In this week's episode of Who What Wear With Hillary Kerr, our co-founder spoke to fashion extraordinaire Brandon Maxwell, who went from styling the likes of Lady Gaga and Karlie Kloss to designing their custom Met Gala gowns. In his latest career move, he's stepped into the role of creative director for Walmart's elevated clothing brands, Free Assembly and Scoop. It's a homecoming of sorts for Maxwell, who grew up hanging out in Walmart with his friends during high school and has always aspired to make fashion accessible to all.
In this episode, Kerr talks to Maxwell about his transition out of styling celebrities and into the world of designing women's ready-to-wear and how each path has informed the next. He's straddled both endeavors at multiple points in his career, and now he has another title to add to the mix. What his life has taught him is that keeping busy is how he'll constantly learn and discover new things, making him the best creator he can be. Having grown up watching his grandmother run her clothing store in Texas, Maxwell can't remember a life before fashion, and likely will never know one without it. Read on for some highlights from Maxwell's interview.
In 2012, you became Lady Gaga's fashion director and went on to create an incredible body of work together. Why do you think your partnership has worked so well?
I think it was and will always continue to be the friendship. I am acutely aware that people see her as a famous person. I have a handful of girlfriends who are the closest people in my life, who have guided me through so many things publicly and privately. I think that that's why our relationship has always worked: We met very young; we traveled the world together; I think we're quite similar; and I think there's a deep love there. Although I'm very proud of all the work that we've created together, I always remain most proud of the bond and friendship that we have. She saw me a lot when I was not able to see myself. She's a huge part of why I have my career on so many different levels.
So after about six years as a stylist, in 2015 you launched your own line of luxury women's ready-to-wear. Tell me about that first collection, everything that it meant to you, and everything that went into it. Cuz that's a big leap.
I didn't even really realize that at the time. I was turning 30. I was like, I'm going to do it, and I had no idea what it meant. I thought the money I saved would last me years, and none of that was true. Looking back at it, I was so obviously naive, and I'm really grateful that I was because now at my age, I probably wouldn't have done [it]. There were a lot of things that were very scary. I'm not a formally trained designer, so I just did what I did growing up, which was I bought a bunch of fabric and ran it over a body form and started working with my hands. If you let yourself go there, the truth always comes out. So much of my career had been putting other people's clothes on, so having to define who I am was a really challenging thing. I'll probably never have that time to just be so clear about what I was doing again.
A few months after that collection came out, Karlie Klass wore a custom Brandon Maxwell design to the 2016 Met Gala. You also styled Lady Gaga for that same event. Perhaps this is a good example of how you were straddling both worlds, which seems like an absolutely insane amount of work to keep straight. So I'm curious, how are you making that work both in that specific example and in the larger sense of your career?
I was doing a lot of running around at that time. It's funny—I have such distinct memories of that night because they were staying at two different hotels. Have you ever been in front of the hotels during the Met Gala? It feels like you're in an arena concert or a stadium tour. It's crazy, and you can't get through. I would go and make sure Gaga's hair was okay, then I would run over and make sure Karlie's hair was okay. Then I would run over and slip the shoes on Gaga, then run and slip them on Karlie. Running, running, back and forth. And you know, it was just—my gosh—it was magical.
I think having that balance is something I've always had. I like to be busy, and I like to be involved in many different things. I think my career has not just been a designer, a stylist, a creative director—I was a photographer; I've tried to do many different things to keep my mind going. My dad always says that an idle mind for me is a very bad thing.
You want to evolve obviously—this world is built on newness—but to still have those key principles and key elements in place is also very comforting to someone like me who's 41. My style is my style. I'm not doing all kinds of crazy things like I was in my 20s or my teens.
I look a lot at what actually sells, and I try to give another variation on that each season because I do think if you love these pants or if you love this top, you kind of want what works for you. I'm not really in the trend business. At Brandon Maxwell, I never really felt like I needed to evolve so much every season because I just didn't feel like there was that expectation of me really. I think you kind of know what you're coming to get at the Brandon Maxwell show. You know what the vibe is, the music, the food, the women, the family vibe. I never felt a pressure to be cool; I never was cool; at this age, I'm probably not going to start being cool. I do try to learn and, most of all, respect the women who buy our clothes and stay true to what it is that they want. Because you're not here without them.
You also just stepped into your latest role as creative director for Walmart's elevated brands, Free Assembly and Scoop. Can you talk to me a little bit about this new facet of your career and why this partnership is important to you? I've seen you talk a little bit about how growing up in Texas, you always felt like the fashion coasts sort of ignored a lot of America, so I'm curious as to how this may feel like a sort of homecoming in some really interesting ways.
Yeah, that's exactly it. I'm very blessed to have been able to go out into the world and to learn things that I maybe wouldn't have growing up. I've always felt pulled to sort of use what I've learned in many different areas of my life and go back to the communities like mine. I don't think it's been a secret within my personal group of friends and family that working with Walmart has been a really long-time dream of mine. Growing up, you had to drive so many hours to get to the fashion place, and I just always thought it would be so exciting to drive a mile from your house and have that experience of fashion. I was so excited when I first sat down with Walmart and found that they really had a commitment to that as well. I think that fashion is not about where you're from, how much money you have, what you do—it's the experience of being able to see yourself in a different light. I think it's really powerful to say to the world, "This is who I am, how I want to be remembered, and how I want to be seen."
As creative director, let's talk about some of those responsibilities. You oversee the collection from design and fabrication to construction and imagery. Take us behind the scenes a little bit of some of your workflow or creative process. Does that change collection to collection? When you're thinking about your approach for Free Assembly, how is that different from Scoop? Or is it similar?
They're actually totally different. So my day is broken up into usually three parts: one part Brandon Maxwell, one part Scoop, one part Free Assembly. That can be inclusive of design, marketing, imagery, buying, talking with the merchants, talking with associates about, you know, what we need and what we can do better. My approach to both brands is different. Scoop is a very trend-forward brand, and it is all about what's really happening in fashion. Free Assembly is really founded on elevated essentials—those classics and a really great denim program. Sort of those pieces that you can freely assemble to become who you are. So my approach to both is very, very different, and what I love about it is that neither one of them are even close to the brand of Maxwell, so it's such a great learning experience for me. I didn't want to do something that felt like it was me and Maxwell.
Okay, so I'm so curious about some of those pieces in the Free Assembly collection, and I'm wondering if you can tell us a few of your favorites. How would you style them?
This is a pop quiz! I went to Walmart last night with my fiancé cuz I grew up in a store. I was just walking around and taking pictures of everything. I'm really proud of the denim at Free Assembly. It's just really some of the best denim I've ever touched, and such a great price. I'll be wearing those with a new pair of Maxwell men's boots that I got. And I got a nautical stripes sort of blue and navy terry hoodie. It's kind of a preppy vibe, so that's how I'm gonna style that. I'm really excited to be able to just buy things for myself and create clothes for my friends and me as well. I brought my best friend like two nights ago, so I think I've been at Walmart every night, which is funny because that's what my best friend and I used to do at night growing up. We would go to Walmart and hang out, and so it's no different.
Shop Maxwell's Favorites From Free Assembly
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. Next up, check out our third episode, featuring Meredith Koop and Katherine Power.