In just six years, Brandon Maxwell ’08 has gone from Photocommunications student to stylist to the stars.
By Joel Hoekstra | Photography and Videos by Jessica Attie ’04
The sky over downtown Austin is cloudy this morning, yet Brandon Maxwell ’08 is wearing sunglasses. Unshaven and dressed in a gray hoodie and black Nikes, he sits at a cafe table outside Jo’s Coffee, dissecting a breakfast taco and ignoring a steady stream of text messages. He’s short on sleep, having spent last night out with a friend as part of the city’s annual SXSW music festival.
Another text: What happened last night?
This message, he explains, is from his co-conspirator the previous evening. The pair ended the night at a venue that Maxwell frequented while he lived in Austin. The place was pretty much empty when they arrived — a Monday night — but by the time they departed, it had filled to capacity with gawkers, paparazzi and news crews, all hoping to snap a pic of Maxwell’s companion, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. Or as she is known throughout the world, Lady Gaga.
“I forget that she’s a famous person,” Maxwell says, taking a moment to reply to the text. “We can’t just go out.”
A Professor's Tough Love
Sometimes the right words at the right time can change a life. When transfer student Brandon Maxwell ’08 came to St. Edward's, he didn't think he needed help getting focused on his studies or living up to his potential. Professor of Photocommunications Bill Kennedy knew otherwise.
Gaga isn’t just Maxwell’s friend, of course. She’s a pop star capable of filling auditoriums and even stadiums with thousands and thousands of screaming “Little Monsters,” as she calls her fans. She’s a polarizing provocateur who once wore a “meat dress” to the MTV Video Music Awards. She’s a five-time Grammy winner and an inspiration to girls, gays and outcasts everywhere.
She’s also one of Maxwell’s clients. For the past five years, Maxwell has helped shape Gaga’s brand: her hair, her makeup and her sense of fashion. In 2009, he became an assistant to her personal stylist, Nicola Formichetti. When Formichetti quit the job last year, Maxwell moved into the role.
Gaga’s SXSW appearance brought him to town this time, but Maxwell, a native of Longview, has made a point of returning to Austin whenever he has a chance. His time in the city and on the hilltop shaped him, he notes, helping him connect with lifelong friends, giving him the skills to make his way in a cutthroat industry, and instilling him with the confidence it takes to work with Gaga and his other clients.
It’s been a wild ride, Maxwell admits, living in the orbit of celebrities. The schedule is grueling (he’s rarely in New York City, where he rents an apartment). The expectations are ever-escalating (what’s more outrageous than a meat dress?).
But his work with Gaga and other stars — he’s styled Orlando Bloom, Charlize Theron and Yoko Ono, among others, for fashion magazines — has brought the kind of opportunities and privileges most people only dream of.
A few days before landing in Austin for SXSW, for example, Maxwell found himself sitting next to Gaga at the Academy Awards. It suddenly hit him how lucky they both were: “We’re like two kids [who] should never have had any success in life at all, and we’re sitting in the second row at the Oscars. We looked at each other and both thought, ‘What is happening?’”
Maxwell grew up in a town of 80,000 people roughly two hours’ drive east of Dallas. His father was a businessman in the liquor industry, while his mother always had a strong interest in fashion. His grandmother ran a clothing store in town.
“I remember going in with my mom when she and my dad were going to a charity event or something,” Maxwell recalls. “They would just lay out every dress option, every shoe option and every bag, and she would just go into the dressing room and come out in a full outfit. She was so beautiful.”
Maxwell’s appreciation for fashion quickly became an obsession. He began reading Vogue and other fashion magazines. He learned the names of iconic couturiers. And he experimented on friends: “When I was 13 or 14, I would go to Walgreens with all the money I had and buy disposable cameras, hairspray and bobby pins. I would make my friends sit for five hours while I glued in extensions that I’d bought at the Chinese beauty store, and then I’d make them pose for photos. It was just something I really thoroughly enjoyed.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the job of a professional stylist is similar. But it involves an additional element, Maxwell says: trust. He learned early on during his time at St. Edward’s that a photo shoot is a collaborative effort, and without rapport between the subject, the stylist and the photographer, things are likely to go badly. It’s Maxwell’s job to navigate the aesthetic, technical and emotional shoals that potentially threaten any photo shoot. Just like the student models he once persuaded to pose for his Photocommunications class shoots, the celebrity he’s working with has to be relaxed, comfortable and maybe even happy: “You have to build a relationship,” Maxwell says. “I just try to make a connection.” He listens, he jokes, he cajoles. Then he gets to work, doing the same thing, albeit on a much higher level, that he started doing as a student at St. Edward’s.
