Native Texan Brandon Maxwell is making a splash in the world of high fashion. From being Lady Gaga’s stylist to creating own collection that’s a favorite of famous celebs and Sociables alike, he reveals to our chronicler of style Lance Avery Morgan what it’s like to be the newest and most dynamic talent on the scene
Photography courtesy of Brandon Maxwell Studio and Getty Images
If you had a crystal ball and could conjure fashion’s future, the image of Brandon Maxwell might just appear quite vividly. The native Texan’s intense relationship with modern chic is one for the books. With today’s Snapchat-equivalent of ephemeral fashion designers coming and going, count on him to be in it for the long haul – and to take home the prize. In fact, Maxwell, with close-cropped hair and over-sized glasses as his trademark, turns 30 this month, and recently won the coveted CFDA Swarovski Award for Womenswear. This is on the heels of dressing First Lady Michelle Obama recently for the White House State Dinner for Singapore. He loves designing for a woman’s body; in fact, he cuts on it. “I don’t sketch,” Brandon Maxwell confides in our conversation about life, Texas and the pursuit of fashion in advance of his appearance in Austin for the Women’s Symphony League fashion show and luncheon, where the theme is Texas Women – Past, Present & Future on Friday, September 23, as a part of the organization’s annual Jewel Ball festivities.
In fact, when Lady Gaga took to the stage to perform the rousing musical tribute this year to The Sound of Music at the 87th Academy Awards, she was wearing a white tulle creation designed by Maxwell. His work as Gaga’s stylist is almost as acclaimed as her musical accomplishments. Their creative partnership, as he calls it, got him to right here, right now by way of a winding route from East Texas. To the kid from Longview, Texas who read every Vogue he could get his hands on… it’s a place that is in his heart even when he is not there, he told me. Much like the town’s intersecting highways that converge north of the Sabine River, Maxwell has evolved from being a stylist into a full-fledged fashion designer. Forbes magazine called Longview the sixth fastest-growing small city, and style experts are just as bullish regarding Maxwell’s fashion business prospects. The Next Big Thing he may well be, and like all great stories, it had to start somewhere.
ROOTS OF STYLE
His grandmother worked in a boutique in town, Riff’s, and Brandon spent as much time as possible there, learning. “She and my mother were my style icons. I mean, my own life is not that stylish or super glam,” Maxwell muses. “I like to be surrounded by strong women. I’ve always been really focused on them.” He goes on to say, “It started with my grandmother’s store that included high-end furs and jewelry dressing rooms. She laid out clothes, head to toe, so I learned to be a stylist by watching and seeing what women loved and what they were insecure about. It’s not about me. It’s about them.” Even though it was a small town, people were very knowledgeable about style. Maxwell’s parents went out frequently, and he recalled his mother coming down stairs dressed up. “Even though I am in New York now, it still feels like I am in Texas with these memories,” he recalls.
Maxwell is quick to share how much he loves Texas, and Austin, where he counts his sister and many friends as his ties. He attended St. Edward’s University where he studied photography and continued to hone his stylist eye. “My own style is different in Austin. There’s so much going on there, but I’m all about shorts and queso when I visit. It’s one of the best cities in the world,” he confesses. The Live Music Capital of the World also influences his collections, “I create my collections with music,” he reveals. “The two weeks after a previous collection I’ll hibernate and create.”
That creative process is never-ending. “Going from stylist to designer was easy for me,” Maxwell shares. “They go hand in hand. Listen, I didn’t go to design school so my career as a stylist is a master class.” He learned by observing the fashion design world in real time, in real life. He quickly learned to absorb everything he studied, and the transition from stylist to designer was surprisingly easy. But he still had to play the part, and project a confidence that was still in fledgling form. “Believe me, it was terrifying at the time,” he confesses. “I told myself I’d take the leap before I reached 30. A lot of the people wearing my clothes were stylist friends who I knew in my career, so that helped, too.”
In the real world of top celeb clients and high stakes-high level design, I ask him about what is inspiring his new collection that will be all black and white. “It’s not referential, meaning my designs don’t change by the season,” he states emphatically. “It never starts with a theme. I am inspired by women throughout history and in my life. The clothes are shape- centered, sculptural and made on the woman.” Unlike other designers, he doesn’t sketch his designs. “Colors, shapes and the cut reflect where I am in my life. I start with making things on the body and a few months into it, it all comes together with cohesion. I never start with a theme since each collection is an extension of the one before it. My client can get something similar in this new collection that she loved before with what I do.”
