Editor’s Note: The following interview was originally published alongside the premiere of Great Performances – Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga: Cheek To Cheek LIVE! in October 2014.
On January 5, 2018 Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga will treat us to jazzy Great American Songbook interpretations in an encore of Great Performances – Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga: Cheek To Cheek LIVE!, a concert recorded live for PBS. Lady Gaga emerges with a new look for nearly every number, making the evening a visual feast. From tiara to toe, her glamorous attire is styled by Brandon Maxwell, her stylist and fashion director.
A native of Austin, TX, Maxwell worked his way from the ground up in New York City, first assisting fashion industry tastemakers such as stylists Deborah Afshani and Nicola Formichetti, and working on sets with makeup artist Pat McGrath and photographer Steven Meisel.
In this exclusive interview and slideshow, Maxwell reveals how he collaborates with Lady Gaga, and how to style outfits for a live concert and televised event rolled into one. Learn more about Maxwell and his career in Exclusively Fashion Magazine.
GP: What is the nature of your work with Lady Gaga and what is the role of a stylist?
BM: I’m Gaga’s stylist and fashion director of what she does. We’ve worked together a long time and I also do lots of other projects. She’s always been very supportive of my career and I never get to say that enough.
As for the role of a stylist, I don’t think any stylist knows how to answer that question! I see it as an artist who collaborates with another artist. I never see styling as me forcing my opinion on someone else. I look for someone whose work I admire – be it a model or a magazine – to create something with.
On any given day, whether it’s a magazine or a company that’s hired you to do a campaign, or a musical artist or an actress, it’s very mathematical work. It’s your job to dissect what is being promoted and put together the best team, the best looks that make sense. Everyone benefits from another opinion in the room.
GP: What were you responsible for in Cheek To Cheek LIVE! and how big is your team?
BM: We did the wardrobe for the dancers and Gaga. My team is two great assistants, and wonderful interns who are in school. We started by looking at the production and Bob Wilson [Robert Wilson, set and lightning designer] was heavily involved. We look at the reference images, lighting, where the song breaks will be, different looks. We then contact designers, getting sketches and fabrics. In the end we narrowed it down to eight outfits total.
GP: Which past projects best prepared you for styling/dressing Lady Gaga for Cheek To Cheek LIVE!?
BM: Gaga and I have done many concerts tours together, and so many videos and television shows. During a concert she has about 30 seconds to change outfits, there are 50,000 people screaming outside, waiting. Those high energy moments that require outfits that work with high octane dancing can be stressful. Those high energy moments prepared me. This show was really fun with the gowns and singing jazz, though there’s a lot that can go wrong on live television.
GP: Can you estimate how many dresses or racks of clothes you began styling for this production?
BM: We usually start with about eight full racks of clothing — 200 to 300 dresses. That’s the initial amount that we get in. Then I go in every day and slowly edit them down based on how the production is moving and what works with Gaga’s body. By the time we started rehearsing we had four or five racks with 150 dresses and about same amount of shoes, and a whole room of jewelry and accessories.
We sift through things like Christmas morning and try things on and take pictures. We have to see how she’s feeling on stage first.
GP: There is very little jewelry in this production other than earrings.
BM: A lot of the outfits were more about the silhouette and structure of gowns. Her voice is very pure and people will see that when they watch. I wanted to focus on that purity. Too much can be distracting. I don’t think when people are watching Gaga sing a song like “Lush Life,” that they’re really paying attention to what she’s wearing. The voice is in the forefront.
GP: Did you or Lady Gaga have a favorite look in the concert?
BM: We both loved the red leather jumpsuit, which she wears for “Bang Bang” and was custom made for her by David Samuel Menkes. Leather is something she has always worn, it’s a huge, huge staple in her wardrobe. It was nice to find a new way to do that, that fit into this particular era of her life. It was great to have that as a break between the gowns.
What’s great about this whole project is you’re not seeing Gaga turn into a whole new person, she’s always sung jazz since she was younger and has been a musician. This is not playing a part for her. Doing the wardrobe was an effortless process. It was a no-brainer when we came up with what to wear.
GP: How did you start selecting Lady Gaga’s looks for this concert? Did you start with a song, the song’s era, what inspired what dress for which number?
BM: We don’t think about it too far in advance. At any part of the month we’re loving a particular color. Gaga had said she’d love teal or turquoise. We look at the women who came before her, but Gaga is such a visionary and so unique that if you start to heavily reference things, it doesn’t work. She’s her own person and ultimately comes to that decision on her own. We started with colors, shapes and at that time were feeling very flowy and loose – belted in the middle and flowy everywhere else. We were thinking teals and reds and golds.
She comes off the stage and she knows [what works], she’s not a puppet. She feels the moment and might say, “this is red, I feel red for this.” It’s organic.
GP: What sort of audition do you give an outfit, especially one that will be seen both by a live audience and recorded on film?
BM: You have to take movement into account with a performer. She has to be comfortable, she’s singing right from her abdomen in jazz. That informed a lot of the decisions with the dress silhouettes. Never once have I seen her lip sync. She can’t be in tight corsets that she can’t breathe in – those are great for red carpet. When she sings she gets lost in the moment so we have to create outfits that are comfortable for her, appropriate for the show and don’t hinder her voice in any way.
You’re styling a woman, so first and foremost you want it to be flattering.
GP: The celebrated stage director Robert Wilson was the set and lighting designer for this concert. How was it working with him?