“He obviously has great taste and a sense of style,” says St. Edward’s University Professor of Photocommunications Bill Kennedy, who mentored Maxwell as a student. But Maxwell’s success has required many more skills, of course, like time management, organization, focus and discipline — all of which Kennedy and his fellow
Photocommunications instructors try to instill in students like Maxwell, whose raw talent often needs channeling. “They learn a process by studying photography that they can apply throughout their lives — no matter what they do, in photography, law, medicine, whatever their profession,” Kennedy says.
“What day is it today?” asks Maxwell.
He is ensconced in an overstuffed chair in the lobby of the W Austin Hotel. The place is brimming with SXSW attendees, many of them talking about the hottest ticket in town: Lady Gaga’s appearance at Stubb’s BBQ. The performance is on Thursday, and the stylist hasn’t yet decided what Gaga will be wearing for the concert.
Leaving such decisions to the last minute might seem reckless (the concert is two days away), but Maxwell says he rarely plans much in advance. It’s difficult to accurately predict the proper approach before a concert or photo shoot, he explains, because so much depends on the mood of the subject, the set, the lighting, the props and other factors. In addition, advance planning tends to preclude spontaneity and the kind of collaborative chemistry that comes with working in the moment. “I’m always saying, ‘If you let people collaborate and make something, it will be better than what you have imagined,’” Maxwell says. “I just don’t think there’s enough of that in the world.”
“Being a stylist is about being able to make decisions,” says Kennedy. “Brandon knows. He’s able to make decisions — and he makes them fast.”
But Maxwell’s path to pursue a career as a professional stylist wasn’t so obvious. At age 16, he knew he wanted to leave Longview. He also knew that his parents would insist that he attend college, despite the teen’s lack of interest in academic studies. So he bought a plane ticket to New York City, booked a room at the Radisson and began contacting kids enrolled at schools in Manhattan. “I just wanted to meet people,” he says. “I thought maybe I wanted to do theater or something in the arts, mostly because I was so terrible at everything else.” He ultimately settled on Marymount Manhattan College, a liberal-arts institution on the Upper East Side.
But the city proved overwhelming. Loyal friends were hard to find. It was easy to get lost. Two years after moving to New York, Maxwell moved back to Texas to attend St. Edward’s. “I remember driving up to campus the first day of school and sitting in the car with my mom and just having a complete meltdown for 30 minutes,” Maxwell remembers. “I was like, ‘I’ve made the worst decision of my life. Why am I going to school here? I used to live in New York City. What?!’ But it was the best decision I ever made.”
At St. Edward’s, Maxwell says, he discovered a sense of community that he’d never found in New York. He was surprised when a professor called him after a class to see how he was faring. And he was surprised at his own response when Kennedy called him out as a student who wasn’t living up to his potential. “I was skipping class and not doing the work, and Bill took me aside and said, ‘You’re talented, but you’re never going to make it here if you don’t change,’” so Maxwell did an about-face, improving his grades and making the dean’s list by graduation.
Through his major in Photocommunications, he learned all the camerawork, technical skills and artistry necessary to the profession. That side of his education comes in handy, even today: He can speak the language of photography with precision, discussing the nuances of exposure, f-stops, vignettes, strobes and more when he’s on a shoot. But he also falls back on what he learned during the many required group projects: how to work with anyone, solve problems creatively and adapt quickly.
“My parents always said, ‘College is going to be the best time in your life,’ and I was like, ‘I’m sure it’s not,’” Maxwell recalls. “Actually, though, it was.”
School never came easy for him. But at St. Edward’s, he found professors who supported and helped him. And he met people who showed him how he could be successful in the arts and put his creativity to good use. “I learned that the possibilities are endless,” Maxwell says.
In many ways, the Photocommunications program was an ideal fit for his creativity. “We teach students how to think critically and communicate about images and how they work,” says Kennedy. “It’s the difference, for example, between having an opinion about something, which anyone can have, and being a connoisseur. We want every graduate of the program to commit to the process of becoming a connoisseur, which can be applied throughout their lives.”
Maxwell is in a hotel room at the Omni Barton Creek Resort and Spa, due west of downtown Austin, where Gaga and her entourage have landed for the week. (When visiting Austin, though, Maxwell prefers to forgo the fancy suites and instead stays with both his sister and best friend.) It’s Wednesday, the day before her Stubb’s concert, and the room is loaded with boxes and racks of clothes and shoes: bubble-gum-pink pumps, sleeveless white blouses with studded collars and other couture that will instantly become sought-after items if Gaga decides to wear them onstage at SXSW.
Maxwell’s assistant has volunteered to be part of an impromptu photo shoot. Petite and dark-haired, she’s wearing a white smock and, at the stylist’s insistence, has donned a pair of white knee-high open-toed boot-sandals festooned with yellow flowers. He isn’t pleased.
“Not good,” Maxwell says. “Do we have any Manolos?”
