reading things and thinking that you are a certain something, it’s a dangerous destructive road to be on.” His aha moment came fortuitously in the shape of a long car ride with his beloved and an ice cream treat: “I was in a dark place and then one morning you wake up and you’re not anymore because you’ve gone to the darkest, deepest, lowest place and there’s nowhere to go but up,” he says. “I woke up and I’m driving down the highway, I’ve got a Dairy Queen blizzard in my hand, and my boyfriend since I’m 19-years-old is asking me to marry him, and all of a sudden I was like, ‘This is what matters in my life.’”

A Seat At The Table

What’s kept him continually grounded is the idea that fame is fleeting and staying true to his women is his life’s work — and that includes all women (Maxwell even stepped up to dress Syrian refugee actress Hala Kamil at this year’s Oscars, complete with a custom hijab, without evening knowing her). “The clothes are handmade, they’re made in New York, they come with a certain price point, and that’s what it is. But I am not the type of person and we are not the type of company to say you cannot sit at our table,” he explains. “If you don’t necessarily have the price point to accept a wide range of people from the very beginning, you have to make conscious choices in your actions to let women know that they are included.”

Fortunately, struggling with his own worries of “do I fit in?” and “do I matter?” (“I am what I am, I’m going to wear Nike shorts every single day, I’m probably not going to be under 200 pounds,” he says) has made Maxwell ultra-aware of representation. “It’s so important that when a young girl is coming across our photos online that she sees some version of herself represented there,” he says, acknowledging that fashion and media still have a long way to go. “I think a lot about having younger sisters and especially in this age, when everything is so gratuitous and highly-sexualized, young girls think that all that matters in life is to have a perfect face and an expensive car. I think it’s really important to say, ‘It’s okay to not be a size zero, you don’t have to be tall and blonde, you can look like you and be you!’”

The Future Is Bright

Subsequently, this newfound acceptance and happiness has pushed him to his most creative place design-wise. For his spring 2018 collection, only two looks are black and white (Maxwell mainstays), so viewers can expect a lot of bold color, ease, and fun. “I think you can see moments in past collections where things are very tight and constricting and sculptural because maybe I was in that place, but this time I think it looks like a girl who’s about to get married,” he says, clearly referencing his own engagement. “It looks like me before I was thinking ‘What will sell?’ and ‘What’s chic?’ I look at this collection and I’m just like, ‘Wow, if I was 13 with my best friend Lorelai at home gluing extensions into her hair, this is what it would have looked like.’”