Maxwell’s line in stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Jeffrey, among other chic destinations. Yet, he’s quick to point out he’s still new in the business. “I’m not a mass market brand yet, so it’s a personal connection to me. I know sales teams. When a woman is trying something on I am there to zip her up. Since I’ve been a stylist for many years the point is to go in and do something with the hem here, or tighten this there. It’s really important to get feedback. I ask my client: What do you want to feel like? A woman should feel good when she walks out the door.” That connectivity applies to his bold face-named clients, too. “It means everything to me. For every woman who has worn my clothes I’ve had a personal connection with them.
Maxwell is not only influenced by the women in his family, modern fashion icons, and also by one Lynn Wyatt of Houston. Wyatt, known and chronicled extensively for her tremendous sense of style. “I called her and asked if she’d appear at my first collection. Although she is not a client, she sent a great message that we played at the start of the show and it was a dream come true’” recalls Maxwell. “Women in Texas inform my collections. With my collections, I start simple and clean, and that progress to more-is-more toward the end of the show and the skirts get bigger.”
In fact, Maxwell’s attention to more-is-more creativity happened recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Ball in May with supermodel Karlie Kloss who wanted versatility for the evening for her choice of a dress. As most know, there’s the presentation, or red carpet, dress that is photographed by jillions of paparazzi and beamed across the world at the beginning of the evening. Then there’s the let’s-have-fun and sexier after-party dress change.
The cameras snapped away when Kloss arrived in Maxwell’s architecturally-inspired white gown, a type of cloak, that covered her shoulders and highlighted her slim waist. For Act II, in what seemed like moments, she appeared in an even sleeker silhouette, one that had a choker neckline, waist cut-outs and a more well, décolleté. Cut to Act III, post gala where Maxwell takes his scissors and pristine point of view, transforming the evening gown into a get-down min dress. It’s convertible clothing at its best and clearly defines the designer’s skill. Fittingly, since the evening’s theme as fashion in the age of technology, Kloss’s and Maxwell’s teams created the triumvirate through Facetime and Skype, of course. Some might call that evening a career triumph. For Maxwell, it was just another Monday night… and a dream come true.
That kind of versatility hasn’t been seen since the heyday of Yves St. Laurent, Halston and Geoffrey Beene. When he won the CFDA award, his humility was evident, similar to how he approaches life. “I’m a slightly overweight boy from Texas, where my idea of a fine meal is something rolled into a ball and deep fried,” said Maxwell. “I was so nervous about putting on pants that weren’t elastic waist…and that there would be three forks at dinner and I would use the wrong one. But I’d like to thank my father who manages my business, and my mother, who always tells me I’m doing awesome even when I’m not.” The award was presented, fittingly, by Karlie Kloss.
MOTIVATION BY DESIRE
When I ask Maxwell if he has a favorite thing, a touchstone, that keeps this meteoric rise in perspective, he’s quick to note, “I don’t have a particular possession, but it would be my family. They are a great motivator. We’re one large family and they go everywhere with me. They inspire me to push myself forward and making them proud since I chose a non-traditional career. If I’m not with them, I talk to them every day.”
Asked if he has any advice for aspiring designers, he’s emphatic when stating, “Have conviction in yourself and do what you want to do. Everyone will have an opinion. If your name is on it, take responsibility for what you do and what it represents.” He goes on to say, “I’m grateful. Before the Internet the only way I saw fashion was pouring over the magazines at the grocery store. Some other kid can see me do it and think they can do it themselves, too.” Regarding the magazines he used as a fashion resource, when asked what his favorite era in fashion was that he wishes he’d been attached to, Maxwell is quick to note, “The 80s when I was born. I’d also loved to have been in New York during the Warhol 60s, but essentially I love the here and now. Moving forward. Fashion is always moves forward.”
For more information on Brandon Maxwell visit brandonmaxwellstudio.com and for more information on the Women’s Symphony League luncheon, visit wslaustin.org