Photography: Ben Ritter

How To Succeed In Fashion, According To Brandon Maxwell

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Designer and Project Runway judge Brandon Maxwell hardly has to study a piece of clothing to know if it’ll hold up. “From Mars you could see it’s a well-made garment,” he said to a contestant showing a sheer dress with strategically placed embroidery. To another designer, who attempted something similar conceptually with a top no wider than a lasagna noodle and sheer organza blazer, he was diplomatic but critical: “Are we calling that a bra?”

When the designer of a look that was so badly hemmed cried during judging, Maxwell said, “If you don’t think every person up here hasn’t had a failure that’s public, you’re wrong. The difference between a good designer and a great designer, a forever designer, is someone who can look deep within themselves and fight.”

At first glance, the 35-year-old fashion designer seems too young to play the salty-sweet, industry veteran judge on Project Runway, now in its 18th season. But as model and co-host Karlie Kloss put it at the beginning of last week’s episode, which asked contestants to make outfits out of sheer fabrics, “One of the most important things to consider as a designer is how a woman actually feels in the clothes that you create, and few people on the planet understand that better than Brandon Maxwell.”

Maxwell made his first designs as a kid growing up in Longview, Texas (population 80,000), buying clothes from thrift stores, cutting them up, and draping them on his girlfriends until he had an outfit. “Everything that has done well for me in life is something I’ve taught myself to do,” he tells The Zoe Report. The designer moved to New York to attend college but left after two years, at his parents’ urging. “They asked me to come home because I failed school, just to be clear,” he says.

After eventually graduating from a school in Texas, Maxwell soon returned and hustled up the fashion ladder, assisting top stylists, dressing Lady Gaga, and, in 2015, launching his namesake label (which now employs around 20 people). Today, his glamorous yet wearable gowns and subtly sculptural blazers are sold in 75 stores. They’ve been worn by some of the most powerful women on the planet, including Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Meghan Markle.

Along the way, the designer has stayed humble and scrappy, earning the rare-in-fashion reputation for being both talented and kind. Ahead of his 10th New York Fashion Week show Saturday, Maxwell discussed becoming a mentor on Project Runway, making women feel confident in their biggest moments, and his own ascent in the cut-throat fashion industry.

Do you remember the first item of clothing you made?

One of the earliest memories I have is cutting up an Oscar de la Renta dress with my mom. The dress was hanging in her closet in plastic.

Are you saying you took scissors and literally snipped apart an Oscar de la Renta gown?

Quite literally. My mom was very into fashion and my grandmother had a store that sold very beautiful, high-end clothes. My grandmother is very much a stylist. When women had events, she would have 10 pairs of shoes laid out and 10 bags and 15 dresses, and they would try everything and she would mix and match. I had a lot of clothes at my disposal and I was way too young to know that you should absolutely never cut up an Oscar de la Renta dress.

I'm picturing a crop top.

I've been on the crop top thing for quite some time now. It's also the way that I've always tried to approach the clothes, and I've always said this, I've never meant for them to be groundbreaking.

You first moved to New York when you were 18, but it didn’t work out. What was that like?

I thought, when I was young, that moving to New York was going to solve every problem in my life. I realized through that experience that it doesn't. I moved back to Austin and I cried the entire day.

When I went to school in Austin, I felt like I had a community. We all moved to New York together three years later; we all still live here together. Most of us work together. I'm engaged to the first person I met there. So much of my life was formed through that experience [of living and studying in Austin]. I taught myself during that time to do a lot of things. I taught myself to make clothes, to do hair and makeup and take photographs and make films and all the things that I'm applying to my life now. I dreamed my whole life of living in New York, and it turns out that the place that made me was not New York.

What was your very first job in fashion?

When I moved to New York [the second time], I had no money. I was living on of a bag of quarters, and I was very hungry, quite literally and physically. I applied for an internship with stylist and editor Deborah Afshani, who was working at L'Uomo Vogue at the time. Probably seven days later, I started working full-time for her. I knew nothing. I was the least talented. I was definitely the least knowledgeable. But I would show up on time and be there early and stay late and do what I had to do to be seen. She was hardworking, and she was very focused, driven. She also taught me a lot about kindness.

I went from working with her to working with Edward Enninful, who now is the editor of British Vogue. That's a job she pushed me to take.

At that time in your career, were you thinking that you wanted to be a fashion director like Edward Enninful?

I really wasn't, to be honest. That was 2009 — Rachel Zoe was really the first stylist who had entered onto the public stage. I was not even really aware that styling was a career in any sort of way. Of course, I grew up reading fashion magazines and loving fashion, but you have limited knowledge in a very small town. And this is pre-social media.

Now I see so many young people who are so well versed in the industry and who’s who and what's what and what matters. I had really no idea about any of that at all. Even when I started working with Edward, obviously I knew a little more at that time, but I didn't have years and years of knowledge of the icon that Edward is. Which I think was very helpful for me, because I was a bit naive in a way that probably helped my nerves.

