R&B SOUL ARTIST MAXWELL OPENS OUR EYES IN CONVERSATION WITH 20/20 EXECUTIVE EDITOR CHRISTINE YEH
Photographed by Saad Amer
The year: 1999. The scene: Driving in a car with my younger sister Candy. The music: “Fortunate” by Maxwell. The sound: Candy and I belting out the lyrics of this mesmerizing love song at the top of our lungs, fantasizing that one day, the guys of our dreams would sing these words to us. This didn’t only happen in the car. Sometimes it was at home when we swapped stories about who we were dating or had crushes on. Other times it was watching the song’s video on MTV and BET.
These are memories with my sister that I look back fondly on. But If you told me then that 20-plus years later, I would be on a Zoom meeting in conversation with the man whose soulful voice I sang along with more times than I can count, my 20-something year old self would have laughed in disbelief. Yet here I am, face to face with Maxwell, a three time Grammy winning recording artist. The reason for our meeting? STATE X Maxwell—the recently launched sunglass style from State Optical designed in collaboration with the soul star. The limited edition style, named after a song from Maxwell’s debut album “Urban Hang Suite,” is called Reunion—a word that connotes so much more meaning today than ever. And this is more than just a collaboration—there is something significantly special tied to it. Maxwell is here to share this story with me, along with State creative director Nicolas Roseillier, who worked in close partnership with him designing the sunglass.
Before we dove into our conversation, I couldn’t resist a fan girl moment. Maxwell kindly indulges me. When I recount my memories of listening to his music, he says with a sincere smile, “I don’t believe in accidents… and the fact that this happened to you, and I happened to meet Nicolas, and we collaborated on this design, and how these glasses are affecting the community… there are no accidents. So I’m just grateful that we’re finally meeting.” (Side note: Most of us in the industry know Roseillier as Nico, so I note to Maxwell that it’s funny to hear him call him Nicolas, to which Nico replies: “Max is the only one allowed to call me Nicolas!”) I mention that not only do I view Nico as one of the top designers in our industry, but he also happens to be a good friend of mine, to which Max replies: “He’s a great designer! Look at those specs he has on right now—what are THOSE!?!” He leaned in, scrutinizing the super cool double brow bar optical aviator Nico is sporting.
Maxwell discovered State’s eyewear via a mutual friend of his and Nico’s, who knew he wore eyewear regularly. She was surprised to hear that he had never considered collaborating on sunglasses, especially since he also wears them performing on stage. When she suggested State as a possible partnership, he responded: “My first question was, are they good? Are they cool? Is this only going to be about how much money we can make; is there going to be an actual partnership and collaboration?” She vouched for Nico’s integrity and suggested they get in touch. The next is, well, the reason we’re chatting.
“Of course, I was already a fan of his work with John Varvatos,” Maxwell says in praise of Nico’s work at his previous stint as creative director at De Rigo Rem. “I’m just a general fan of his aesthetic, and I knew he knew what he was doing. And to boot, he’s an engineer—anybody who’s an engineer can pretty much make anything. And I actually WANT those glasses he’s wearing right now!” He leans in again, clearly still smitten with Nico’s frame. “But at the very core of it, we got along really well, and I feel like he really appreciated what I did as a creative person. And it wasn’t just ‘add water and stir artist.’ He was really genuine. He actually knew my music and recited memories about it.”
Nico chimes in: “To piggyback on what Max is saying, and Christine, you know this about me, but it’s always about the relationship. There’s either a connection, or there’s none. And I do think that when we met the first time, it wasn’t just through Max’s art and music. We had that connection. We were speaking the same design language and the concept behind it. It just makes things natural when you get on the same creative level—you just get it. It makes things perfect, and you have fun doing it. So personally for me, it could not be better.”
Let’s interrupt this sweet “bromance” for a moment and discuss how the Reunion frame came to be. I was curious to hear how involved Maxwell was on the design process. “I sent Nicolas some mood boards and ideas. I think the design he chose was particularly somewhat a late ’70s style going into the ’80s, which was a time, musically, what I was inspired by when I did Urban Hang Suite.” The frame is an acetate with a rounded aviator shape and is available in two colorways, a sultry blue smoke with brown gradient lenses and a sandblasted matte black with blue gradient lenses. Further expanding on the frame’s design, Maxwell says, “The way Nicolas designed the frames really harkens back to when I used to obsess about ‘Wonder Woman,’ and Lynda Carter would wear those big glasses, and the guys would have those frames that would have the ’70s and ’80s feel to it. But of course, Nicolas being the genius that he is, he added that modern feel to it that gives it the sense that it’s right now.”
