I begin my conversation with Brandon Maxwell by asking how his day has been so far. “Well, you know, I just got back from a football game earlier, then went to a gallery opening…” Maxwell says, before laughing. “No, obviously, I’ve been on Zoom calls all day like everyone else.” His dry sense of humor might be helping him through the daily stresses of running a business during the current coronavirus crisis, but he’s keen to emphasize from the off start that the real stars are those working within his team.
“I’m kind of used to having a travelling studio of some sort, between styling, and running the brand, and now Project Runway,” he explains. (Maxwell joined the reality competition show as a full-time judge last year.) “But I don’t so often get to sit in all the office meetings, so it’s actually a blessing to be on phone calls twice a day with my team. Because I’m so much on design and creative, I don’t get to interact with the business side so intensely, so to have this constant communication has been great for me,” he says, before quipping: “Although, maybe they won’t agree.”
For all Maxwell’s charm and the preternatural ease with which he runs his brand, it’s easy to forget he only launched the namesake label in 2015, after many years working as an editorial and celebrity stylist—most notably for Lady Gaga, a collaboration that reached its apex at last year’s Met gala, when Maxwell joined her on the pink carpet to peel off four looks from a ballgown to lingerie, in one of the night’s most show-stopping looks.
As a designer, his exuberant taste for color and impressive knack for sculptural details and tailoring have made him a firm favorite of the likes of Jennifer Lawrence and Oprah Winfrey. And yet it’s at his runway shows that Maxwell’s design philosophy truly shines. “The shows have never just been about the clothes, it’s about the community coming together and having fun, and I only feel more strongly about that now,” he says. “For me, loving fashion was a way that I found myself as a young person being able to connect with like-minded people, who I could allow to see me in a way that I felt was true and feel safe and loved, which is what I’ve tried to found my business on.”
As Maxwell notes, this sense of inclusion feels more important than ever during the current pandemic. With Maxwell’s pattern cutters and seamstresses quickly pivoting to making gowns and masks for front-line workers, he’s keen to shine a light on some of the industry’s most important, and often overlooked, figures. “There are so many talented people working behind the scenes who keep these businesses going every single day, so I’ve been really proud,” he adds. “My heart’s been really full every day seeing all these behind-the-scenes heroes really come to the forefront, and using their craft and their skillset to answer the call for this crisis.”
At the same time, the current situation has been an emotional rollercoaster for Maxwell for more personal reasons. For one, it’s been witnessing the fashion community rallying to support each other, beyond just making sure their next season’s collections will be ready on time, or that their stockists will be cutting back their orders. “I would say pretty immediately when this started everybody kind of got on the phone together, and the first question was never: How do we fix this? The first question I always got from other designers was just: How are you doing? I think it’s a sense of community that people don’t see enough of in fashion, and it’s truly solidified my love for the industry.”
It’s also forced Maxwell to reassess how his work schedule was contributing to a lifestyle he was growing increasingly unhappy with, a subject he speaks about candidly. “Nobody ever really wants to talk that much about the mental health toll of how rapid the pace of fashion is,” he adds. “I really hate having to say that anything good is coming out of this, because nothing is ever really good when other people are sick and hurting, but it really was beginning to affect my mental and physical health, the fast pace, working long hours, not eating properly, travelling constantly.” As for so many of us, the current crisis has put many of these troubles into perspective. “I feel incredibly privileged to live in New York City where I can see all around us, every day, these people working to keep us safe. I really have become so aware of my own body and my own health, and I feel like it was something I took for granted before.”
“One thing that sits on my heart so heavily is how many people are alone during this time, I think about them every day,” Maxwell continues, with a palpable sense of sadness. “We can get so wrapped up in asking ourselves these questions. Am I doing well enough? Does the industry love me? So it’s kind of incredible when everything stops to look right in front of me, and realize how fortunate I am to have [a partner] who loves me whether I’m successful or not. When everything is stripped away, that’s what I have, and I find myself now overwhelmingly grateful for some of the things I didn’t prioritize before or sometimes even took for granted.”
It takes a moment for Maxwell to gather himself, before he gently laughs again, and his trademark humor returns. “I’m sorry,” he adds. “If you can’t tell already, I’m a bit of an emotional person.” There’s no need to apologize—it’s his willingness to wear his heart on his sleeve that makes the celebratory nature of his clothes feel so authentic. It may be a challenging time for New York’s fashion community, but you get the sense that for Maxwell, the show will always go on.