I've heard other successful people say that they didn't have a plan. I want to say even Oprah has said something like that.

I think it's hard to have a plan when, again, we didn't even have Facebook. There was just no information out there to have a plan because I didn't know that it was an option. Through those jobs I realized, "Oh, this is an actual way for me to also make money doing this thing I love," which was a wild concept.

I was living on of a bag of quarters, and I was very hungry, quite literally and physically.

You're talking about starting at the very bottom, doing the unglamorous work of being an assistant. I wonder if some people starting out don't realize that that's where you start.

There's, especially now with social media, this real misconception that it's about having the right shoes or the right clothes or having the right filter or getting the right picture or being around the right people. That is just not enough.

Even as glamorous as people see my life to be, I would say that it's maybe 2 percent glamorous and 98 percent me in sweatpants, working very long hours under pressure. I don't think that ever gets easier, so if you don't have that foundation, it's really hard to have success. Again, I would just say Deborah, Edward, and Nicola Formichetti — I think the thing that links them all together is that they're incredibly hardworking. I've never seen somebody work like the three of them.

When you worked for Nicola Formichetti, he was styling Lady Gaga and her every outfit was a news item. Gaga was so clearly an emblem of the power that fashion and celebrity can lend one another. What was it like to be on the inside of that?

We were just a bunch of young people living out our dreams and trying to come up with ideas that we thought would be thought-provoking and exciting and make people feel something.

Anytime we're together now, at a restaurant or on a trip somewhere, it's the same. We approach making dinner the same way that we approached making those outfits for years. It's kind of all or nothing.

What do you cook and what are those dinners like?

I've stopped in recent years talking about [Gaga] as much because, well, one, I think it's the most obvious thing that people want to talk about. We are all really truly like siblings, we're all incredibly close. But also, a lot of Italian food. Nicola is Italian, I'm Italian and Gaga's Italian. But Gaga does the cooking. Nicola and I don't do that.

Oh?

I'm terrified of fire, so I don't do anything on the stove.

You and Karlie Kloss also go way back. How did you first meet?

With Edward, I was doing advertising. So that's the very first time I met Karlie [Kloss], was on an Edward job, and I think she was 15.

I remember when she was 15, doing her first show season, and she had that famously hypnotizing runway walk. Maybe she was even younger than that.

The other day, we're on the plane and I'm like, “Can you just do the walk?”

Down the middle of the aisle?

Yeah. Anyway, she was the face of Dior and I was putting on her shoes.

One of your most memorable pieces is the dress that Karlie Kloss wore to the Met Ball, the white cut-out gown.

Yes. That is the dress that will follow me for the rest of my life. I remember getting her into the car, being like, “I wonder if people will like this.” And it's actually the most mentioned dress continuously, week after week, wherever I am in the world.

Karlie Kloss wears a cutout Brandon Maxwell gown to the 2016 Met Gala. John Shearer/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Really?

Yeah. Karlie has always been supportive. She stood there in front of the mirror while I literally cut around her body with the scissors and we eventually ended up on that.

How long was she standing there while you were cutting the fabric?

She probably came for a couple hours, I think four times. White crepe is a hard thing, so you have to be very precise.

You had another big Met Gala moment when you dressed Gaga for her entrance last year, for the camp theme, which was probably one of the most notable red-carpet entrances of the decade. How did that moment come together?

As soon as we left the Met Gala, I was very, very sick, and I was asleep for almost three days, and so I felt like I missed so much of that experience. I remember waking up and being like, “Were people into that?”

Again, it's so hard to explain, but it's like if you have a sister and you're like, "What are we going to wear to this dinner tonight?" There's not some big board meeting, think tank of what we're going to do. It's texting an idea here, texting an idea here, I like that, yeah, OK, come by the studio, let's try this on.

So it obviously helped that you and Gaga have a longstanding rapport.

I don't know that I would have been able to do that had I not had the experience of almost 10 years, while she's coming down an elevator in a stage live in front of 50,000 people, changing her clothes in 30 seconds. I've had that experience. I've zipped her up before the Super Bowl and the Oscars.

I said I was going to do a collection. At that time, I was way too young to know not to say that.

How did you transition from assisting on ad campaigns to red carpet styling?

I think Edward's agent was maybe friends with Nicola's agent, and I just went on an interview for Nicola. Nicola was such a great fit for me because there were just no rules. We all traveled the world together for many years, and Nicola at that time was doing so many jobs. So I would do a little more with Gaga while he would travel. It's so funny, that narrative always for years it's like, “OK, well, Brandon takes over [as Gaga’s fashion director.]”

Tell me what really happened.

