Bridget Foley’s Diary: Brandon Maxwell, From the Heart

Bridget Foley
·30 mins read

A typical work-from-home setting — six months in, most of us have grown familiar with the range: cool piece of art, carefully curated bookshelf, perhaps a family photo or potted plant. But some spaces fall under the umbrella of atypical. Brandon Maxwell sits framed by the intricate lines of a nouveau-ish wallpaper pattern. Over one shoulder: a fluff of pink pillows of a velvety texture. These days, Maxwell conducts business from his bed. That’s because college student Jessica Price generally spends summers with her brother Jessy and his fiancé Maxwell, only this year, with fall semester virtual, there was no reason to rush home. Instead, she took over the living room for school purposes, and Maxwell is perfectly happy making do.

The designer talks about the importance of family all the time; the on-the-bed vignette attests to the veracity of his words. While he adores his blood relations (one is hard-pressed to find an interview in which he doesn’t reference his mother, his grandmother and his Texan pride), his view of family extends beyond, to old friends and his designer and at-work fashion communities. There, too, he’s not all talk. Maxwell and his father own the company that employs 23 people. They have kept all at full employment through the coronavirus crisis, which would not have been possible without some help. “We’re very thankful to have great partners who have had patience and who have understood that we did prioritize the team at this time,” Maxwell says.

Most of us have a sliding scale of priorities, and Maxwell is no different. Taking care of his staff has been his top goal during COVID-19. But this season marks his company’s fifth anniversary, and he determined early on that, in this difficult business, even a young milestone is worth noting. He wanted to celebrate, even after quarantine rendered a runway show impossible. His approach: two capsule collections, launching this week exclusively on the brand’s e-commerce site. The denim-based Anniversary Collection makes its debut tonight. He’s been working with denim for a while and now, “I wanted to just go full-on with it,” he says. Later in the week, he will present The Classics Collection II, a redux of five looks from his first two collections, spring and fall 2016: “Our customer loved them so much.”

For Maxwell, life is all about love, and if some people think he sounds “cheesy” and like a “live, laugh, love bumper sticker,” so be it. The important people are the ones who’ve been there all along. “I’m just going to stick close to those people who really do love me,” Maxwell says, “and I’m going to live my life for them.”

WWD: Brandon, how are you?

Brandon Maxwell: I’m good. I’m coming to you live from my bed because my sister-in-law lives with us during the summer and she’s doing school downstairs.

WWD: I love the wallpaper. Where is it from?

B.M.: I don’t know. It was here when Jessy and I moved in.

WWD: Your sister-in-law, Jessy’s sister? Where is she in school?

B.M.: She goes to school at University of North Texas in Denton, Tex. But she spends every summer with us, and this year they’re not going back to school.

WWD: So home-schooling, the young adult version.

B.M.: Exactly.

WWD: It’s so sweet that she stays with you.

B.M.: It puts your priorities on other things and just reminds you that the world is a bigger place. It’s been really good. We love having her here.

WWD: You just used the word “priorities.” I read something you said, that you don’t judge success by the scale of the business but by your priorities. Let’s start there, because we’re talking about family.

B.M.: That’s always been my gauge of success. I’ve always been really close to my family; I’ve had the same best friends pretty much my whole life. When I started doing the shows, the p.r.s would get very frustrated with me because it was like, OK, if you had 200 seats, I needed 75 for my friends and family.

WWD: I bet they loved that.

B.M.: They were so thrilled — still, today. But that’s really the gauge of success for me. I grew up in a store, my grandmother was in fashion. I always wanted to make my family and my friends proud. Somewhere along my life I realized I’m just going to stick close to those people who really do love me and I’m going to live my life for them. When you come into the world in a space like, you’re very different, you kind of spend your whole life trying to find ways to get people to love you.

WWD: You always talk about family, and the women in your family. You certainly didn’t have to prove yourself to your family, right?

B.M.: No, they would love me no matter what. My most important focus is giving back to the people who helped me feel safe growing up, the women, my family and friends who supported me through some rough moments, some really rough moments.

WWD: You’ve often talked about being different, the kid in the outfield making the bouquet.

B.M.: Yes.

WWD: But bouquet-making was fine at home, right? Your family never had issues about you being gay.

