Since leaving Texas for New York more than a decade ago, Longview native Brandon Maxwell has worked nonstop to launch a dizzyingly successful career in fashion—first as Lady Gaga’s stylist and now as one of the most respected designers in the country. His luxury ready-to-wear label produces four collections a year, he designs for some of the biggest celebrities in the world, and he’s been a judge for the last two seasons of Project Runway. Since the pandemic hit New York earlier this year, however, Maxwell has pressed pause on creative projects, focusing instead on major philanthropic efforts (providing PPE for health care workers, donating to Meals on Wheels, and giving away wedding dresses to brides), as well as promoting student designers with nightly Instagram Live chats. It was also announced Tuesday that he will serve as cochair of the eleventh biennial Texas Medal of Arts Awards, the signature event of the Texas Cultural Trust, scheduled for February 23–24, 2021.
Maxwell himself was a TMA honoree in 2019, along with Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Holiday, Boz Scaggs, and other luminaries. He’ll chair the two-day event along with longtime Cultural Trust supporters Linda LaMantia, of Laredo, and Judy Robison, of El Paso. We caught up with Maxwell via phone from the home he shares in New York City with fiancé Jessy Price, whom he met while the two were photography students in Austin at St. Edward’s University. He filled us in on his Texas family, the bottle of wine he’s designed, what he’s cooking in the kitchen, and why he’s excited to help plan next year’s TMA events.
Texas Monthly: You have such a full plate, even during the pandemic. Why did you decide to help take on planning such a big event?
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Brandon Maxwell: [Jessy and I] had such a wonderful experience last year—it will go down as one of the great highlights and honors of my life. As I’ve said many times, I’m very proud to be from Texas, and I just felt very honored that they would consider me. Anything that I can do ever to bring attention to the arts, and certainly to the arts in Texas, is important for me.
TM: I know you love coming back to Texas, so it must be hard not to do that right now. How is everyone in your family holding up?
BM: Everyone is good in Texas. It’s been hard for my parents for us to be here. All of my other siblings are at home and everyone’s together, so Jessy and I are the only ones who are not—and we are here in New York [the virus epicenter in the U.S.]. We’ve been at home self-isolating since the last week of February, so probably the first month, my parents were very frustrated; I know that they wanted me to come home very much. Ultimately, we didn’t because my dad has had pneumonia in the last year and my mom has had cancer in the last year, and as it turns out I have been exposed more than a handful of times to positive cases. I get messages from my dad, and if I don’t respond to him in an hour, he’s like “Is everything okay?” and I’m like “Dad, we can’t go anywhere. Nothing’s happening.” [Laughs.] I’m 35, and my dad still checks on me like I’m like a teenager out late at night or something. We’re not going anywhere. We’re going from the kitchen to the bedroom.
TM: Back in March, you and your team started making PPE [personal protective equipment] like masks and gowns for health care workers. How did that come about?
BM: Nothing is incredible when people are sick and hurting, but one beautiful thing that has come out of this is that for so long, when people have looked at the fashion industry, they see these singular figures, they see the face of the brand, and they don’t necessarily see or know or realize that it’s so many people behind the scenes that are just as important. What has been so wonderful about it is that the teams who are the behind-the-scenes heroes of our company, that keep the company going every single day, are uniquely qualified to meet this moment with their hands and their skill set and their craft and have so selflessly stepped to the front of the line to help. Having the spotlight put on them is a long time coming and needed. I think it puts an emphasis on the fact that fashion and the craft of fashion are about so much more than just clothes.
TM: In the middle of this, you’ve relaunched your retail website, and you’re giving back that way as well. Why did you pick Meals on Wheels in particular?
BM: We’ve been working on a new website for quite some time, which actually lined up with the time that we started working from home. There was certainly a lot of fear and worry and anxiety, so we wanted to be able to promote joy and optimism. In the beginning we gave away wedding dresses to women whose weddings had been affected by this pandemic, and that was a great moment of levity and happiness for us.
