In June, when Brandon Maxwell stepped onstage at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom to accept the Swarovski Award for Womenswear, the Longview native looked as ghostly white and disheveled as his tuxedo shirt. A few minutes earlier, convinced he wouldn’t win, he had taken off his jacket, unbuttoned his pants, and loosened his bow tie. Then, when his name was, to his surprise and mortification, called, he quickly put himself back together, more or less. “Oh my God, I took off my clothes because I was sure I wasn’t going to be up here,” he said, beginning a heartfelt, teary, and off-the-cuff speech before the crowd of five hundred gathered for the CFDA Fashion Awards, the Oscars for the fashion industry. Maxwell’s date for the night, supermodel Naomi Campbell, dabbed tears from her eyes as he confessed his total shock that “a slightly overweight boy from Texas whose idea of a fine meal is something rolled up into a ball, deep-fried, and put into wax paper” was standing before them.
A few weeks later in Austin, over a bowl of queso at the Tex-Mex spot Maudie’s—he was in town visiting friends after a photo shoot in Houston—the 31-year-old designer dissected what was, so far, the biggest night of his career. “I’m a little rough around the edges when I speak, and I certainly was that night,” Maxwell acknowledged. “But I always say, ‘I’m from Texas, what are you going to do?’ I made a conscious decision when this all started to stay true to who I am.”
That offhanded “this all” is a modest reference to Maxwell’s astonishingly rapid ascent to the top of the fashion world. After graduating from St. Edward’s University, in Austin, with a degree in photography in 2008, he moved to New York City and went through the usual struggles—sharing a tiny apartment with two friends in Brooklyn and sending out thousands of résumés. In 2010 he caught a break, landing a job assisting Lady Gaga’s stylist, Nicola Formichetti. When Formichetti left in 2013, Maxwell stepped into his role, leading Gaga’s style evolution from the outlandish (think of the infamous frock made of raw beef) to the refined (such as the Azzedine Alaïa gown she wore to last year’s Oscars). Last September his career took another leap with the debut of his eponymous line of tailored jumpsuits, flowing bell-sleeved blouses, and glamorous long gowns that nod to the eighties-era Texas style he loves.
Texas, it seems, is never far from Maxwell’s mind—a Lone Star flag hangs on one wall of his studio in midtown Manhattan— and with little prompting he launched into an elaborate remembrance of growing up in Longview. Many afternoons after school, he recalled, he would accompany his grandmother Louise to Riff’s, the high-end women’s store where she worked. “That was the place to shop for the elegant women of East Texas,” Maxwell said. He watched her put outfits together for her clients and then used those ideas to create looks of his own for the photo shoots that he would orchestrate around town, featuring his close girlfriends wearing clothes bought from Goodwill or borrowed from his grandmother’s closet. (He was partial to her furs.) “Growing up in a small town and not having a lot of things I was interested in at my fingertips made me scrappy and resourceful,” he said. “Those are the main things that have gotten me by in my career so far.”
He can still remember the precise shade of his grandmother Dot’s silver nail polish and the outfits his mother wore. “There was nothing more exciting for me than when my parents would get dressed up to go out to an event. The other kids would be playing video games, but I was on pins and needles waiting for . . . the moment,” he said, speaking faster and lighting up with delight between sips of Diet Coke. “I remember this one dress my mom wore to the Junior League Gala. It was bright orange and very plunging, which she normally didn’t wear. She had this short chin-length hair at the time that looked perfect with her diamond earrings. When she walked down the stairs”—he paused—“I thought it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my life. She just floated into the room.”
Even though he doesn’t make it back to Longview often, Maxwell stays connected to his family; his dad, a retired alcohol distributor, runs the day to day of Maxwell’s business from the family home. “I live in a world where you can’t trust everyone,” Maxwell said. “And I know that in every meeting my dad is approaching it as my dad. I operate in an unsafe world, but I have never felt unsafe with my dad around.”
Later this month, Maxwell will show his third collection at New York Fashion Week. A few days after that, he’ll return to Texas to be the keynote speaker at a luncheon for the Women’s Symphony League of Austin. It’s part of what is, for him, a typically hectic month. “When I’m ninety and sitting on a rocking chair on a porch in Texas, then I can hopefully look back on all of this and reflect,” he said. “But not until then. I’m just getting started.” (Soon after we spoke, Maxwell made headlines when Michelle Obama wore one of his gowns to a White House state dinner.)
As he rose from the table and drifted into the sea of young families and old-timers finishing their early-bird dinners, at least a few people likely noticed his fashion choice that day: his favorite long-sleeve T-shirt, a powder-blue number with oversized white letters on the back that spelled out “Texas.”