B.M.: No. No, no, no. No I never did. And like I said, I still have the same three best friends as when I was growing up.

WWD: Who are they?

B.M.: Gabriela, Crystal, Laura. Laura was my first friend when I was two. She’s the one that I learned to do her hair and I learned to take photographs with her. She was my first girlfriend, she was my first kiss, she was kind of everything.

WWD: I don’t know you well, but you project lovable.

B.M.: Thanks. I always say you have two choices. You can be negative and sad, which everybody has their days and I certainly am a lot, or you can put out into the world what you hope is going to come back. I don’t know; some people probably think I’m like a bumper sticker. I always try to tell young people, I’m like, I’m not really a happy, nice person all the time, but I try. Certainly now, but in the world in general, people are faced with so many negative things. And if you can try to be a light in that, then why not?

WWD: Why not — yes. Speaking of trying to be positive, how are you coping through COVID-19?

B.M.: I already was feeling like I needed to slow down in my life. In a regular year, I’m out the door sometimes before the sun is up and I’m home sometimes as the sun is coming up. You’re going and going and you’re missing the birthdays, you’re missing the weddings. Nothing in the world is ever good, as I have said many times, when people are sick. So I think honestly for the first two-and-a-half, three months of it, living in New York, I was just absorbing everything that was going on. I was feeling so much. It’s hard not to feel it when you’re sitting in your house and you hear the sirens going by every day.

WWD: I know. I live near Mount Sinai.

B.M.: So was I thinking about clothes during that time? Like, truthfully? No, not even kind of. Everybody kept asking me when’s the next collection and I just kept saying, like, it’s going to be when I feel like it. I don’t want to rush myself.

I spent a lot of time in the early months talking to so many of my designer friends, which was great — having that time to come together and discuss and be open with each other. And so there is a lot going on but I feel optimistic about where we are.

WWD: Who are the designer friends that you talk with?

B.M.: Oh my gosh, so many. Whether that’s like Alexander Wang, Aurora James or Ryan Roche or Eva Fehren Zuckerman or Laura [Kim] and Fernando [Garcia] or Lisa Marie Fernandez or Jason Wu — whomever it is. I would say that we have a good community in New York. I am very proud to work in New York. I’m very proud to work amongst these peers. You can pick up the phone late at night and say like hey, are you going through this?

WWD: Numerous designers have told me they feel a sense of community now more than ever. Can that camaraderie be marshaled to the benefit of your group of designers?

B.M.: Yes. I get really defensive around fashion weeks when people are doing these pieces questioning New York. I think the talent in New York is incredible, the people here, the heart. It’s not just the designers, it’s the teams.

Even before the pandemic, to go do this job, which is 99 percent not easy and not glamorous, I have such respect for my peers who wake up every day and try to make something beautiful, to make people feel good, sometimes against all odds. You know, it’s not like what we do is, at the end of the day, the most important thing. But I do think that making people feel good and feel beautiful and feel good about themselves is important.

It’s always frustrating for me when people question the validity of New York Fashion Week and New York fashion, because it’s not just those two weeks a year or those four collections a year. It’s going every day and keeping the lights on. This is not new to any of these people. It’s been accelerated but it’s certainly not new. You see incredible work coming from these amazing designers.

I just don’t know why it’s not normal to look at all the good. It just would be great going into fashion weeks [if people thought], you know what, the seamstresses, some of them take a bus or a train for an hour-and-a-half, the patternmakers are coming in, the cutters, the interns, the young design teams who have come here from all over to reach their dreams. It’s such a bummer when you read stuff before, like, “is it relevant?” I think anybody trying to fulfill their dream to make other people feel good is always, always relevant.

WWD: Beautifully said.

B.M.: Thanks.

WWD: Top three things you love about American fashion.

B.M.: I would say the ease and lack of pretense. The creativity and the drive of the community. So many people focus on the designer, but this is like a group sport. So many people who are in there every single day. I’m missing the weddings and the birthdays, so are these people. It’s cut with love, sewn with love, made with love.

You don’t have the big infrastructure here in America, and that makes people fighters and resilient. That can-do attitude is what I love about American fashion. What I loved about American fashion growing up was the joy, the happiness of it. I could watch a Halston show over and over and over and over for just the smile.

