If fashion is a religion, André Leon Talley is its pope. His ornate capes and voluminous caftans could easily double for religious garments. And his creative headpieces (a turban!) rival any bishop’s miter Rihanna might wear to New York’s Met Gala. Whether at a book signing, on the panel of America’s Next Top Model, or at a fitting for a female friend, he has a papal presence. When he speaks, his words have weight. People pay homage and want to be blessed. Or at least dressed.
At a recent screening and Q&A of the delightful new documentary The Gospel According to André, attended by Talley and director Kate Novack, Novack said one reason she wanted to make a documentary about the flamboyant and legendary Vogue fashion editor was because she wanted to correct a glaring omission. While Talley had been featured in previous fashion documentaries (e.g., Unzipped), she was shocked that no one had of thought to do one on him.
Amen, sister. With a subject as camera-ready as Talley, a 6’6” African American man who commands every room he enters, all Laura had to do was follow him around and let him talk. Then let his famous friends and colleagues talk (Anna Wintour, Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, Whoopi Goldberg, Sandra Bernhard). Then let his childhood friends and relatives talk, the people from the Jim Crow South in Durham, North Carolina, who believed in him and knew he was special. And in between all the talking, we see his life unfold on vintage film and in pictures.
It was pictures that saved him, the pictures of Vogue magazine he saw as a teen at the local library. He said it transported him to a life he knew he had to have. Raised by a fashionable, hat-loving grandmother who was a domestic all her life – working for the men’s dorm rooms at Duke University – Talley maintains it was his grandmother who led him to believe he was meant for a life of luxury, as long as he worked hard.
Popular in high school (former classmates and even a teacher make appearances), he studied French and won a scholarship to Brown. Talley felt by going to an Ivy League school, he could escape the racism he felt in his home town, recalling the time some white boys spotted him on the college campus and threw rocks at him. While in college he fell in with the bohemian crowd from the nearby Rhode Island School of Design. These became his people, and dress-up was an everyday occurrence. Still, he was not sure what he wanted to do with his life. Then a move to Manhattan and two famous figures he worked for would prove instrumental in his development: Diana Vreeland and Andy Warhol.
The way Talley tells it, he was volunteering for a fashion show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art about Hollywood fashion, curated by Vreeland. His first assignment was to painfully reconstruct a beaded outfit worn by Lana Turner. Ever resourceful, and a stickler for research and fashion history books, Talley must have done a good job, because he was suddenly summoned to Mrs. Vreeland’s office and watched her write his name on a card, along with the word “helper.” And for the rest of the exhibit, and a good while after, he never left her side.
It was Vreeland who got him a job at Warhol’s Factory during its Interview magazine heyday in the 1970s. Writer Fran Lebowitz recalls how most receptionists there were young heiresses who couldn’t take a message if their lives depended on it. Talley brought the discipline his grandmother taught him to the job, eventually working his way up to Contributing Editor. Warhol taught him he could do whatever he wanted. He went on to work at Women’s Wear Daily and W before landing at Vogue, where he served as Creative Director from 1988 to 1995.
While not overtly political (this is certainly no I Am Not Your Negro Fashion Editor), the documentary is clear in explaining how Talley’s trajectory was unusual for a black man. At the European runway shows, he was usually the only African American in any role of authority. One painful scene shows Talley telling how he was nicknamed “Queen Kong,” the rocks thrown at him years ago replaced by racist name-calling. He strove to get designers to use more African American models. And his admiration for Michelle Obama is palpable. (He wrote her Vogue cover article and introduced her to Jason Wu, who designed her memorable inauguration outfit.) And even though he felt defeated after the last Presidential election, his admiration for Melania Trump’s own inauguration dress was honest, even if he was trolled for it.
Now 68, Talley holds a position in fashion as eminence grise. Which is another way of saying we will probably never see his kind again. When asked which designers he would invite to the perfect dinner party, he said none of them would be alive: Chanel, Schiaparelli, and his favorite, Madame Grès.
If there is one lesson Talley would preach the loudest, it’s not from a fashion designer, but from Cicero: unless you know the past, you cannot grow. Talley has worked his whole career to preach the importance of the history of fashion. So who will keep up that tradition once he joins his beloved designers at the giant Met Gala in the sky?