On The Cusp Of Reality TV Stardom, Designer Brandon Maxwell Is (Still) All About Authenticity
Brandon Maxwell has never been in the business of making 'trendy' clothes. The designer & newly minted Project Runway judge gets candid with us on TV, running his own company, and family.
But Maxwell, who lacks formal training and calls fashion "the joy of my life", sees himself no more accomplished than the intern working at the end of the table. He begins most days by asking himself: What is authentic to me?
"I'm not a good faker," he says via phone from New York. "In the early years, that was really hard to do because I was very insecure and young, and I didn’t necessarily feel that I was going to be good enough or acceptable for people in this industry, so I needed to bend in whichever way I thought was gonna make people happy." Since founding his self-titled ready-to-wear label in 2015, the 34-year-old has been a finalist for the 2016 LVMH Prize and won the CFDA Swarovski Award for Womenswear. "But I feel in the last year and a half, I found the most success in my life when I've been unapologetically who I am and really leaned into those relationships that help make me who I am."
Like most designers, Maxwell's yen for fashion started at a young age. He grew up in thrift stores, assisting his stylish grandmother at her job at Riff’s and cutting up Goodwill dresses (only to later redesign them). But he studied photography, too, at St. Edward's University in Austin, and eventually moved to New York and landed an assisting gig with stylist Deborah Afshani, then British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful, and eventually Nicola Formichetti, who would put him in touch with photographer duo Inez & Vinoodh. Finally, he became fashion director for Lady Gaga (that quartet, as most know, being the core members of the Haus of Gaga). His success could be considered comet-like, because of how fast he's made a name for himself, but his designs speak to a slow-burning staying power, too.
"As a designer, you never want to stop learning — especially me," Maxwell says. "I didn’t go to school for design, so I’m constantly learning and trying to absorb everything that I can like a sponge. So much of this is experience is about an education in how things work." It's why, with a full plate, he reached out to the Woolmark Company to compete in their international competition to learn yet another tool of his trade (and to possibly take home the $140,000 winnings). The IWP event, its format similar to the LVMH Prize or CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, has been around since 1953, and seen the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and the late Karl Lagerfeld take home its top award; it's a chance for emerging designers to receive financial and mentorship support, as well as incorporate sustainable wool techniques into their production processes.
"There are so many organizations that claim to be advocating for their industry," Maxwell says of Woolmark. "Sometimes, you feel as a designer who needs the support that they fall short and that sometimes it’s more about the hoopla than it is actual help. But nobody does it like Woolmark. I think there are a lot unexpected life things that have popped up, and to complete that collection and do it in an innovative way that is exciting — it would have been impossible without the dedicated Woolmark team."
Ultimately, Maxwell didn't end up taking home the grand prize — but he did, however, win over the hearts of Fashion Month attendees in the same week, which is no small feat. He dedicated his fall 2019 offering to the women in his life, specifically his mother: "This collection is the child of the last four months of my life. The very strong women in my life, both through the Woolmark and Project Runway processes, have really revealed themselves to me, and so many people have stepped up to the plate to help me just get by and make it happen when I just couldn’t find the strength to do it."
The show, in which Maxwell debuted striking new silhouettes and impressive feats of construction, proved he knows his customer. With immense retail appeal, Maxwell offered a conservative yet powerful display of contemporary evening-wear in a black-and-white color palette, leaving room for some experimentation, in pinks and lime greens, and a poignant message: Life is precious. Just in time for his show, Maxwell received positive news about an ongoing illness in his family, which resulted in a tearful bow featuring his main inspiration, his mother, and his close-knit team.
"At any point in your life when things get out of control, you can either spin out or continue to lead in a strong way," Maxwell said ahead of the event. "I think I’ve really done that in the past year when things have been a little insane. That is personal growth for me, and that is what’s reflected in the space and the clothes. But this show was really for me and my team. It was to prove to myself that I’ve grown, to accept that, and to enjoy what we’ve been able to do — such a small group of people that worked so hard for this little train to keep moving down the tracks."
It was a tearful ending to a chapter of change for Maxwell, whose near future is about to thrust him even further into the public eye. Premiering in March, Maxwell is a judge on the next season of Project Runway. The show, set to premiere in March and returns to its original Bravo home, is back from a year’s hiatus without former mainstays Heidi Klum or Tim Gunn. As for why he chose to join contestant-turned-judge Christian Siriano and model Karlie Kloss on the panel, and why now (reality television is no less predictable than the fashion business), Maxwell — as he does — relied on his roots.
Brandon Maxwell's spring 2019 campaign, featuring model Emily DiDonato.
"As someone who didn’t necessarily understand how to get from point A to Z, which is my little town in Texas to the middle of the fashion industry, it was a very helpful tool for me," he says of the show. "I’m also someone who was not trained, so it was an educational tool. When the opportunity came to me, I had to ask myself why I would do something that is outside of the job that I currently do and will put me in a more public space. But what was intriguing about it was that I would have the opportunity to speak face-to-face with young designers that are in a very similar place that I am. My business is barely three years old. I’m really in the thick of it."
It remains to be seen what reality TV fame will do for Maxwell's business (or his profile), but he’s got undeniable charisma. He wears his heart on his sleeve, after all, which will no doubt render him the Paula Abdul of the judging panel. It's why industry heavyweights flock to his sentimental shows. Unlike so many creatives, there's nothing paradoxical about Maxwell. When he says he designs for women, he designs for women — period. He embodies the emotion he puts into his clothes because he cares that much.
"I’ve never really been in the business of making 'trend' clothing," he says without a hint of pretension. "I’ve always felt from my earliest years, growing up in clothing stores with my grandmother to today, that buying things that make you feel good is an emotional purchase. I think trends change, seasons change, but ultimately, I started the business with a little black dress — and that is something that never goes out of style."