If there is anyone who knows the ins and outs of womenswear, it’s award-winning fashion designer Brandon Maxwell. Since founding his luxury women’s ready-to-wear label in 2015, Brandon has made quite a name for himself. Some of his accomplishments just this year include winning the CFDA Award for Womenswear Designer of the Year, dressing Lady Gaga for the 2019 Met Gala, and, last but not least, being a judge on Project Runway. The finale of the show airs tonight, and before it does, we wanted to get the inside scoop on what it’s really like to be a judge on the show. Okay, you caught us—we inquired about much more than just Project Runway, but how could we not? When you have the chance to chat with Brandon Maxwell, Lady Gaga’s stylist-turned-BFF, you chat.
Without giving too much away, Brandon opened up about everything from his process working with Lady Gaga for the Met to what it was like to get used to being on camera for Project Runway. In true Who What Wear fashion, we also pressed him for his take on everyday fashion staples, and we were not disappointed. Read the interview below to see what we mean.
You’re a fairly new-to-the-scene designer, so I’m sure being a judge and mentor on Project Runway hits close to home in many ways. Can you tell us what being a judge on the show has meant to you?
For me, being there, I felt like the world seized the glamorous side of [fashion], but the truth of the matter is that 99% of the time, you’re just trying to keep the light bill paid and you’re working many hours a day. Although it is incredible, and we are so fortunate to be able to do something every day that makes another person feel good, I don’t want to mislead anyone, especially younger people looking to get into the business. It’s not all champagne and parties.
I know we’re supposed to judge challenge by challenge, but I really do judge on the overall body of the work I’ve seen so far because I do understand that not every runway look or runway show is going to be your best every single time. It’s about getting back up when you’ve fallen or when you’ve made a mistake and you’re trying to do better. It’s really up to them to use this launching pad to become the star, because we can’t do that for them.
What’s one thing no one tells you about being a judge on Project Runway?
I’m the only one on the show who has never been on TV previously. For me, it was a totally new experience in general. There’s a lot to deal with to even get used to having your body on television. Having cameras all around you, going into hair and makeup, Spanx, and getting comfortable in your own skin were all things I was really unprepared for. Also, they probably don’t show it a lot, but behind the scenes and on the show, we were all very emotional because looking at the contestants up there is kind of like holding up a mirror up to yourself.
Favorite memory from the show so far?
My favorite memory, which I have talked about before, it’s not a great memory, but I was right in the middle of an episode filming on camera and took a quick bathroom break when my mom called me to tell me she was sick. Every one of those women that I sit there with really lifted me up and wrapped me up. I was so not sure what to expect when I started filming that show because it was so foreign to me, but at that moment, I felt like I was home. I couldn’t have imagined getting that call with anyone else around me.
We have to talk about the Met Gala, which was basically a Lady Gaga/Brandon Maxwell fashion show. How did you come up with the concept for not one but four red carpet looks?
[Gaga and I] have been best friends for over a decade. We were actually on a trip for her birthday just with our best friends talking about it a little bit by the pool—going to the Met together. We worked together, as I was her stylist for many years, so that line of friendship and creativity is all sort of blurred. I think people probably imagine we sit down at a table and come up with some idea, but it’s really just evolved naturally.
We went back and forth talking about whether or not she should change [looks], which is also something she’s done many times. I think that she’s very camp in her person. She really embodies what that is, and so it would’ve been very hard to say in one dress the story that we were trying to tell, which was less of a story of the clothes and more of a story of the person.
What has been one of your most memorable moments as a designer—a notable woman you’ve dressed or even a major setback that taught you something?
Interesting that you ask about setbacks because I’ve been saying this a lot: Setbacks and failures are the things that have really gotten me to where I am. I feel like people from the outside see these moments on the carpet and editorials and may think These must be the defining moments. But behind every one moment like that are hundreds of moments of being knocked to your knees. I used to be someone, especially when I started, who was a little bit of a perfectionist and very scared of failure. Four years later, I almost get high on failure because I really look at it and say ‘What is this here to teach me?’
Will I have great moments where I will be proud for the rest of my life to have dressed Michelle Obama, Meghan Markle, Lady Gaga, Oprah, and all of these powerful women? Absolutely. But I’m also proud of what the experience of having the opportunity to create for those women has taught me. I’m not someone who sits in a suit all day long—I’m in sweatpants ordering seamless 18 hours a day just trying to figure it out. I don’t want to mislead people that it’s all fun and games.
Can you speak to a few summer trends you’re loving right now?
What I would say for summer trends, no matter the season, is that every woman needs a great pair of black pants, a blazer, and a little black dress, and you’re good.
Any you’re hating? Why?
I hate to be judge-y, even though I’m paid to do that on TV, but I don’t love anything that feels really ripped and exposing. I guess there is a time and a place, but to each their own.
Word on the street is you grew up in Texas. What is one trend we can always expect Southern girls to wear during the summer?
Those smocked and linen-type colorful dresses from Mexico. They have little florals on them and come in so many colors. Every girl I know in Texas is wearing that over her bathing suit with a great little sandal, and it’s transitional to lunch. I’m deeply obsessed with them. I haven’t put them in my show, but it’s on my reference board every season. It’s something my best friend my whole life wore, and she still wears them now as a 34-year-old woman.