Brandon Maxwell on The Intersection of Fashion and Activism

Brandon Maxwell, illustrious luxury womenswear designer who has dressed the likes of Lady GaGa, Solange Knowles and Naomi Campbell, has been making headlines for his recent initiatives in the intersection of fashion and political activism. Maxwell’s latest endeavor was dressing Syrian refugee, Hala Kamil, for the 89th Annual Oscars, which Vogue has called a “bold and powerful message,” and “undoubtedly one of the most memorable” looks from the award show. In addition, the designer’s latest campaign for Spring 2017, Ebony, stares society in the face and provokes us to reconsider how we define representation and authenticity in the fashion industry.

The gorgeous campaign video, with a double life as an eye opening documentary, was directed by Jessy Price and Maxwell himself in Detroit, Michigan. Santiago Gonzalez acted as Director of Photography for the short film.  It follows the true journey of an international top model, but focuses on her transformation of identity from Ebony Riley to Riley Montana. With that said, the campaign video is more than her story, it represents the story of most individuals who are asked to turn their back on their past in order to open the door to a more promising future. Here, for once, Riley is asked to turn around, to look at her past and walk back into it. The video stresses the importance of acknowledging the history that helps build one’s future. Maxwell expresses that “there’s a whole lifetime of building and sometimes struggle for those few brief moments of immortality,” so we mustn’t forget about our past, as Riley Montana hasn’t forgotten Ebony.

What was it like for you to meet Riley’s family? 

We have been close friends since I was designing my very first collection in 2015, so it was really beautiful to meet Riley’s family in her hometown of Detroit, Michigan. After the previous campaign, which was all about the highs and lows I’ve experienced with my family on the road to achieve my dreams, it was important to me to look at how the roots grow for someone other than me. There was such intellect, heart and humor shared between her immediate family, and that really helped me understand Riley’s sensibilities and vulnerabilities all the more.  

What were your expectations when going in to film this piece? Was anything about Riley or her family different than what you expected? 

I really didn’t have any expectations when I started developing the campaign, but the end goal was to tell Riley’s story – her transformation and journey from Ebony to Riley. I’ve always known her to be a very authentic person, and it was easy to see a lot of that has to do with her upbringing. Being in her hometown alongside her family was in a sense like going home myself. While we come from vastly different places our upbringing is probably more similar than different. We were trying to visualize that universal feeling of coming back to one’s roots while taking stock of the sometimes profound changes that happen as you’re stretching and growing as a young adult. Watching them gather to support and bear witness to the heights she has climbed was transcendent, and I am so thankful for the generosity and spirit of collaboration that they approached the occasion with.

What was it about Riley and her story that you found so compelling? Why did you pick her to represent your brand?  

I had seen home videos of Riley’s aunt Renee showing photo albums she had put together, and there was something there that I identified with. As Riley closed the SS2017 show the fashion community seemed to respond to her show stealing walk down the runway. There were a few articles that listed it as one of the best moments of fashion week, and at the heart of the campaign we are trying to make known where that radiance and center of gravity is coming from. We pay homage to this moment within the video and in the print campaign to drive the point home that there’s a whole lifetime of building and sometimes struggle for those few brief moments of immortality.  

How do you think fashion has evolved in the last year or so? 

I think we are making progress. We are finally seeing more diversity in fashion, but it’s still not enough. My goal in our shows and in any of our brand visuals is always to represent a world that is round, diverse, loving, and accepting, and to do so by way of telling a human story.  

How do you define or measure success for yourself?

I’ve learned that everyone will always have an opinion about everything you do. When you are creating work with your name on it, you have to stand fully behind everything you do, so always listen to yourself and go with what your heart tells you. I look around at the people in my life, and I have had the same friends my whole life pretty much, and I am blessed to have such a loving family, and those people have always been my greatest success.  

What, if anything, would you like to do differently in 2017? 

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past six months reflecting on how my life and career have changed since the debut of my first collection in September 2015, I’ve let go of a lot of issues and anxieties that were plaguing me and now I’m just ready to enjoy life and live a little in 2017!

Featured image courtesy of Brandon Maxwell. 

Post-production by Velem.

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