Brandon Maxwell is a fashion outsider. Kind of. Beyond an A-list clientele that boasts every style star from Michelle Obama to Sarah Paulson, the self-proclaimed homebody grew up working in his grandmother's clothing shop and dutifully watching his mother put on lipstick while he "sat in awe as a young gay kid from Texas who loved pageants." He's likable to a tee, which makes him a delight as a judge on Project Runway and beloved by aspiring students on his growing YouTube channel. His clothes speak volumes, literally-queue up Lady Gaga's Matryoshka doll moment at the 2019 Met Gala-but also, often, in whispers.
The quiet power of his brand is bold, never gimmicky. Yes, his clothes are glamorous, but they lack the arrogance typically associated with the industry, even if his gowns explode in fuchsia satin and Bella Hadid closes the show. With a penchant for shape, form, and color-you know, everything that makes fashion Fashion with a capital F-his knowledge of what women want isn't necessarily intuitive. "I decide I like this dress, and then I text it to every woman I know: 'Do you like it or do you hate it?'" he explains of his process. "They say yes or no, and that's it. It is not based on my recent vacation or a book I read or a movie I love or anything." And despite lockdown, Maxwell's approach remains the same.
The tragedy of COVID-19 devastated many, but the fashion industry responded with resiliency. Some brands revamped their production lines to create PPE, while others devised creatively stunning ways to reimagine the runway under quarantine during NYFW's first digital-forward season. For the first time ever, Maxwell got the opportunity to slow down. "I'm someone who's typically very fast-paced and needs to go, go, go," he says. He recalibrated his business model and ventured off the fashion calendar altogether. Now, months after September's traditional show schedule, Maxwell is releasing his spring-summer collection video in lieu of a traditional runway (while adhering to all the New York State coronavirus guidelines, of course).
The frivolity of fashion can provide a form of escapism, but it can also read as tasteless when cases are climbing. Maxwell knows this, grapples with it, and continues forward. His new collection marries his signature elegance with stay-at-home orders: Instead of evening wear intended for red carpets, we see comfortable maxi dresses he envisions worn barefoot. Blazers come with built-in hoodies. Blouses are cut in fabrics that feel like sweatpants and bonded with neoprene to give them structure. In many ways, this is Maxwell's take on athleisure.
The symbolism of spring renewal and the need to embrace joy is evident in many designers' collections this season, because maybe this year, we're not in the mood for melancholic fashion shows with scowling models stomping down the runway. Maxwell's collection, set to Moby’s ham-fisted yet hopeful tune “The Wild Darkness,” (“And the way we lived as an affront to the days / Was an affront to the things that we cared about”), just makes us happy.
ELLE.com sat down with the designer over Zoom to chat about creativity in quarantine, the pretension of high fashion references, and the future of his brand.
On the over-intellectualization of fashion:
What we do is not hard. But the thing I struggle with the most—besides being self-critical and criticism from other people-is the intellectualization of this job. I really struggle when people are like, "What is the story of this collection?” and “Can you take us on the journey?" If you want the journey I'll tell you the journey: I'll tell you of all the times I cried in the Uber, my Seamless was late, I didn't make the plane on time, I was scared the business was going to go under, I didn't make it here, I lost that.
I don't have a story for you. I loved the jumpsuit I made, I loved the gray sweatshirt dress I made, I thought the bag should be in orange, and that is as deep as I can truly go for you. Let's not over-intellectualize it. I don't ever remember a time in my life where I've gone to a store and been totally overwhelmed and intoxicated by a show's reference. I'm just like, "Does this look good on me and do I feel great in it?"
On his inspiration behind the collection (or lack thereof):
The theme of my life and the collections of my business, of my world, is being around women, helping women to feel their best, watching women get ready. It looks different every six months, but it's always the same.
I just want to be one part of a woman's day. If we're so fortunate for a woman to choose to wear our clothes, we want to help the woman to feel her best. And maybe if you notice the dress later, that's great. We're just happy to be there at all.
On finding intention as a designer:
Every single day during quarantine I woke up asking myself, Why do we need clothes? What is the point? Am I really going to be bringing anything into the world that's of value that is needed right now? We got to a point where it was too much, it was oversaturated. So I wanted to try to make things that were intentional.
I don't want to just hawk dresses to people. If she buys my jumpsuit, I want to obsess over the fabric and make sure the fit is perfect. I didn't feel that my customer just needed just a sweatpant from me. If she did, it was more sculptural, something that felt special.
On getting dressed (in the future):
By the time we're going out, it’s going to be hard to get dressed up again. If I'm going to wear a body-con dress to go out somewhere right now, I damn well want it to be [made]out of a sweatshirt. I want my clothes to be comfortable, because I've sat inside for nine months and I'm used to this now. We don't have to do as much as we did before, and there's not a need to go out constantly and do and be, and so I wanted to bring a level of comfort to the clothes that didn't feel overly complicated. But I wanted to stay true to the brand and who we are, which is a very dressed customer.
On the pressure of the NYFW calendar:
I think the schedule, that chaos, has been self-imposed. At the pace things were going, it was not sustainable. In this business, you're go, go, go. You're on this rotating wheel constantly, and until it stopped, I didn't realize how much I needed to not be on that.
There is this tendency in fashion to always to look forward, but the experience of making this collection has really been about taking stock of the past. During this time, I was in no rush. I wanted to try to use this time to reprogram how I work and how I live and how I experience things. This has been really freeing for me. And I intend to work that way going forward. I will most likely, like 100 percent, not do pre-collections anymore.
On using YouTube to connect with the Youth:
I'm not the natural candidate for working in fashion. I come from a super small town, I have no pedigree, I didn't go to fancy schools, and I didn't have any connections. I look back at that time and it seems like such a massive jump to go from where I was to where I am now. But I think for every one of me who was gluing dresses in my mom’s closet, dreaming of being in New York City, there's a millions kids like that.
When I was a student in school, as much as I loved my professors, there's only so much they can prepare you for. They prepare you for the technical stuff, but not the real-life stuff. So I tried to answer a bunch of those questions on YouTube and to help young people. I just wanted to take people behind the scenes and be like, this is a real job and this is really what it looks like, and it's really not that glamorous.
It's always like a news article: "Is New York relevant? Is fashion this, is it that?" When this is over and we're back to shows, I don't want to see any of those articles except, "I am so damn happy to be on my way there, I can't wait to see you at 7 p.m. no matter where the show is, who the show is, what's going on. Stick me in a room with 300 people, make me wait 35 minutes while the lights are dimmed. I'm happy to sit there."
How fortunate am I to do this job and wake up everyday and have the opportunity to do what I love, which is what so few people in the world have? How do we have anything in this industry to complain about? I think we see during this time just how wonderful it actually was.
See all the looks from Brandon Maxwell's SS21 collection