Nico nods in agreement: “The idea was to create something timeless. There are a few staples in our industry where you put them in your drawer—it doesn’t matter if you take them out tomorrow or in a few years, they’re the staple designs. And I believe what we created together is one of those—it’s something that will be timeless. If you take Max’s album, you could launch it today, and it’s still the same, and that’s the beauty of it. I listen to your songs the same way now as when it first came out. That was the idea, to create something that is truly meaningful and that has soul to it.”
As for naming the frame Reunion, the intention was to connect its timeless and classic design to Maxwell’s music. “The idea was to name the frame after various songs that hopefully people knew or didn’t know… it didn’t matter. The song 'Reunion' is almost like we’re going back in time. And at the same time, because we actually had options for various song titles, I said to Nicolas, ‘Let’s use Reunion because we clearly need to be united during this time. Whatever political side you’re on, the world needs unity.’” Maxwell explains, referring to the challenging political climate our country is experiencing. “It’s one of those deep cut songs that wouldn’t be so obvious to people, like ‘Ascension’ or ‘Pretty Wings.’” Those are some of his more immediately recognized songs, but the subtlety of a song such as Reunion was important to him.
The craftsmanship and the quality of the frame, as well as the pricing were also important to Maxwell. “You want the frames to be well crafted but you want them at a good price. I want you to get something that you’ll forever wear, that will always mean something to you, that has value over time, not just because it’s the new trend or the new season. In terms of execution, quality, construction, and the fact that it is made in America and actually benefits us as Americans, this was all check, check, check for me,” He affirms, making the “check box” gesture.
Since the announcement of the collaboration and the launch of the Reunion frame, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, so much so that Maxwell has already hinted at the desire to do more. But it’s more than his love for eyewear driving this passion, there’s a philanthropic aspect tied to the collaboration that has become close to his heart. A portion of the proceeds from the Reunion frame will be donated to the Open Your Eyes Scholarship (O-YES) program, a 501(c)(3) charity created by The Vision Council through the Better Vision Institute, designed to support high school students in marginalized communities throughout the U.S. who have an interest in pursuing a career in the optical industry. The program will support selected students through monetary scholarships to opticianry school, paid internships and mentorships. In addition, Maxwell has joined the O-YES board of directors as its newest member.
Coinciding with the time Maxwell began collaborating with State, Nico worked with Tarrence Lackran, The Vision Council’s director of partnerships and programming on the Open Your Eyes Frame Auction benefitting the Equal Justice Initiative and My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. “When Tarrence and I worked on that first auction, that became the foundation to eventually creating the scholarship.” After brainstorming other ways to support diversity and inclusion in the industry, Tarrence came up with the Open Your Eyes Scholarship. Nico, who is also a member of the board, presented to Maxwell the idea of tying the frame collaboration to the scholarship, and he immediately signed on. “When Max and I started designing together, it was really clear from the beginning that this is not just another collaboration. We wanted something that we would be able to give back, which has really been the message from the beginning, how can we go to the next step and really have something to give back to on what’s happening.”
Nico connected him with Tarrence, and the invitation to join the board was extended to Maxwell. At The Vision Council’s Executive Summit this past January, Maxwell was revealed as a surprise guest at a virtual happy hour hosted by CEO Ashley Mills to celebrate the conclusion of a virtual auction supporting the O-YES scholarship. His appearance combined with the announcement of his new role on the O-YES board along with the STATE X Maxwell collaboration was a delight to all attendees at the happy hour. His sincerity and his excitement for this initiative was visibly seen and palpably felt by all, especially when he told a touching story of his experience as a little boy in school when he couldn’t see the chalkboard, and how he felt when he finally got his glasses, and how it changed his ability to learn.
I sensed the same heartwarming enthusiasm as he further shared his thoughts with me on helping our industry increase representation by creating more opportunities for those in the Black and Brown communities. “What’s great is that this comes at a really poignant time not only in African American history, but in the history of humanity. I’ve always operated with the thinking that if you have the experience and expertise and the hunger, you can do anything. But I can control these things in my creative world more so than businesses tend to do in their worlds, so to see many of them opening their eyes to everyone finally is a good thing. Designing these glasses and to be able to partner with the O-YES foundation to give those who would’ve had a hard time getting the opportunity to go to school and benefit from this… anything that’s philanthropic but also related to fashion and design and art, and that can give back, gave me the best recipe for creativity and a partnership.” Maxwell reveals this is the first time he has done something like this, as many businesses did not align with his ideals of a partnership. “The lack of diversity in some of these businesses—as someone who performs to so many different types of people, many of them who are underrepresented and underpaid, that’s why I never really got on the train of collabing with everybody who called me up to do something for whatever reason, because they weren’t really true to what I wanted to be. So this was something that was 100 percent perfect for me and everyone who can be involved in it. This is why your industry is so important because you give people self-esteem, and you give them the ability to reignite their own strengths. It’s very important to feel like you can be part of the conversation.”
