These days, a high-low designer mix is old hat in the fashion industry: Over the past two decades, brands like H&M, Target, Eloquii, Asos, Universal Standard and Lane Bryant have all experimented with bringing on a high-profile fashion designer for buzzy collaborations. But there's something new happening at Walmart, which announced on Tuesday that it would be working with Brandon Maxwell not on a one-off collection, but rather as a creative director for two of its in-house brands, Free Assembly and Scoop. (You may recall that Walmart, uh, scooped up Scoop back in 2019, buying the rights to the name of the beloved NYC boutiques and relaunching as a clothing line.)
The relationship between Maxwell and Walmart started at a breakfast over a year and a half ago with Denise Incandela, the EVP of Apparel and Private Brands at Walmart, where the two instantly bonded over a shared belief that price shouldn't be a barrier to accessing fashion. That's been a key part of Incandela's mission over the last several years, bringing on brands like Levi Strauss and Free People to Walmart. She had a vision: What if the big-box retailer brought Maxwell on board to consult on their "elevated brands"?
"We've been focused on expanding our assortment to include on-trend, quality and accessible fashion to help customers outfit themselves no matter what their style and budget for quite some time, particularly on the website side," explains Incandela. "[This is] an extension of that, where Brandon can bring his style and taste level and passion for bringing that, plus quality and accessible price points to a much larger audience. The ability to give our customers the creations of Brandon and our creative teams is something that we feel is quite unprecedented and exciting for our customers."
The plan is to not only have Maxwell give his input on seasonal collections across the categories of menswear, womenswear, childrenswear and accessories (more specifically, he will be "responsible for collection design and providing input into material selection, sourcing and production" across the two lines, according to a press release), but also helping with marketing and campaigns. For Maxwell — who is perhaps best known for his jaw-dropping ready-to-wear and his work styling Lady Gaga — this was an opportunity to both get his name in front of more customers and also to reconnect with his roots.
"My best friend from home from growing up, she has three kids," Maxwell says. "She was saying to me the other night, 'I'm just so excited that when I put the kids to bed, that's my time to go to Walmart. And I'm really excited that I'm going to be able to shop something at night that you've touched.'"
Maxwell's work for Walmart will debut just in time for the Holiday 2021 season (which, per the release, he is "influencing"); his first full collection will hit stores in Spring 2022. If you're eager to get your hands on a piece of Brandon Maxwell at Walmart prices now, though, the retailer is celebrating his appointment by releasing a line of face masks, accompanied by a donation of $100,000 to DonorsChoose.org.
We caught up with Maxwell over a Zoom call from Texas, where he's been quarantining to be closer to family, for a quick chat about how he's feeling about this latest line on his already-packed resume.
What was appealing to you about this opportunity with Walmart?
So many things! I grew up in a small town, and I grew up shopping at Walmart. As I've left my town and I've traveled from Europe to New York, to LA and back, I have always been acutely aware that there are communities in between those bases, and those are the communities that I come from: growing up in a small town and having to drive hours to access fashion. It was always something that was interesting to me, to be able to bring fashion right into the town and right outside of your front door.
Closing that gap between my life in New York and Texas, where I spend a lot of time, has always been a dream of mine. I was just really thrilled when I was introduced to Denise and we got along immediately. I had always hoped that, having that conversation, there would be similarities there and shared values and I was really, really happy when there was.
Tell me a little bit how you plan on, as you said, bringing fashion this way to a broader audience?
As the creative director of Free Assembly and Scoop, to elevate in house brands at Walmart — it will sort of be this hybrid of my career as a stylist and my career as a designer. I oversee the fashion direction of the brands, but I'll also oversee the stories, images and the marketing that we'll be doing.
As I started my own brand, I had so many conversations with my sister, and my mom, and my best friends; if you come before the show, they're there for seven days sitting in the room, eating pizza, watching everything and certainly commenting a lot. When I started having this conversation with Walmart, one of the things that was really important to me was being able to talk to our customers, not from just a marketing perspective, but also just really personally asking what is it that you need? And what do you need it for? How can we give you the best of that? So I hope that I'll approach it in the same way that I've tried to approach my brand.
What are you hoping the customer takes away from the lines?
I think a lot of people think that fashion is trivial. Growing up in a store, the experience of that, it's always been a connecting thing for me, whether that was learning to make clothes or styling. I would see also when my mom would get dressed; my grandmother was kind of a stylist, she would lay everything out and my mom would come out and she would feel great. And I was able to pick up on that as a kid.
Feeling good and finding ways to express yourselves is really powerful, and I saw that in all my girlfriends, growing up being able to be seen in that way and understood. And that's really what I hope the collections that we make will do, is make people feel good.
You said this is an extension of your work as a stylist and as a designer; where do you see it fitting in with your career in terms of your personal goals for your yourself?
Since I started my brand, I've always had multiple jobs — always. I enjoy being able to do different things. Right now, I'm really just focused on the future, and it's also a great learning experience for me. As you know, fashion is really all about the teams and I'm working with really wonderful, talented teams.
I'm also excited that, as we sat down the very beginning, I think Walmart understood what was important to me on many different levels and through this partnership, they have made a commitment to giving back. As this is coming out, we're also launching a face mask [and] we'll be donating $100,000 to donorschoose.org, which will help educators get the tools that they need. My sister's an educator; education has been really important to our brand. So I'm really hopeful that this time and this experience will be wonderful, and I'm really excited just at the opportunity, truly. For me, it feels very personal and I'm hopeful that people will feel that in the clothes.