WWD: I’m sure you saw the Halston, Saint Laurent show at FIT several years ago? This is probably heresy, but side by side, I’ll take Halston.

B.M.: I think that you can really tell when the women [of Halston’s cabine] are talking about him that there was a trust there and a love there, they speak of him so highly. Nobody really talks about that intimate relationship [between designer and model]. It’s really a very super trusting relationship. A lot of these women who have walked the runway have seen me in some of the darkest times of my life. They’re not just models, they’re not just silent people who come in, they’re not just hangers.

That’s what I love so much about Halston. He fostered a community of unique individuals who felt free to be themselves and really loved the idea of beauty and happiness and joy. I think that after all the stress for six months, if 15 minutes of [a show] is just not the happiest thing ever then what’s the point? Because the next morning, the carriage turns into a pumpkin again, and you’ve got to do it all over. So those 15 minutes better be heaven.

WWD: What has been the impact of this shutdown on your business?

B.M.: It’s been significant for everyone. If I’m being absolutely honest, I would say I have not spent a ton of time looking at that every single day, I keep my head forward. We were already, pre-pandemic, starting to launch in e-comm. And we saw very quickly that we were driving pretty serious business on e-comm. That’s been very helpful for us. I also have a pretty healthy private client business.

WWD: Has that maintained?

B.M.: Yes. What we did when all this started, we shut down pretty early, at the end of February.

WWD: Really?

B.M.: One of our patternmakers was expecting. And some of the team are very young and some are in that at-risk age range. It was the responsible thing to do. We started doing things in a totally different way. We started making little capsule collections; we were doing handmade pajama sets that I still love, or we were doing a lot of custom work and continuing the production with our teams. Then, starting with e-comm has been really great for me because it allows me to sit down each week and write a letter to our customers and tell them what I’m going through and ask what they’re going through.

WWD: You do that every week?

B.M.: It’s like a newsletter — what’s going on, I send out a playlist or a recipe, or I try to highlight work that my friends are doing, products that I love from them, and we may have different audiences so to cross pollinate. It’s been great because the customers are writing back.

And I started going on Instagram every night for about two hours and talking to students, opening up my platform for them to show their work and talk about what they’re going through. If you’re coming out of school into a business that on a good day is already uncertain, I’m sure it has to be scary. So my first thought, to be totally honest, was not, “oh my God, what’s going to happen to the business?” People don’t realize that it’s such an intimate job that we do, and the people that work for you, they carry you. They carry you emotionally, they carry you creatively, they are so much more than just team members. So my mind really flipped during that time to “OK, I just need to make sure everyone is OK.”

WWD: Did you have layoffs and furloughs?

B.M.: We haven’t, no.

WWD: None?

B.M.: I only have 23 employees.

WWD: You kept 23 people employed. That’s amazing.

BM: Thanks. You have to move things around, and it’s much thanks to our vendors and people that we work with who have been very patient with us.

WWD: What’s the ownership of your company?

B.M.: Me and my dad.

WWD: Was your father on board with keeping everyone working?

B.M.: Yes, he was.

WWD: I love that. It must be such a point of pride.

B.M.: Well, every day is a struggle, and it’s not easy. Just because I am a “live, laugh, love” bumper sticker, I don’t want to paint everything as if it’s been a walk in the park. We’re very thankful to have great partners who have had patience and who have understood that we did prioritize the team at this time.

WWD: Have you spent the entire quarantine in New York?

B.M.: I’ve been here the whole time. I think, the end of May I probably went outside for my first walk.

WWD: Wasn’t it strange to go out for that first walk?

B.M.: It was the wildest thing. I went no farther than a block and my legs didn’t know what to do because they hadn’t walked that far in so long. In fashion and in life in general, things move so fast, and I’m often right out the door, into the car, five steps, I don’t look around me a lot. I’m on my phone in the car. And that first walk, I felt like I was seeing things for the first time. This is so lame, but I saw just a pretty flower in my neighbor’s flower box and I started crying. I’m not joking. I was like, wow, the beauty of the flower. It’s hard to not feel grateful to live in New York City. We’d go outside every night at seven and clap and bang pots and pans [in support of COVID-19 first-responders].

