Maxwell herself may look like a hippie—with her tattoos, her hennaish tan, her laidback manner, and her ease in her body—but she’s not. She is, however, the product of hippies, and grew up on a commune started by her father in Western Massachusetts. Let’s not forget, though, that a lot of those hippies—and their spawn—weren’t always so laidback or checked out. Many weren’t just be-ers but doers. They got shit done. They were Type A wolves passing themselves off as Beta stoners in sheep’s clothing. They were driven, focused, and motivated.
Thankfully, Maxwell’s neither a full-on Alpha nor a checked-out space cadet. The laidback thing is her, to be sure, and she’s definitely comfy with who she is, but she’s also productive, and goal-oriented, and has just the right amount of impatience that means, unlike a lot of other people, she gets shit done. And she’s wise. Witty and wise. The kind of witty that comes from having seen just about every form of human behavior (in Italy, Germany, and New York, on runways and studio shoots), and the kind of wisdom that doesn’t announce itself or lecture to others.
Katherine Maxwell is very much the embodiment of the clothing she creates—it looks delicate but it’s incredibly strong, it seems rarefied but anyone can wear it—and her clothing very much reflects who and what and where she is and who and what and where she has been and comes from. Look at her clothes and you can see the spaciousness of New Mexico’s expansive sky, the rainbowy colors along its Sangre de Cristo and Jemez mountains, or hints of the Cabaret-like culture she outfitted in black leather while living in Berlin; and the generous gaps in her stitching may have their roots too in the bodily freedom of her 60s upbringing.
That’s why her clothes are more experiential—they’re as much to be experienced as to be worn—than they are fashiony or practical or to be admired from afar. They’re infused with the Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out vibe of the Boston-area commune she grew up in, with her mom’s career as a hair stylist, and with her four-year apprenticeship under Boston jewelry and textile designer Chloe Sachs, for whom she knitted high-end sculptural pieces (“Chloe’s ideas,” she once said, “were futuristic, outrageous looking, and my job was to translate her ideas into knit patterns”).
They’re also informed by her work in the 80s and 90s as a stylist for fashion photographers, where she’d create, often on the fly and with whatever clothing and props happened to lay at hand, scenes and characters and mini-narratives for Vogue and L’Uomo, Gianni Versace and Romeo Gigli, and in her spare time she’d outfit local bands with Diesel and Benetton. She did this for nearly a decade, mainly in Milan and Berlin. Back then, the world was more flush, there was more money being thrown around, along with more stress, bigger egos, and bigger dramas. All of which took its toll on our heroine, even when she tried to escape its consumeristic hedonism by finding refuge in a cave off the coast of southern Italy.
Although she was surrounded by fashion, the fashion industry, the business of it, had gotten to her. So she returned to Boston. There, while doing volunteer work with inner-city youth at a non-profit called Artists for Humanity, Maxwell rediscovered her true first love: fiber arts. Textiles. Wool. Weaving. Knitting. Making clothes that moved with the shape of a person’s body without constricting their movements. Around that same time, she’d also turned to massage. Not to massages but to massage school, earning her degree as a masseuse (all, as Little Red Riding Hood’s “grandmother” might have said, to better understand the human body).
The bodywork, which she continued to do after moving to Santa Fe in 2001, not only reconnected her to her hands and to other peoples’ bodies, but to touch and feeling, and to the way a fabric feels on skin, the way the body moves with a material and through it. Maxwell, like many great designers, is nothing if not a tactile creature, weaving more by touch and feel than by design.
Not that she never has a plan. She sketches constantly. She researches. She records each piece’s “recipe” meticulously. And even though she selects each stitch at random before finger-weaving into these spaces with other fabric (wire, string, discarded textiles), there’s a complex Ariadne-like method to her seemingly chaotic madness.
“There’s a lot of math and geometry involved in making these clothes,” explains Maxwell, showing off her two Brother KH-230 bulk machine knitters. One she found at a garage sale and the other she found on the internet. She then stripped them down and modified them so that she can control the tension by hand. The machines hardly look anything like the wooden looms you see from times past, or in National Geographic stories about the craftwork of indigenous peoples; they look more like IBM-era circuitboards and they pack up as easily as Skrillex’s synthesizer. “These looms,” she says, whipping out the beginnings of a shirt on one in less than a minute, “they’re all math. And it’s knit. It’s not just woven. So I’m actually creating the fabric instead of cutting it and sewing it. It’s not homemade or scrapbook-y either. Which is how people tend to think of knitwear or wool. It’s couture.”
Ironically, but entirely in step with this whole notion of appearances, and despite the use of what is technically a machine, a machine she can tote around in a box, no less, Maxwell’s clothes are not industrially mass-produced, nor are they clothes ever puts into any literal box. (Although, again ironically, most of her shirts start off as, well, as boxes: “My indigo shirt,” she says, holding it up, “is based on a box. Until I add the sleeves, that’s all it is. A box. I’m very medieval in how I construct these pieces. My stuff is super medieval.”)
Medieval, maybe. Unique and uniquely handmade, definitely. A Maxwell shirt or dress or hat makes a statement. It’s thoughtful. It’s not made by a machine or by a crew of underpaid immigrant women. It’s made by one person: Kat. Or Max.
More a fiber nerd than a fashion diva, Maxwell makes her clothes as much for herself and the making of them as she constructs them for others. “Weaving is meditative,” she says, slowly moving off into a sort of reverie. “So these are my meditations. I’ve meditated these into existence. Like prayers or dreams or some kind of creature. I get into this state while I’m weaving, it’s a kind of limbo or a dreamworld, or maybe it’s limbic, but it’s definitely somewhere I’m transported to.
I’m in a sort of Zen state. They are clothes, they are art, either one. But they’re both, too. They’re tied to the land, they’re tied to my beingness, they’re informed by how I’ve lived my life—how lots of people have lived. They’re as much informed and designed and created by the people who wear them as they are by me.
“It’s more about the blending than anything else. And it comes from the world of Let’s pretend, the world of fantasy but a fantasy where you just make it up out of whatever you have handy [the way she did on her photo shoots]. And you have to experience it, because it’s alive. It expands and contracts. It travels. It’s very versatile clothing. It’s fun. It’s meant to be fun.
“Nothing really is anyway, is it?” she asks rhetorically. “So why should clothing be any more real or less real than everything else? That’d just be boring and dull. And who wants that? I want color and variety and love and pretense and wonder and all kinds of different things going on. That’s what life is. That’s what my clothes are. Or I hope they are anyway.”
~Interview by Devon Jackson~