Remembering Andre Leon Talley, Fashion's Arbiter Of Glamour
The flamboyant fashion editor and once-upon-time darling of Anna Wintour commanded attention — and kept it
I can’t remember the party, but I can remember the scream. Piercing and dramatic, those less familiar with Andre Leon Talley might have assumed it was a portent of disaster or discontent. To those who knew him, however, it was just André being André: deliciously dramatic.
Possibly, he was exclaiming about the canapes. Or maybe the cut of a model’s Alaia dress. Alarming as they may have sounded to the uninitiated, his screams were inevitably followed by a peal of laughter. His sense of humour ran the gamut from bitchy to waggish to droll. During his five decades in the fashion industry, it was this humour that made him such compelling company, as in-demand as a party guest as he was as a guest on the front row.
Many people are described as “larger than life”, and Talley’s death, at 73, has prompted a slew of tributes chronicling him as such. “You championed me and you have been my friend since the beginning”, wrote the designer, Marc Jacobs. “You and your passions were larger than life.”
Certainly, Talley had a more ebullient personality than the average fashion editor. But if he was larger than life, he was also larger than them, a 6 foot 6 colossus of height and intellect swathed in a billowing Chanel/Valentino/Yamamoto cape or kaftan. Just as Karl Lagerfeld had his fan, Talley’s capes and kaftans were his trademark, and while it’s impossible to pick a favourite, honourable mention must surely go to the red and gold kaftan he wore in 2018, hand-embroidered by the designer Daniel Day.
This kaftan is particularly significant because it is an example of Talley’s tireless championing of overlooked talent, particularly overlooked Black talent. The designer Daniel Day is better known as Dapper Dan, a maverick genius who arguably invented the concept of luxury streetwear and was plagued with lawsuits throughout the 1990s, before eventually being invited into the fold via a collaboration with Gucci.
“I wanted people to know how proud I was of a Black man who finally got his proper due and respect from the vicious, cruel beast of fashion,” Talley explained in The Gospel According To Andre (2018), a documentary about his life.
Talley could as easily have been talking about himself. Born in Washington, D.C., he was brought up by his grandmother in Durham, North Carolina revealing in his 2020 memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, that he had been sexually abused as a child. Often struggling to fit in, he said he found his calling upon discovering an issue of Vogue aged nine, during a trip to a church library.
It was the beginning of a journey that would see him move to New York and embark on a stellar five-decade career in fashion. His first job in 1974 was as an intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, working for the legendary Diana Vreeland.
From there he moved to work under Andy Warhol at the artist’s Interview magazine, an experience he described as “like being in high school. We worked hard, it was a professional office, but it was also a social club. Everyone in the Warhol universe was equal, and it was all just a blast.”
Having studied French literature at Carolina Central University and later gaining a Master of Arts degree in French literature at Brown, it had been a longstanding dream of his to live and work in Paris. Aged 28, he made the move, working for the trade publication Womenswear Daily. Here, he cemented lifelong friendships with Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld.
In 2021, he was honored with the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, in recognition of his contribution to French culture.
His longest tenure was at American Vogue, where he worked as Fashion News Director from 1983 to 1987 before becoming the magazine’s Creative Director in 1988. In 1995, he was made Editor At Large, where he spent the next 18 years as Anna Wintour’s right-hand man, sitting at her side at every fashion show throughout New York, London, Milan and Paris fashion week, always travelling with his custom-made of Louis Vuitton luggage, a collection which is said to have numbered around 50 pieces.
He left in 2013, contributing to podcasts and conducting red carpet interviews, most notably at the Met Ball, until he was controversially replaced by YouTuber Liza Koshy. “Like an extinct dodo bird, my brain, rich and replete with knowledge, has been relegated to the history books,” he wrote in his 2020 memoir, in which he also revealed his sorrow and anger over his perceived treatment by Wintour, whom he said thought he had become ‘old, overweight and uncool’.
His flamboyant personality and pithy observations made him a natural on TV, and his fame grew when he appeared as a judge on America’s Next Top Model (2010-2011). He also had cameo roles in Sex And The City (2008) and Empire (2015).
He was vocal about Black models’ lack of representation on the catwalk and in magazines years before other voices joined the cry, and used his position as the highest-ranking African American man in fashion to pay it forward, helping other BAME people in an industry which has always overlooked them.
It was Talley who introduced designer Jason Wu to former First Lady Michelle Obama, who eventually went on to design her inauguration gown. He also served as a stylist to the Obamas during Barack Obama’s presidency.
Talley touched the lives of everyone who was fortunate enough to know him, but while his friendship was loyal, his advocacy for Black models and designers was more loyal still, nor can his importance as an advocate and role model be overestimated.
BAME people are still under-represented in the fashion industry, but when Talley was attending the fashion shows on behalf of American Vogue in the mid-nineties, it wasn’t unusual for him to be the only African-American person in the entire audience.
“His existence, endurance and talent gave so many hope and they will to keep pushing,” Vanessa Kingori, Chief Business Officer of British Vogue and British GQ, posted on Instagram. “Without you, there would be no me,” wrote Vogue’s Editorial Director, Edward Enninful. “Thank you for paving the way.”
“I do believe there’s a heaven,” Talley wrote in his memoir. “I do believe that God has given me the resilience and the survival skills to withstand the chiffon trenches.” Heaven has gained a witty, inspirational angel, whose like on earth can never be replaced.
The Daily Telegraph
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