Grooming by Angie Di Battista for Davines Hair Care/M.A.C Cosmetics/Plutino Group. Photomontage by Maxwell Burnstein.
The fashion industry's latest creative darling is a 25-year-old Torontonian whose secret weapon in an X-acto knife. Randi Bergman learns how Maxwell Burnstein cut, pasted and posted his way to the top. Photography by Jane and Jane
Maxwell Burnstein talks too fast for me to get a word in edgewise, but I don't need to ask too many questions. I recognize a yiddishe kop when I see one. For the uninitiated, I'm referring to the kind of dexterous Jewish mind that knows how to spot a good opportunity and act on it real quick. Of course, it's a skill not limited to our tribe; it's just one that's instantaneously familiar to me.
The 25-year-old whippersnapper arrives for our coffee date with an overstuffed folder, filled with a selection of his latest collage work. There's an image of It-girl Cara Delevingne superimposed onto Rome's Trevi Fountain; a shot of a woman in Prada's Fall collection, slivered down to her brocade; and a few Canadian models whose faces mesmerizingly repeat within themselves. It's just a sampling of his prolific portfolio, which he's been building at a breakneck pace in the 18 months since graduating from Ryerson University's School of Fashion in Toronto. In that short time, he's managed to collage covers for both Elle's Mexican and Croatian editions, worked out lucrative partnerships with several hoteliers including W and The Drake, and created a jewellery campaign for Holt Renfrew, all while building a 35,000 follower-strong Instagram account.
Burnstein has a lot more than clip art on his mind. "Beneath the artist is a businessperson encapsulating a rare combination of design and entrepreneurship," says Robert Ott, chair of Ryerson's fashion program. It's this diverse skill set that makes him a leader among a new generation of image makers who are shaking up the way clothing and accessories are consumed.
Burnstein traces his love for photomontage back to his bedroom in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he lived until he was a teen, before relocating with his family to Toronto. Walls were covered with GQ spreads and images of a pre-Simple Life Paris Hilton until he moved on to more sophisticated subject matter. "Collage was what I did for fun. It was innate," he says. It wasn't until collage became a component of the Ryerson curriculum that he saw it as his way into the upper echelons of the fashion world.
On Instagram and Tumblr, collage work was beginning to pique the interest of the industry. Artist Kalen Hollomon was spinning his subversive account into collaborations with Vogue and The Weeknd. Brands like Prada and Céline were debuting cut-and-paste ad campaigns. In the weeks following his graduation, Burnstein began a self-imposed 30-day art challenge, during which he tasked himself with creating something new each day and sharing it on Instagram. "At first I was doing it to round out my portfolio, but the reaction went viral," he says. "I got a tremendous amount of likes and feedback and almost immediately started having different websites, magazines and blogs reach out to me for collaboration opportunities."
His big break quickly followed: The chance to collage for Elle Mexico's profile on Italian designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana last November. The feature led to Burnstein's name being given a permanent place on the magazine's masthead as a contributing artist and his work is now featured in its pages multiple times a year. Most recently, his collage of a Gucci dress curled up within a blown up graphic of its own snake print covered the magazine's spring 2016 trends issue. "His manual art is something that amazes me," says his collaborator, Elle Mexico art editor Dalia Pallares. "He always Snapchats me his process, because he knows it's something that really excites me."
Pallares is referring to Burnstein's analog technique, which he's keen to highlight as something that differentiates him from his peers. While most of today's mixed-media collages are created digitally, Burnstein makes his images with an X-acto knife, a glue stick and paper. "I'm trying to showcase the fine-art practice in a way that's consumable in this digital era," he says.
Another key difference is Burnstein's source images, which are generally original photographs produced for his projects. This past summer, he collaborated with designer brand Baja East and photographer Alexander Saladrigas on pieces that will be featured in W's Union Square location. "Maxwell has an incredible work ethic and it translates in his work," says W's New York marketing manager, Tanya De Costa. As part of a year in residence with the hotel group, more of his pieces will be featured in other properties. "There's a unique combination of fashion and art that's highlighted in such an engaging way," she says.
As much as he prefers to keep things simple with his creative practice, Burnstein uses today's boundary-less social media world to exploit it. "Instagram is an opportunity for me to connect with people that are completely inaccessible in every other way," he says. Burnstein's Instagram account acts as a living, breathing portfolio, while building his own personal brand. "I have every leading industry member I would want to work with at my fingertips."
When I ask Burnstein who his heroes are, he references the likes of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, two pop artists who are unabashedly commerce-minded. Koons, whose most famous work is a statue of Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles, has been vilified by purists for commercializing art, yet he's ranked as the highest-valued living American artist. In 2008, an auction of Hirst's animals preserved in formaldehyde brought in $198 million (U.S.), the highest amount ever generated by a living artist at auction. #8220;I'm not going to starve," he admits when I suggest the correlation between the Koons-Hirst approach to marketing and his own. "Or if I starve, I'll do it in the W Hotel."
Later this year, Burnstein will mount exhibitions of his work at both W's Koh Samui Thailand resort and its Washington, D.C. hotel – just in time for the U.S. inauguration. They will be two more examples of how his chutzpa is paying off within the art and fashion worlds. As the patron saint of creative hustle, Andy Warhol, once said, "Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art."