Maxwell also believes that the timing of the O-YES partnership and the collaboration with State coinciding with the challenges of an ongoing pandemic was a chance for a reset on humanity. “If there’s a silver lining with COVID, it’s that people being at home and having to reflect on themselves and asking how can things be better. 2020 was a bad year for sure but what’s great is what people did with what was given to them. It was a lot to deal with for everyone but this partnership was a path toward doing the best and making the best with what we have. By being more inclusive and bringing in people who wouldn’t have this opportunity into your industry from all facets of life, this is what we needed so that we can be the people that we are supposed to be on the planet.”
As difficult as it was to pull all of this off amidst the pandemic, he is grateful that it all came to fruition. “When we shut down, everyone had to pull their lives together and figure out what they needed to do and balance it all with their lives and families. The fact that we even got to this point to get the glasses out, and work with Tarrence and partner with The Vision Council at the same time is nothing short of a miracle. It definitely speaks volumes to Nicolas’ dedication and the fact that he was going to make this happen throughout all that was going on,” For Maxwell, who had heeded precautions before the rest of our country did last year, safety was a top priority. “I moved heaven and earth to be able to do this… it was really hard to even get the photo shoot together safely for this because of COVID. But I’m so grateful that we got to do this, and that I got to step into this vision world.”
Of course, before Maxwell officially “stepped into the vision world,” he was already a participant as a long-time wearer and collector of eyewear, including some vintage pieces from the ’70s. When I ask him what other type of frame styles he gravitates toward, he laughs, “You know there’s this one style that I’m really loving right now, they’re called Reunion.” He followed that up with it mostly depends on the occasion—whether he’s performing, driving, riding a motorcycle, etc. “I’m nearsighted, and I have an issue with where I have to look down. So I get them with my Rx, I put them on but make sure it’s something that Nicolas designed or something that was worn by Steve McQueen in ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ or anything that feels like an Aston Martin, I’m all about it.” Maxwell prides himself on his knowledge of eyewear. “When I met Nicolas, it wasn’t like I didn’t know anything about glasses.” Nico confirms this: “He knew his stuff!” Maxwell replies, “I knew my stuff because I had no option but to know it, because as a kid, being called four eyes, you go through all the things that kids go through. But the beauty about designers like Nicolas is that he adds a fashion spin to glasses. It’s funny because I’ve been an avid consumer of glasses for so long, but this is the first time I’ve gotten to make a pair, especially with someone I respect. And to be able to do something creatively to open up the avenue to others in your field, it’s like a full circle. I love the cohesiveness of what this feels like, working with Tarrence and Nicolas. I’m not just trying to get a check, I’m not that guy. No disrespect to those who need to do those big commercials, but I need it to mean something.”
While Maxwell is humble about not doing collaborations only for the money, he also confides that as an artist, it was always about making the music. He was never really interested in being a celebrity and has always been gun shy about being in the public eye. In fact, when he began his career in music, his original interest was being a songwriter and not as a performing artist. Ironically, the person instrumental in steering him down the unintended path is someone who happens to be a long-time friend of Editor-in-Chief James Spina—a music industry A&R man named Mitchell Cohen, who signed Maxwell to Columbia Records in 1993. He credits Cohen with giving him opportunities that didn’t exist at the time. “Mitchell allowed me to have that creative freedom at a time when people didn’t have the freedom to do what they want. He gave me the opportunity to make a record that wasn’t just an R&B record or a Black record, it was MUSIC. He really fought for me to have an instrumental at the beginning of the album. He fought for my album cover because back then, if you were an R&B artist, they were very particular about the way you had to do things. And no disrespect, it’s called marketing, and the marketing was based on what they thought the listeners—Black and Brown listeners—would like. It’s the same way working with Nicolas, we’ve had respectful conversations about the meaning of what we’re doing and not just the business of what we’re doing. So Mitchell… all of this is a beautiful surprise… but no accident, and I’m really grateful.”
