Brandon Maxwell, once an East Texas dreamer, is now a red-carpet-ready master of unabashed opulence.
There is one lonely gay kid in every small town in America glued to the Tony Awards while everyone else is tossing around a football or smoking pot behind McDonald’s. In Longview, Texas, in the 1990s, that boy was Brandon Maxwell, who grew up to be a designer of sinuous confections worthy of the red carpets he once worshipped from afar.
Maxwell, 32, first came to national attention when he put Lady Gaga in the satin gowns to which she graduated after her notorious meat dress. (For the record, Maxwell says that he loves both aspects of her persona—and anyway, he was working for Gaga stylist Nicola Formichetti at the time and actually assisted on that sartorial slabfest.) The two are in fact now such close friends that Maxwell relishes talking to her while she soaks in the bathtub.
Gaga is hardly alone in her affection for Maxwell’s classic vision. The designer’s most recent show, held at the Russian Tea Room (the kind of historic venue he adores), was a major hit of New York Fashion Week—maybe because the clothes, unapologetically lovely with no irony or subtext, spoke loud and clear to young women eager to don something frankly glamorous. Suddenly there seems to be a collective desire to dump the hipster high jinks and slip into the types of silhouettes that have flattered women for decades: perfectly cut slim skirts and tailored trousers, cropped camisoles, and dramatic organza ball dresses.
Maxwell arrived in New York in 2009, photography degree in hand, to find work as a stylist—after all, hadn’t he been styling since those Longview days, when he bought clothes at the Goodwill, refashioned them, took hair and makeup into his own young hands, and then shot the results on his sisters? Didn’t he spend countless after-school hours at Riff’s, the local boutique where his grandma worked, watching the women of his hometown transform themselves into East Texas glamour-pusses?
He sold his car, lived in what he describes as a spare closet in Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, sent out thousands of résumés, and was pretty much down to his last roll of quarters when stylist Deborah Afshani took a chance on him. She gave him words to live by: “Come early and stay late!” she said. “Be nice to people.” At his second job—he was third assistant stylist—he worked with Pat McGrath, Naomi Campbell, and Steven Meisel for Russian Vogue. “This is what I want life to be like,” he remembers thinking.
Things moved fast: If once he could only dream of dressing women like his heroines Lady Di and Jackie O, now his ivory crepe frock was gracing Michelle Obama at a state dinner. When he saw the First Lady in that dress, Maxwell was a total puddle. “She really is the embodiment of the women that I love and adore and create for,” he says. His client Nieves Zuberbühler (Maxwell is creating the dress—it’s top secret for obvious reasons—for the 60 Minutes producer’s upcoming wedding to Colombian brewery heir Julio Mario Santo Domingo) puts it more simply: “Every time I wear his clothes, I feel fabulous. What I love about him is his lack of egocentricity—he’s extremely talented, and I trust him blindly.”
The designer has always been politically active. “I’m a young gay guy from a small town—any sort of women’s, racial, LGBTQ issue matters to me. I think those of us in fashion should do our part in our way.” He insists that his clothes are intended to embody everything that he is not—rather poignantly, he lists “all the things I don’t inherently feel: confident, sexy, strong, powerful, classy, chic.” Nevertheless, this shy mouse who confesses that he cries before his shows—“I don’t want to let my family down, my friends down!”—managed to pepper the front row at his latest show with his pals Gaga, Campbell, and Steven Klein, bouncing his baby on his knee. The music was buoyant, the models a fabulous mix of shapes and ethnicities, and the clothes—sophisticated halters and pencil skirts, sleek sheaths and sexy jumpsuits—had an unmistakable youthful exuberance.
“A lot has changed in such a short time,” Maxwell muses. “A year ago, I was going around with my little rack of samples.” Still, no matter how successful he becomes (and he wants to do it all—shoes! bags!), he insists he will remain true to his inclusive vision. “I never want to be the one who says, ‘You can’t sit with us’—regardless of age, income, color, size.” In a sense, he is doing it all for those young souls stuck in the middle of nowhere, mesmerized by glittering stars on the red carpet. “There is some kid out there,” Maxwell declares. “I want him to know that was me, too! It’s possible!”
Hair: Kayla Michele; Makeup: Georgi Sandev
Sittings Editor: Katie Burnett
Produced by Liebling Productions
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