In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
Whether or not he wins the Swarovski Award for womenswear at Monday night's CFDA Awards, Brandon Maxwell's nomination cements his transition from celebrity stylist to designer in his own right. Not to say he's left the post that initially brought him fame — as Lady Gaga's stylist — but the designer's first two sleek, tailored collections have earned him respect from the industry and a place on the short list for 2016 LVMH Prize.
Maxwell made the leap into design around his 30th birthday when he decided he would regret not following his lifelong dream. "I did it truly because I just needed to do it, and I needed to get it out," he says. Maxwell hopes to always balance his line with styling because they feed him creatively in different ways, while also being fundamentally similar. "My job as a stylist and as a designer is to make sure that whomever I'm working with and sharing that creative relationship with feels fantastic once she leaves... It's the same thrill I got when I was a kid, and I would dress a girl up and she would feel really special."
We spoke with Maxwell about growing up in Longview, Texas, assisting and learning from Nicola Formichetti, the dark period in his life that led to his first collection and how he balances styling and the growth of his young brand.
When did you first become interested fashion and styling?
That question is always hard for me because I don't remember wanting to ever do anything else than this. My grandmother was a buyer at a store for 20 years, up until I was out of high school. I went there pretty much every day after school and I really learned, I think, to be a stylist there, because in Texas it's very full on. You'd go into the dressing room and my grandmother would have the bags and the jewelry and the shoes and the outfit picked out and laid out for the women. I really got to see what made them feel great and what they were insecure about. It was just like a high for me.
I think growing up in Longview, for me, I was very different, obviously. I was in a very conservative area, I was really not the most typical kid there. It wasn't such a painful thing for me, but I was aware that I was gay in a small town. So I created my own world that I felt safe in, my own bubble that was with my girlfriends, and I would dress them up and we would stay home on the weekends and take photos together. And I look at it now: I'm 15 years older and I'm just doing it, in my own way, the same.
You moved to New York City shortly after graduating from college. Did you have a breakthrough experience or important mentors in your first years in the city?
My first breakthrough was working with [stylist] Deborah Afshani, who hired me as an intern. She is the most kindhearted, fantastic person and I owe so much to her and I learned so much from her. After a year of working with her, she started recommending me for other jobs and that's how things grew. And then another formative thing for me, — I won't say who it was but a very big stylist who is also a very lovely person — I went and did one job and afterwards they were like, this is not going to work out. I was really young and I remember being so devastated. Those are very tough emotional moments that you have to be able to withstand and having those years of let downs and trials and tribulations really help you to handle both the good and the bad moments that comes with any sort of success. So that's vital. And honestly right after I didn't get that job, I got a job with Nicola Formichetti who was perfect for me and gave me so much of my career.
How did you get hired as Nicola Formichetti's assistant and what did you learn from him?
I got a phone call from his agent because I had, when I first moved here, probably sent out 10,000 resumes, truly. He's still in my life all the time, and he was just so amazing to me and he really gave me the wings to fly and supported me in doing that. Looking back, I learned a very important lesson from someone like him and also I had worked for a short period of time with Edward Enninful, on a freelance basis, and he's an amazing person as well, and I love him so much, and what I learned from them is that you can be successful and you can do multiple things and you can also be a really great person.
I think I really learned from [Nicola] back when I started to realize, ’Oh I could go from styling to create my own collection, that's a possibility for me.’ Because I was on set with him, shooting covers and then the next day we'd be in Paris and he was [the creative director] at Mugler and he handled both equally and well and they fed him in different ways. So many times, especially as a young stylist when you're really starting out your career, the number one question you get so much, which is so frustrating, is: Who are you? What's your look? And I always approached it like I do whatever I'm supposed to do for that particular job....But what I love about Nicola and what I've learned in my career is that you can be so many different things. And then when we were working with Gaga for all those years, she's so many different things, and that was just such an eye-opening experience.
How did you know you were ready to launch your own line in 2015?
I don't think you ever are ready creatively, I think you just have to jump in. I will say that starting the collection came out of a bit of a dark time in my life, and personally it was a very trying physical time for me, probably up until I started a business and realized that that would be the most difficult thing I ever did.
For me, my biggest form of therapy has always been creating something and going into a room alone. I'm very much a loner and listening to music and just getting it out — that's really where the collection came from. Making a dress on a body form feels like exercise to me, which gives me endorphins and makes me happy.
Your point of view is so specific: the first collection was even entirely black. Why is that important to you?
My life felt very black and white at that time. In the second collection you saw things that were a little more texture, there was a little more whimsy. I’m in a very different place. This creative process for the next one, although it’s very early to talk about, has just been very, very different for me. It’s really about quality and craftsmanship for me, and construction. I’m not trying to break the system, I’m just trying to give women a quality piece of clothing. I want to be the place that they go to every season and get those essential things that they need, that have a little bit of an edge.
What business understanding did you have going into the line's launch and what have been the toughest lessons to learn so far?
None, zero, no understanding of how the business worked. At all. And I’m not shy about saying that. I think that I've done a really good job of getting on board and learning and educating myself. I’ve surrounded myself with great people.
I’m a creative person but I’m also a very realistic person, so I don’t ask for a lot of things from the business or design that are not possible or detrimental to the company. If we have to finish the collection weeks earlier because it cuts back on product development budgets or if I have to use one fabric in the season that’s $10 cheaper than the others, so I can either meet minimums or that the margins are okay, I’m not someone who will stomp my foot and scream about it. I will definitely just say, listen, if this is the best choice for the company, I want to be able to do this for 50 years and I want my children to have this company.
All of that being said, I was very fortunate — as I spoke out at Parsons — to have an incredible father who stepped in to help me run the business and has hired the right people and has worked with great people.
How do you balance all your styling jobs with designing and running your brand?
I have a really amazing team, number one, first and foremost, that supports me and works incredibly hard to help me balance everything. Number two, I think from my parents I have a very strong work ethic. I work seven days a week and now, if I'm just being incredibly honest, and not some chic answer, I just don't sleep that much. If I do work from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on styling, then I do go in at 8:30 and I work until 5 o'clock in the morning.
I was impressed to see that you were in L.A. styling Lady Gaga at the Grammy's the day before your fall 2016 show in New York. That must have been a very stressful week.
I was on the very last flight that left L.A. and wasn't cancelled due to the snow. I made that random choice, I looked at Gaga right as she got off the stage and [thought], ‘I'm going to go now, just to be extra safe.’ One thing I will say is that balancing so many things forces you to be prepared. I usually have those collections done about a month before the show happens, and I usually do about seven fittings on the girls in that month just to make sure the tailoring is correct. So balancing multiple things has taught me discipline.
How does styling impact your designs?
Just this week I've been doing the collection every singe day all night long, but this weekend I was in Paris doing a styling job. And it’s great, just fly there for 36 hours and do something so different. It feels palette cleansing.
They both feed me equally and I love them both, and I think a lot of people balance multiple jobs. I feel extremely fortunate and I am thankful for that every morning. I want to keep going just as much as I can, to do the best job that I can, and I work every single day not to be rich or to be famous, but to make my family proud. And to really try to make the people proud who sit in the front row of my show, that gave me my career, that use their names to get me where I am. I work every day for them.