WWD: Let’s get to your news. You’re marking your fifth anniversary with two capsule launches, Denim and Classics. Tell me about Denim.

B.M.: I’ve been gravitating toward denim for so many seasons now that I wanted to just go full-on with it.

WWD: It’s not just denim. I saw a sweatshirt in there, too.

B.M.: There is a Brandon Maxwell sweatshirt, yes, I’ll send you one.

WWD: I wasn’t hinting. Tell me more.

B.M.: Initially I was like, “I want to do a merch collection.” But as I get into the fittings, I always want the boot and the dress and the hair and the whole thing. So it started as a sweatshirt and jeans, but then, in traditional Brandon fashion, we went all the way to the bustier denim dress because, why not? And then I worked with Fort Lonesome in Texas, this great patch company. I’ve been obsessed with their work for a long time. They did patches of all the things I love. They did a patch of my dog, the Texas flag that has my initials in it, my grandmother’s cowboy hat. We launched a denim bag that looks like jeans. Just this fun, irreverent, way to just to celebrate.

WWD: Sounds great. And the Classics capsule — a reissue of some favorite looks, right?

B.M.: They’re just pieces that I have a great love for and you probably wouldn’t see on a Brandon Maxwell runway now. But our customer loved them so much and I wanted to bring them back for just a limited time, just a limited number.

WWD: Both launching this week?

B.M.: Over the week when I’m celebrating my five-year anniversary, I wanted at the top of the week to launch things that were more accessible in terms of a price point, and that felt representative of where we are now [in the culture]. I’m in a very denim place, that classic American sportswear felt right. And then, throughout the week, I’m going to put out videos looking back at our five years, and at the end of the week I’ll reissue those five classic pieces.

WWD: Your customer believes in polish. What has she been wearing at home?

B.M.: My customer is dressing up, like truly and for real. I’m on Zoom, people are videoing me, people are writing back and sending pictures of what they’re wearing. And honestly, I’ve been doing that too. I joke with the team but I’m being totally for real. I will dress up to go to the refrigerator at this point because why not? It makes you feel good. When we launched the e-comm, for instance, I was putting these flowing statement tops online and they are just going, like that. You have a backyard or a living room — you can get dressed up anywhere. And I think we’re all just looking for something to help us feel good during this time.

WWD: You won the CFDA Award last year, only four years in, which is quite remarkable. I was surprised that the business had been only five years.

B.M.: It’s strange, it feels like just yesterday, and 100 years at the same time. Five years to me is an accomplishment. Again, I know it’s not something that people celebrate, but I think right now in these times, let’s find a reason to celebrate, I say.

WWD: Do you feel cheated out of the runway anniversary celebration that you must have wanted?

B.M.: No. That’s a hard no. I absolutely do not. The shows are very hard on me. I love the shows more than anything. The show is everything to me. But they are very taxing. And I’ve had a harder time as I’ve gotten a little bit older, kind of going out there in front of people as much.

WWD: You’ve had your company for five years, but an industry profile for considerably longer, having worked with very prominent stylists. Is there something that you took away from your work with Deborah Afshani and with Edward Enninful and with Nicola Formichetti, something different from each person?

B.M.: I owe my career to these three people, 100 percent. Debra instilled in me the idea that you can be successful and hardworking and be kind. Even when I made huge mistakes, which I did because it was my first job, she always was constructive with the way she spoke to me. I have carried it with me every single day. It was one of the greatest lessons, that you could be successful and nice.

Edward — icon. Excellence on another level. And joy. I learned so much joy. I was only a second assistant with a fanny pack who was just lucky to be there; I wasn’t his full-time assistant. I remember walking in one time on a Steven Meisel shoot with Naomi Campbell, Pat McGrath and Edward. I walked into the location at 6 a.m. and the laughter coming from the hair and makeup, I heard him and Pat and Naomi. It was so intoxicating. I think everything he is making is absolutely beautiful, and I’m proud to have just been in his orbit for a small amount of time.

Nicola, who really did give me my career, is like a brother. When I transitioned into doing my own thing, Nicola made sure that I was set up as a person. He helped me find clients, he made sure I was OK living the way I was living, that I had enough to go on my own. He always instilled in me the idea that you can be more than one thing, that you could be a designer, you could be a stylist, you could be whatever it is that you wanted to be.