BM: I’m sure your readers are familiar with Bob Wilson’s work. He is so exacting and such a genius. Every detail is taken into account. As we go through a wardrobe for a project, we work closely with his team. We send him images of colors and fabrics and images on a set model to show him what we’re thinking. He is very collaborative as he builds the show. He is super supportive of wardrobe.
I always love working with him. He’s from Texas, as I am. I’ve always bonded with him on that. He loves the show business aspect of it. We started planning this perhaps three months in advance, which is a long time for a television special. After our first meeting he immediately wanted to know what the wardrobe would like down to the bow ties of band.
GP: What era of fashion inspires you most?
BM: Me, personally – 80s and 90s. I’m from Texas, so I like everything to be “more is more.” l have to watch myself. I like bigger silhouettes, bigger hair, broad shoulder, tight waist. And that’s why I love working with Gaga, who looks great in that.
I grew up loving the supermodels, I’m still obsessed with them. I’m not a person who loves a waif or skinny, blank girl. I love a lot of enthusiasm and expression.
GP: What are your favorite elements to play with when you source or style?
BM: I love shoes. I have a real problem with shoes. If I had to pick one thing from working with Gaga throughout the years it’s the insane, fun shoes that we’ve been able to create. I love those images of women walking down the runways back in the day, so tall and strong like a horse riding down the runway. Shoes are the best way to complete an outfit.
GP: Are the majority of sandals in the show by a particular designer?
BM: For this performance there was a lot of Brian Atwood and Stuart Weitzman, and Sophia Webster. Brian Atwood makes a lot of great custom shoes for Gaga. She’s not the tallest person and he does great heights on her. I called him the night before the Oscars and he created a shoe for her that was ready the next morning. I think it was 15 inches tall, and comfortable. He’s one of those people who gets a sexy woman and understands the power element. You need height for gowns. He perfectly dyes the shoe to match the dress and provides ankle support.
Stuart Weitzman was great for this show because he makes comfortable shoes; she can’t have too much height in this show. We didn’t want her on stage performing, thinking about the shoes or tightness of the dress.
GP: How if at all, did Tony Bennett play a role in the looks you sought for this show?
BM: He is such a classic. He looks like something out of a movie, always. He’s iconic. For some reason when you see them [Tony and Gaga] together in person, they naturally go together. We did images for album cover with her in a crystal bra and jeans, and he’s in a suit. And for the special she is in gowns and he is in a tux. Every time it works. It effortlessly goes together, like the music. Gaga is known as the pop culture icon of our time, but there are so many timeless elements to her and she blends well with anyone.
GP: What are your other creative outlets or hobbies?
BM: Creating clothes is a passion of mine. I’ve had a busy schedule but I’ve been taking the time to do it recently. I just made a dress for Gaga for the Cheek To Cheek album launch. I’m starting on new dresses today.
I love photography, I went to school for it so I bring my camera everywhere. I have my dog, who helps me relax. I try to get out with friends and family as much as possible. I go away on the weekends to Upstate New York. I’m from Austin, TX, and love nature so being around water and trees is where it’s at for me.
GP: If you weren’t a stylist what other career would you be pursuing?
BM: [Laughs at the mention of “if you weren’t a stylist.”] I’d be either a photographer or a clothing designer.
I grew up with my mom and my grandmother, who ran a clothing store where I was every day after school. I’ve always been around clothes. My grandfather was an artist, painter, photographer and had a music label for Texas country artists. He was in a band. I look at that part of my life now and think it’s been so serendipitous that all these things came together. I get my creativity from him. He encouraged me to do anything and everything artistic. He was always the first one in the front row at the play, the one helping you all night to finish your art project.
At the same time I would go in my grandmother’s room and she had clothes and jewelry everywhere. That’s what I grew up around. I remember getting in trouble at a young age in my mother’s closet after I took her beautiful, plastic-wrapped dresses and cut them up and put them together with another outfit that I cut up.
Those are memories of mine and I don’t know that I ever thought that I would do anything else. As I look back now, it seems every moment of my life was preparing me for the moment I’m in now.
GP: If you could style an episode of Downton Abbey, Sesame Street or any other television series or program, which would you choose? We won’t make you name a PBS show, but feel free!
BM: Sesame Street. I did grow up for multiple years having Bert and Ernie come to my birthday party.
GP: What are your next upcoming projects?
BM: This season has been really positive for me in terms of fashion and great magazine covers coming out. I just had a cover come out with Christy Turlington for Porter, which because of my love of supermodels was an amazing moment for me. I’m going to focus on clothes and a lot of exciting things are coming out for Gaga with this album and I can’t wait to see where that goes.
This season I’m trying to have more of a full balance on everything. In the past years there’s been a lot of traveling. This year I want to give attention to every area of my life.
Gaga and I met when we were a lot younger and in our own way — and for her, in a vastly different way — our careers have gone in similar ways. She’s always been there for me and been a number one supporter for me. She’s the first one I call her when I’m doing another job and I need advice. I have a direct line and she’s always there to answer. She’s been a guardian angel in my career. She pushed me to step out and do more.
See some of Lady Gaga’s outfits in our slideshow above, and even more in the encore of Great Performances – Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga: Cheek To Cheek LIVE! on Friday, January 5, 2018 at 9PM EST on PBS. (check local listings).
What are your favorite looks? Share in the comments, below!