Also, in New York, I live in a predominantly older neighborhood, and I would watch neighbors having to go outside from my window. Normally if you see a neighbor who’s elderly and struggling to get to or from the grocery store, you would step out and help. Obviously, we cannot do that because that is unsafe, so we really started to think about the people in our city and these at-risk age groups who are unable to leave the home and sometimes are unable to have access to healthy foods. Meals on Wheels is such a great program that provides all that, so across the board, everything that we sell, ten percent goes to Meals on Wheels. And I have just announced that I have a Brandon Maxwell wine bottle coming out with Ecco Domani at the top of June, which is my first designed wine bottle. It’s a pinot grigio that’s done in a leopard bottle, and I was really excited about it because my family’s business was a beer, wine, and liquor distributorship called Maxwell Distributing, so it’s a real full-circle moment. And Ecco Domani very kindly pledged fifty thousand dollars to Meals on Wheels. I’ve been trying to personally raise money for Garment District for Gowns, which is a group of women who came together to make 10,000 units of PPE—and while doing that, they’re also able to employ so many of the pattern makers, seamstresses, and others whose jobs have been lost or furloughed.
TM: You’re also doing nightly chats with fashion students on Instagram Live. Are you finding any time to create, or, like a lot of artists, are you struggling to do that kind of work in such an uncertain time?
BM: Weirdly—and I’m sure a lot of people are experiencing this because there are no office hours and things are wide open—I’m finding myself more committed and busier then I’ve ever been. I would have to be totally honest, though, and say that I don’t think I’ve been the most creative during this time. One thing that’s become glaringly obvious is that the pace at which I was living my life was not conducive to tons of positivity. I don’t think in the past fourteen years I’ve had a single week that I haven’t been on multiple airplanes. For me, time at home has been very restorative—and again I’m very cautious to say that during this time—but I’m very conscious right now that so many people do not have their health, and I think my fast-paced life was detrimental to my own health. And so this is giving me a moment to reshift my focus on my own body, my own mind, and my own spirit. I’m not pushing myself to be creative because I’m someone that tries to make work and tell stories about things that I have a full understanding of, and I don’t think I’m far enough removed away from this situation at all, because we’re still in it, to know what it means.
TM: So how are you filling your downtime?
BM: I’m teaching myself to cook and I’m teaching myself to do things that I’ve never done before. A creative life is incredible and wondrous, but it also requires dedication and focus and persistence, and oftentimes it can take you out of your immediate environment. A lot of energy that you would put into your family or your partner is just not there as much because so much energy has to go into the work. And I’ve really been enjoying shifting that focus—I’m trying to give back during this time, whether that’s to young people who follow me or other people who live with me who put up with my craziness for years. I’m just happy to show up and make dinner now and say thank you.
TM: So what are you making for dinner these days?
BM: Yesterday I made breakfast burritos in the morning and homemade hash browns, which I’ve been wanting to teach myself to make for years, and then I made banana bread for a dessert snack. Gosh, I can’t remember what was for lunch, but I think it was probably really good, and then for dinner I made my grandmother’s chicken spaghetti and a kale salad with homemade Caesar dressing. And then the night before I made chicken potpie. I’m making a lot of Southern recipes. I bought a Peloton two years ago that’s been collecting dust, so now I make a casserole and then I do Peloton. So it’s all about balance. As you know, in Texas we like everything to have butter and cheese and to be fried. I’ve made King Ranch casserole three times during this ordeal; I’ve been making my great-grandmother from Italy’s spaghetti sauce recipe. We are trying to make everything feel as much like Texas as possible. I cannot wait to be there again. I guess the next time I’m going to get there will probably be the Medal of Arts.
TM: Nominations are now open for the recipients through July 15. What can we expect at the ceremony?
BM: I know that there will be design meetings, which I’m excited about. Because if I love to do anything in my life, it’s to throw an event. If you look at my fashion shows, they are events. The thing that I left Texas Medal of Arts with last year was how well-orchestrated the entire event was. Especially for the honorees, from the moment that you land in Austin, it was all top service. I’m very excited to have been asked to be a part of making that special moment for somebody else whose life it will affect because it deeply affected mine. Again, it’s one of my proudest memories, and it will go down as one of the proudest memories for my family. Almost everyone who is honored has worked an entire lifetime, so what a great joy to be able to celebrate not only the work they put into the world of themselves as artists but for their family and their friends who’ve been on this journey. All we really want at the end of the day—it doesn’t really matter if you’ve traveled to New York City and all around the globe and you’ve won every award—all we really want and why everybody’s doing it is because you want your family to be proud. You want your town where you came from to be proud.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.