They’ve come to support me; they’ve shown up. As good as their work is, they are as good as people. That has been the greatest blessing to be around them.

WWD: You have dressed many celebrities and, of course, everyone associates you with Lady Gaga. What is your working relationship like?

B.M.: I don’t really look at it as a working relationship. When you know our group of friends, it really is like siblings, really, truly. I struggle so many times when people ask me how certain looks came together. It’s weird because there isn’t really a process. It’s so natural. We could be talking about a dress at the same time we’re having breakfast and talking about a TV show. It’s not some big sit-down think tank. When you’re so used to being in each other’s lives, it is like a sibling relationship where you just kind of know.

WWD: She was so fabulous at the VMAs.

B.M.: She was the best. And that Christopher John Rogers dress! I was so falling over on the floor. Yes, she’s fantastic.

WWD: Her messaging about the masks was really I thought important.

B.M.: Would you expect anything less from her? She has always, always used her platform in a responsible way. She knew from a young age that young people were watching her, and she wanted them to have a good life and be their best. She is not only the talent of her generation, but she is really [a responsible role model]. She is that when the door is closed, too. Which is rare, very rare.

WWD: You said it’s not an organized process when you’re collaborating. So how did the Met extravaganza come about?

B.M.: We were on vacation with all of our friends. I think we talked about it in the morning at the pool for a couple minutes. And then I got to work on some things. She was in L.A., so we were all on a group text. Funny story, I got the worst food poisoning after the Met for four days.

WWD: You got it at the Met?

B.M.: No, I didn’t get it at the Met. I didn’t eat at the Met because I was too nervous. It must have been something I ate before. My fiancé thinks it was all of my nerves finally hitting me that made me very sick for four days.

I don’t remember being on the carpet at all. Barely. My one standout memory was walking with Gaga on the street and her looking at me, saying “have a good time, remember to have a good time.” And then, as we approached the carpet, Tenique [Bernard, Maxwell’s p.r.] was standing there in a Brandon Maxwell dress and she looked so proud of me. I’m about to cry thinking about it. She looked at Gaga, and I could just tell she was so happy. After that, everything went dark.

WWD: You’ve dressed numerous other celebrities. Do you have favorites, or favorite moments?

B.M.: I don’t really have favorites. I know that these women, on these monumental days in their lives, have so many options. I feel so grateful and surprised every time that we’re chosen.

I have memories that stand out. Kerry Washington, when she was pregnant, for one, because I made something for her while she was pregnant. She was just a dream, just the kindest person on the planet. She made me really feel that I was important, and I was nobody. And she said my name on TV [at the Emmys], and it was my birthday the day she wore it.

I also did Mandy Moore for the Emmy’s last year. It was the morning after my show, at like, like 8 a.m., and I had a nighttime show. I was wrecked. I was sweating, I was in my pajamas. I hadn’t slept, wondering if it was good or bad or whatever. My office looked crazy, crazier than it’s ever looked. I was so embarrassed. And she walked in and was so loving and comforting ,and acted like she was like at the fanciest place. She was so kind.

WWD: Michelle Obama?

B.M.: Michelle Obama was sort of a life-changing one for me. I felt like it was the ultimate American dream, like, “wow, I’m this boy from a small town that’s dressing the First Lady of the United States.” In that moment I was like, well maybe I might be remembered for something other than — whatever people would remember me for where I grew up.

WWD: Any others?

B.M.: If you know me, you know that Oprah is very important to me. When I came home after school, I would sit with my mom in front of the TV every day at four and watch Oprah; I feel like I was sort of raised also by Oprah. So to meet her was this full-circle moment, and she’s, so great, fantastic. Of course, Blake Lively is incredible.

Here’s the thing, and I know that this sounds really cheesy, the women who I’ve dressed are so similar to the women in my life growing up. The common thread is that they are good women who have primarily used their time on this Earth to leave it better than how they found it.

WWD: You also dressed Meghan Markle.

B.M.: I haven’t met her in person. I have spoken to her. I will say that I was so proud of that moment because I think on that day she was there helping children.

