The journey to Spring 2021 wasn’t a straightforward one for Brandon Maxwell. Beyond the unique challenges that 2020 has brought on, this year forced a designer who’s been on an upward trajectory since he launched his namesake brand in 2015 — a CFDA Award, countless red carpets, dozens of campaigns and magazine covers, credits on First Ladies and Duchesses — to really, truly stop.
“So much of my life for the past few years has really been [about] being out there, and for the better part of a year, like everybody else, I’ve not been out there,” he tells me, over Zoom, ahead of his virtual collection debut on Sunday. “I couldn’t remember a time in the past 10, 11 years of my life [when] I’d been at home more than two to three days a week, in a row, when I wasn’t on an airplane or a hotel or a car or a studio or putting makeup on.” With stay-at-home orders in place, he now had this time to process, reflect and question. That made him realize that, when it came to his spring line, he “wasn’t ready to go out there yet — into the criticism, into the people. I just was not ready.”
Though he has released new product since New York went into lockdown in March, the runway collection took longer. “I stopped and started a lot — and I don’t mean redoing it,” he explains. “Sometimes when I felt like it was emotionally too much for me, I would just stop and come back to it. Thankfully, my team was very, very patient. I think I pushed this show back at least three times in November, just because I was not ready.”
During this period, Maxwell would find himself thinking back to the origins of his love of fashion, being a kid in his grandmother’s store, making clothes for his best friends — no audience, just community. “It was a very healing experience for me because I think looking back, being around so many people was a fearful place for me. And I think it’s become that in my career as well,” he says. “When I could have one-on-one [time] and be in a space where I felt people could really see me for who I was, it was not only more comfortable and safe for me, it was also therapeutic.”
That feeling is what ultimately led him to a career in styling. Once he transitioned into designing, though, Maxwell was thrust into a very different, much more public track — and a system that notoriously, historically hasn’t allowed for much self-reflection or questioning along the way.
“Sometimes you’re making collections and you don’t even know why… I don’t think it’s normal to create at that pace,” he argues. “I don’t think it’s realistic to tell that many stories in a year.” Maxwell was already feeling some resentment and anxiety towards that status quo before a global pandemic effectively forced everyone in the fashion industry to pause. The pain and uncertainty brought on by this year got him processing these emotions, reflecting on the personal milestones he’d missed along the way — birthdays, weddings, births — as well as questioning the purpose of what he had been doing.
With the rule book thrown out the window, in a way, and presented with an opportunity to break with tradition, Maxwell went back to square one.
“I felt like the thing that had been missing in my life [was this] loss of understanding of who I was, [feeling] that I had moved so far away from the person who was in love with what they did originally,” he explains. “So the most authentic thing that I could do was to go back to what it is that I do do: being in a room with people that I love — not with a big crowd, not with the expectations or worries of what anyone’s going to think or the worry — and making choices that I love and being grateful to do it.”
Any other year, he would’ve been presenting Spring 2021 during New York Fashion Week in September. But in 2020, that’s when Maxwell and his team began moving forward with the collection in earnest. As the designer describes it, the process was a lot more intuition- and emotion-driven this season. Whereas in the past, they might’ve hypothesized about what a specific editor or retailer may or may not like, they allowed themselves to be guided by feeling or by a reaction to a specific color.
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When Maxwell first began creating the spring line, it was heavy on the black and white, which we see reflected in the first half of the show. His team later brought him some neon fabrics to look at, and he decided to incorporate them into the collection, bringing a sense of optimism that aligned with messaging and with Maxwell’s personal headspace at the time.
“Any storm that passes, the sun must come out after, and that’s really what it was about,” he says. “There was this sense of ease in the clothes. I think from far away, it’s very much the Brandon Maxwell woman, which is a dressed woman. Close up, it’s tailored sweatshirt bonded to jersey knit to neoprene — elements and things that felt a little more easy and a little more loose.”
The Brandon Maxwell brand is known for elegance, structure and timelessness. Those elements are still there for spring, but they’re married with more distinctly contemporaneous fabrics and textures, which reflect the stay-at-home reality we — and customers — are living in. It’ll ship at the end of May, beginning of June 2021, when the designer hopes we’ll be able to safely be out more; still, he anticipates a period of transition in our wardrobes, with a continued emphasis on comfort. (It’s also just true to Maxwell personally, who describes himself as “a comfort person.”)
“If you’re looking far away, you see the body contrast, you see the Brandon Maxwell staples — this time, they’re made in sweatshirt bonded to neoprene, the fabrics are much lighter,” he explains. “I felt like we should be able to create pieces that felt reflective of the time that we’re in, but still reflective of who they [the customer] are. And that was a hard line to walk.” His favorite looks from the collection are the ones that “look very traditionally Brandon Maxwell, but the inner workings are very comfortable and loose and sort of stretchy” — think a loosely-tailored jumpsuit or a black sweatshirt bodycon dress. “It feels like something you want to dress up at home for yourself, barefoot.”
Ultimately, it all boils down to a core philosophy of Maxwell’s: “Dressing should not be for everybody else. It should be for you.”
There’s less of an emphasis on evening wear this season, a category that the brand is often associated with but that, according to the designer, isn’t that big of a slice of his business. (Most of it is made up by separates and statement pieces, he says.) “There was no place for it,” Maxwell reasons, adding that this also gave him an opportunity to expand on his love of American sportswear and show his range as a designer. “I’m hopeful that this will lead us into… more of a sense of modernity and a little bit of a cool factor.”
The runway has always played a role in Maxwell’s story, all the way back to when his grandmother would arrange conference tables together in her store to host local fashion shows. So he decided to bring it back for his Spring 2021 debut, albeit in a Covid-19 precaution-compliant manner, as the brand clearly states at the top of the film. There’s no audience, but there are plenty of personal touches throughout: Maxwell styled the collection himself; he hand-picked the music; Jessy Price, his fiancé, directed the video; casting director Angus Munro brought back many models that have walked past Brandon Maxwell runways.
Typically, Maxwell says, he would feel sick ahead of his shows and be “so self-critical for a week or two after.” Like with everything else, that wasn’t the case this season: “When we got in the car, [Price] was like, ‘How do you feel?’ And I was like, ‘I feel so grateful for having had the opportunity to be in a space that I spent so many nights this year feeling that I would never be again.’ And that, for me, is what the whole season is about. It was an act of optimism. It was just about doing it at all. And it was about my team having fought through to do it.”
See every single look from Brandon Maxwell’s Spring 2021 collection in the gallery, below.