Nothing really happened. Nicola was doing other jobs, and obviously I have less jobs. I remember the first time seeing it in the newspaper, it was like, Nicola stops and Brandon starts. That didn't happen. People are like, “Well you started as fashion director for Gaga in 2012.” And I'm like, “Did I?”

There was never a formal appointment of you as “Gaga's fashion director.”

Not at all. I was also just trying out the idea of making some dresses for fun. And Gaga was like, “Well, let me wear one.” And she did, and it kind of got attention.

Lady Gaga wears Brandon Maxwell to the 2019 Met Gala. John Shearer/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Did Gaga wearing your dress make you feel you could transition to designing?

That group of friends — also, I have a handful of girlfriends from home — were like, “You should do it, you should go after it.”

I said I was going to do a collection. Someone printed it, because at that time, I was way too young to know not to say that. I laugh about it because it really pushed me.

I don't think the average person really understands how hard it is to launch a fashion line.

And I didn't, either, to be honest. I got an office and I started. I spent a couple months researching. As young as I was, I had the foresight to understand that whatever it is that I was going to do, you have to repeat something over and over to become known for something. I honed in on, what am I? What is my aesthetic? What do I love? And I've continued to do those in every collection, whether I've gotten criticism for that or not, which I have.

It wouldn't have worked to create garments overseas. I had to really be in the thick of it. I was teaching myself along the way.

What do you love?

I focused on tailoring. One of the core things that you have to be able to do as a stylist is tailor clothes. It is essential. And I love a tailored garment. But I started with two employees and then a pattern maker and a seamstress, and I was positive that the money I had saved for 10 years was going to be enough to last me for 10 years. And it lasted me like a month.

Wow.

The thing we don't talk about a lot is just how incredibly expensive it is to [launch a fashion line]. I went in in such a different way than everybody else. I had no formal training. I had not come from working at another brand. So, the way that I did things was just figure it out on my own. And I came up with my own ways of doing things, so I don't know that the way that I did it was right or wrong, but it was a way that worked for me.

In addition to the clothing, there’s the cost of the fashion show and marketing. What was surprising to you about the overall cost?

The cost of clothing in general. Our clothes are made in America and I think that has a cost attached to it. I'm very proud to create jobs in America. I know the working conditions, I know that they're paid fairly, I know I can oversee the product. For me, it wouldn't have worked to create garments overseas because I had to really be in the thick of it and oversee every garment, and I also was teaching myself along the way.

Talk about what it's like advising these designers who come on Project Runway. That show is a unique experience, right? Because they don't have that much time to put their best foot forward.

But that's kind of the industry, is it not? I feel such empathy for them. I'm not creating on TV with a camera on me, but, in a way, aren't we all? In the time we live in, if you're fortunate enough to have any success, there are a lot of people watching. So I very much understand what that feels like.

That's fair.

Of course, on the show, it's my job to be critical. I always try to be critical with humor because that's what I want people to do with me and that's what I try to do with myself. There's nobody more critical of me than me. What Project Runway contestants do is very hard, but it's also so informative. I grew up watching that show, and it was also a way for me to learn. To be a part of an experience where we're getting to identify and nurture raw talent is really exciting for me. I often feel like I'm holding up a mirror to myself when I'm looking at them on the runway. I'm not a big household name and I'm still in many ways trying to do what they're doing.

I want to make sure that I'm not sitting in my office, interviewing people that only come from top schools.

I wonder if you agree that the fashion industry has talked more in the last few years about issues like sustainability and inclusion than it maybe ever has.

I have siblings that are younger than me, and I think that there's a generation behind us that has had so much access to information. I do really think that they are buying with their morals and their values, as they should. I try to create a world that I feel is representative of the world that I see outside. Listen, in a runway show, you are not going to solve every issue, but I do try to [ensure] 10 young girls see someone that looks like themselves.

Which issues feel the most important to you?

We've tried, especially in the last three shows, to raise a good amount of money to either rebuild a school or to pay for college scholarships. I happened into this world, and a great person took a chance on me. I did not have the education for it, I did not have the pedigree for it, I was definitely the least talented. I think about that a lot, that I had no real reason to be here.

Opportunity and access are super, super important. I want to make sure that I'm not sitting in my office, interviewing people that only come from top schools. It's like, OK, she can come from whatever community college it is. I find that you give those young people an opportunity, you will be surprised at just how amazingly they will step up and shine. I think that that's one of the reasons why I went to do Project Runway.

Project Runway stops filming just days before Fashion Week. Are you tired?

No. I wish I had time to work out a little bit more, because 35 is the age that you really need to start doing that. But I'm really not tired. I'm super grateful to have a job. We have women that go into stores that buy our garments. My office is all young women. In doing that, you're also supporting their dreams and their futures. Sometimes I get tired from the travel, pressure, the stress, and the deadlines. But I go to sleep, and when I wake up the next day, I remind myself when my feet hit the floor that I have this opportunity.

Top image credit: Ben Ritter