This year also happens to be the 25th anniversary of Urban Hang Suite. “When I think about the fact that the glasses are called Reunion, and that we’re 25 years since the release of this album; the fact that we need to be more united… maybe people are coming back to a sentiment inside themselves that they’ve sort of abandoned because of corporate reasons and social media and disconnection from society.” Between the pandemic and the social revolution happening in our country, this anniversary is indeed symbolic of the current times we’re experiencing—if not even more relevant.
I’ve had the opportunity to interview many well-known people during my time at 20/20, but Maxwell is among the most genuine and compassionate people I have ever featured. His music and voice are so full of soul and passion, but he also channels this wonderfully into everything he does outside of music—whether it’s contributing to social activism, to his partnership in our industry, to the way he speaks to all of us as human beings. At the O-YES happy hour, his appearance brought a warm and serene aura to the conversation, and it was obvious he mesmerized the audience. For him, the feeling was mutual, if not more so. “I’ve been in front of a lot of audiences in my life, but that audience was quite special because I really felt a depth of empathy and expertise that I didn’t really understand until now. I kind of took my glasses for granted for a bit, I’m not going to lie. I wore them, they helped me see, but I didn’t understand the blood, sweat and tears, the years it takes, the dedication. To me, when I see you guys, the designers and the opticians, optometrists and ophthalmologists, what I appreciate in seeing is there so much dedication, just as much dedication as what a musician puts in to learning their guitars and other instruments. It’s a passion project. I don’t think people just fall into this, it’s something you really wanted to do and that meant a lot for you to do, when you see your patients walking away and feeling ‘wow, I can see, and it fits my face a certain way and I feel a certain vibe because of you.’ I’m really honored to be a part of a group like this.” I tell Maxwell that he’s officially a member of our optical family, and that we welcome him with open arms.
As for more styles down the road with State, we will have to stay tuned but Maxwell is not shy about voicing his thoughts on this. “I hope so! For something like this to come together during a time like this, is nothing short of a miracle. The fact that Nicolas was able to tick so many boxes and connect so many dots, and also because of our relationship, it literally is like our first optical child, so to speak. It’s great because I understand his personality and his aesthetic. I never thought someone from France would even know me… at that time, I was just making these songs thinking that hopefully people will like it. And for so many years to pass and to be able to talk to someone who is such an expert in his field, and to get along with him and for him to bring me literally the best deal in the world in terms of my philanthropy, because my heart is buried in philanthropy. If I’m taking time away from something that I love doing the most, which is making music and writing lyrics, to be a part of something that’s really close to my heart, it’s one of those lucky once-in-a-lifetime things to be able to do something with someone like him.”
Maxwell wasn’t kidding when he says he took time away from making music to do something important to him. The day of our chat, he actually was in his studio in the middle of recording new music, when he took a break to have this in-depth conversation with me, for which I graciously thank him as we near the end of it. In the same way Maxwell sincerely affirmed how meaningful it is to be a part of our industry, and the warmth and empathy he felt from the audience at the O-YES happy hour, without a doubt, I can also reaffirm how grateful I am to be here as well, especially in my role as Executive Editor of 20/20, and as a member of The Vision Council’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Task Force. The opportunity to have this one-on-one conversation with him not only has impacted me personally with some of the challenges I’m experiencing during this pivotal time in our world, but it has also reignited a new passion in me for the way I view our industry. It’s easy to get complacent and caught up in only the business side of things, especially during a time when staying afloat is sometimes all we can think about. But seeing everything through his eyes brings a heartening new perspective, especially when it’s coming from someone of Maxwell’s stature—someone who embraces us with such humanity and compassion. Someone who doesn’t view his partnership as just another celebrity endorsement, but with the goal of helping us gain more awareness for diversity, equity and inclusion, and pave the way for the next generation set to join our industry.
“Reunion is a promise, if not a guarantee, that we can come back together. We need a reunion of humanity, a reunification of sanity and a reunion of love for one another, and for others we know nothing about, but share the same common thread of values and responsibilities.” Maxwell shares this personal message on a card that comes packaged with the Reunion sunglass. These words powerfully resonate with many of us not only in a spiritual sense, but for those of us who are looking forward to being physically reunited again with our family and friends, myself included. The song Reunion closes with the lyric “We’re back together.” When I first shared with Maxwell my memories of listening to his music 20 years ago, he told me it’s not an accident we’re meeting 20 years later. Thank you Maxwell, this indeed is OUR reunion. And I await the day when I can say to you and my loved ones, “We’re back together.”■
To contribute to the Open Your Eyes Scholarship program or for additional information, contact Tarrence Lackran at [email protected].