The line between cutting-edge and crazy is thin in couture. And, as Maxwell quickly learned after graduating college and returning to New York City with a cadre of St. Edward’s alumni — all seeking to fulfill their dreams in the Big Apple — it’s the professional stylist’s job to know the difference. Just knowing the difference may not be enough, however: First, you’ve got to land a gig that allows you to articulate your vision.
Without experience, Maxwell found himself at a disadvantage in applying for work. “Every day I would just email [my résumé] to a million people and ask them to give me a job. Finally, someone called me and said, ‘I need an assistant for tomorrow. It’s really last minute. Are you available?’” he says.
Maxwell claims he made it through the shoot by repeatedly ducking into the bathroom and Googling terms he didn’t understand and techniques he didn’t know how to execute.
In fact, the voice on the other end of the phone was Deborah Afshani, a stylist with connections at W, Harper’s Bazaar and other fashion publications. Afshani clearly saw promise in her hire. Ultimately, her endorsements and his skills propelled him into positions assisting Edward Enninful, now the fashion director at W magazine, and other fashion luminaries. Landing a position with Formichetti meant spending countless hours at magazine shoots with celebrities — as well as an introduction to Gaga. Work, and money, began to flow his way.
Talent helped him succeed, but Maxwell says tenacity and work ethic were equally important. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not going to be the greatest at this, but I’m going to come in two hours early and I’m going to stay three hours late and I’m going to do everything that I need to do to succeed in this because if I don’t succeed in this, I’m going back to Longview and there just aren’t opportunities for me there,’” Maxwell recalls. “It wasn’t an option to fail.”
It’s shortly before noon on the day of Gaga’s debut at SXSW. The waiter has just delivered chips and guacamole to our table. Quesadillas will be arriving shortly. But Maxwell mostly ignores the food. He seems tired and distracted after weeks of crisscrossing the globe for photo and video shoots and various events.
Working with Gaga has brought unexpected opportunities: He is increasingly sought out to direct fashion shoots for magazines like V, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar, and clothing retailers ranging from Barneys to Uniqlo have hired him to style advertising campaigns.
But his success has cost him, and the hectic pace also makes it difficult to sustain friendships and relationships. “I don’t really see the world,” Maxwell says. “The majority of my work is in a dark studio. When I’m done with the shoot, I take a car to the airport alone. I sit on a plane alone, and when I arrive at the destination, I go to a hotel to sleep alone. Then I’m back in a car at 6 o’clock in the morning to go to a studio. It can be tiring and stressful, but I wouldn’t change it.”
Maxwell stays grounded in part by checking in with friends and family. He moved to New York with a small circle of classmates from the Photocommunications program, and they remain among his closest pals. “Our class was unusually tight,” Maxwell says. His alumni friends — now successful producers, photographers, editors and stylists — often gather at his apartment when he is in town. “Because I travel so much, they are very sweet and usually come to me and hang out on the couch,” Maxwell says. “We talk, catch up. It keeps me connected, and I appreciate it.”
“I think getting together with friends from St. Edward’s is important for Brandon because he’s always traveling,” says fellow Photocommunications major Jessy Price ’08. “Plus, New York is not an easy place to make friends. It’s hard to find people who are coming from a genuine place of interest. It helps to have people who know you for something other than what you do.”
Maxwell also makes time to meet with young graduates from St. Edward’s who’ve found their way to New York and need advice on how to get started in fashion, photography or styling. “I think that everybody who graduated from our program has helped out another person from St. Edward’s in some sort of way,” Maxwell says. “We’ve all been so blessed. We have something to give back.”
On the cusp of his 30s, Maxwell has also begun to ponder what’s next: Will he attempt something entrepreneurial — a clothing or cosmetics line? Probably, he says. He’s toyed with the idea of launching a women’s-wear line, something that pushes buttons in the way that Gaga does. “People want a fantasy!” he says.
Gaga is scheduled to appear later in the night on Jimmy Kimmel Live, which is broadcasting this week from Austin. The singer wears a dress, cape and enormous hat made of coffee filters — an ensemble that will lend her a white, ruffled, Alice in Wonderland look. But for the concert at Stubb’s, the stylist and singer have decided to forego the usual pageantry: “We want the focus to be on the music,” he says. She’ll probably just wear a T-shirt.
In some ways, Maxwell’s choice not to dress the star in an elaborate costume is the most stunning part of the performance: leaving behind the costumes and jewelry and dazzle allows the music to speak for itself. “She’s playing at Stubb’s in the dirt in the backyard. It’s not the place for Versace or a costume with a lobster on the head,” Maxwell explains. “Yes, it’s a T-shirt; it doesn’t mean the idea isn’t equally thought out.”
In many ways, it’s the boldest statement a stylist can make.