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Designer Brandon Maxwell on Dressing Meghan Markle, Judging Project Runway, and Drawing Strength from His Mother

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Brandon Maxwell and Lady Gaga in London.

By Dave Benett/Getty Images.

As lithe models circulated between the hair and makeup stations and the dressing room on Saturday afternoon, a remix of “Forever Young” blasting on repeat, Brandon Maxwell—wearing a backwards red Yankees cap and bright neon Nikes—seemed pretty serene.

One of the Texas-born 34-year-old’s earliest jobs was working with Lady Gaga, and he has also dressed Michelle Obama and __Meghan Markle,__extremely impressive career achievements by any standard, let alone for a designer in the early stages of his career. And in just three years, the designer’s show has already become one of the major fashion week events.

About an hour before this year’s Fall 2019 New York Fashion Week show—held a block from Penn Station, in a space on 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue—Maxwell said he no longer has the same nerves as he did back when he was starting out. “The first two years, it was unbearable for me. Sick, shaking, terrified. Now I’m a little bit older, a little bit more experienced, I feel good. This year I’ve just been going through a lot in my personal life for the past few months since the last show, and I think I’m just thinking about things differently this time. I just feel really happy that everyone’s here and my family’s here, and I just feel really good about that. So I’m not worried about everything.” (Maxwell’s mother, Pam, was recently diagnosed with breast cancer; Maxwell would later come out with Pam—dressed in a pink blazer—for his bow at the end of the emotional show.)

Maxwell, who will serve on the judging panel on the new Project Runway, debuting in March, said that this collection—which was more muted than previous seasons, featuring a good amount of black and white—was about the power and resilience of women. “My office has one male cutter and one male pattern-maker, but is primarily female,” he said. “I really feel like during that time you see the power of the women in your life, and it was clear to me that my mom has willed those types of women into my life.” He said that there was a “certain strength” to the clothes that he sees as representing something close to “armor.”

The show itself—held after a brief cocktail hour, where chicken wings were served—drew fellow Project Runway cast members Karlie Kloss and Elaine Welteroth, as well as Nicky Hilton and Ashley Graham. Maxwell said he picked the Penn Station venue for the event, sponsored by Fiji Water, because it represents chaos, an ideal place for him to plant his shimmering show within. “I wanted to create this quiet little jewel-box space in the middle of sort of a crazy neighborhood because I think during this creation period, I really was looking for that quiet, calm, and beauty in sort of the chaos and ugliness of it all,” he said.

Maxwell—who launched his career as an assistant to Nicola Formichetti, formerly Lady Gaga’s design director—said it has been, as you’d expect, pretty overwhelming to watch Gaga’s Star Is Born journey over the past few years. “It’s the capital-‘J’ joy of my life,” he said. “I think she’s one of the most authentic, original, hardworking people, and one of the most loyal friends I’ve ever had in my life. . . . It just wouldn’t be possible for me without her.” He added, ”For me, she wins the Oscar every day. It’s just a joy to see her recognized for the incredible person that I know she is, and she always has been.”

He was also quite moved by Meghan’s recent endorsement of his designs. The Duchess of Sussex has worn several Brandon Maxwell looks, including a memorable yellow dress in July. “There is a very common thread between every woman I’ve been fortunate enough to dress,” he said. “I think they are good women, setting great examples, and ultimately inspired to help others.”

“The cornerstone of the brand, when I started it, was women like my mom,” he continued, “and when I’m able to dress women like that, it’s really not about, does everyone love the dress? I’m proud that that is what we are doing, right? Ultimately, I’m happy if [Meghan] wears our dress, but I’m happy if she wears any dress because it’s the idea of what she’s doing in that dress that excites me, right? . . . For me, I just think that I’m proud of that. And I think that Meghan Markle, in particular, is such a great example for young girls to see and I’m proud to be any part of her day, honestly.”

Maxwell said he is very excited for Project Runway’s premiere because he grew up watching the show. He referred to its filming as—the j-word yet again—“a pure and utter joy.” Yet he said he was initially anxious about filming. “It was something I was really scared to do, but I’m so grateful that I did it during the time in my life; that was a real family for me, outside of my work family.” Maxwell will join the panel alongside Welteroth and original judge Nina Garcia (Christian Siriano will serve as mentor, while Kloss will host).

What will Maxwell’s judging style be like? “I mean, I probably cried a lot. I’m a pretty emotional person, if you can’t tell. I haven’t cried yet [today], but I probably will.”

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