WWD: What was the event?

B.M.: I can’t remember the exact name, but she was there to help with children. It’s not about what they’re wearing. It’s the fact that somebody chose you and in choosing you, she also chose all the young people who also have a dream of making the clothes.

WWD: Tell me about “Project Runway.” Did you love the experience?

B.M.: Yes, I do. I love my TV family. I love the people on the show, I love the set, the crew. I love everybody. I went into it, I had never been on camera, I had never been on TV, and they really believed in me. They really helped me to feel comfortable and to feel my best. I’m very happy there.

WWD: Tell me about your look today, Brandon. You said you’ll dress up to go to the fridge but you have on a sweatshirt and either shorts or undies.

B.M.: OK. So today I went out of the house, and it was really my third time going out somewhere. I went to get my portrait taken at Mark Seliger’s studio, who is another Texan that I love. I drove into the city, I had a full face of makeup on.

WWD: From where did you drive in?

B.M.: From Brooklyn, I drove into the West Village. I had a full face of makeup on, jeans that were pretty tight, a white T-shirt. And then I thought you know what, wouldn’t it be nice, after all this time, to go have lunch by myself? And so after I got my portrait taken I took myself out to a lunch where I had to walk five or six blocks, and it’s a little hot today. And after five minutes of walking my whole face had sweated off all down to my white T-shirt, I was sweating inside my jeans. It was a nightmare. So I came home directly to be with you and now I’m in pajama pants [full disclosure: pajama shorts] and a Nike pullover. This is pretty much what I wear all the time.

WWD: You’ve said that you don’t believe in trying to please people, that it’s not worth it. Yet professionally, a designer’s job is to please people.

B.M.: My job is to please the customers, my job is to please my client, my job is to please my team and my family. I’ve been really open about my insecurities. Things have happened throughout my career that have been hard.

And I realized a couple of years in, like, all these people who I’m asking who actually don’t do this job at all or know what it takes to do this job or whose validation I’m seeking, not only don’t know what it takes to do this job but they also don’t do this job, so why am I asking or looking for validation from people that ultimately are going to go whichever way the wind blows? So I stopped doing that so much, and I think that, for me, it really is about the customer and the client.

It’s the most important thing. I’m not claiming to be some artistic genius. I grew up in a store watching my grandmother zip up dresses on women, and I just want to give [the customer] a great black dress or a good pair of pants. My grandmother still, until last year, was selling clothes out of her house.

WWD: Until last year?

B.M.: Yes. She’s 84. She was the manager of a clothing store and later, she sold out of her house. And so that’s really where my focus has been, [on the customer].

I’m in a relationship with someone who is not in the fashion industry. I have gone through enough things in the past five years that could have really probably broken me behind all of it where people don’t see and it changed a lot of my priorities.

WWD: This industry is so all-consuming. Is it nice to go home at night, or now, to be together 24/7, and have something else to talk about? Fashion is wonderful but it’s all-consuming.

B.M.: I’ve had the same best friends [for years] that couldn’t really care less about my job. Gabriela would always tell me, like, “any time that you want to walk away, we love you just the same.” The same thing with Jessy. He’s happy for me to do my job. He’s happy if I’m happy. I think that I can pinpoint the time in my own mind when I had two choices, two roads to go down, and I chose to start prioritizing my life more. And I’m really grateful.

WWD: What was that pinpoint moment?

B.M.: I had a particular show that was a very hard time for me behind the scenes that I’ve never discussed. It was just a really hard time in my personal life, probably the darkest time that I’ve ever gone through, just very hard. And I remember I was really upset.

Wow, I’ve talked about crying twice in this interview. People are going to be like, this person is a mess but whatever. I was crying and I was like, “maybe I ruined it.” And Jessy was like, “whatever you decide to do in your life, I love you, I love you every single day. Regardless of what it is that you do, your family loves you, and we’re going to love you no matter what.” And for some reason, that really sunk in to me.

I feel really blessed to have that. So for me, fashion has always — I don’t know. I don’t think I’m cool, I don’t think people need to think I’m cool. I just want to have a sustainable business with clients and customers whom I love, a community that I love. I do it because I really love it.

WWD: That is a lovely place to finish. Thank you, Brandon.

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