The invention of André Léon Talley

Talley in 2016.
Photo: Jeremy M. Lange/The New York Times/Redux

When the news broke that André Leon Talley, who had dominated fashion for decades, had died suddenly at the age of 73, it was the uniqueness of his life, his talent and his personality that was evoked time and time again. , often laced with a sense of regret that his life’s work – a celebration of beauty, taste and style almost as godly as his religious faith – had finally let him down. But it’s important to remember that he was one of fashion’s most ardent and particular believers. Oscar de la Renta CEO Alex Bolen received a text from his kids studying abroad on Wednesday: “Hey, remember the shirts?” He didn’t, not immediately. Years earlier, Talley had come to lunch at de la Rentas for the 5th birthday of Bolen’s son, Henry, with a gift for the boy: monogrammed shirts from Charvet, the 19th century blouses from Place Vendôme, seat of the Parisian couture. houses and the Ritz. “We had to forbid him to wear them to school,” Bolen said. “To this day, Henry is like, ‘When are we going to that place Charvet?'”

Talley believed in the best. A five-year-old Charvet deserved no less than a chairman of a board of directors: it’s the first word in shirts, and so it’s the shirt to bring. I didn’t know Talley well – for the memories of someone who did, read my colleague Cathy Horyn’s wonderful essay – but all the time I worked in fashion people never stopped to talk about him, even when, for a combination of reasons he fell out of favor with his twin popes, his friends, Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld. But Talley himself embodied an idea of ​​luxury with his monogrammed Louis Vuitton trunks and Goyard bags, Fendi furs custom-designed for him by Lagerfeld. He was a demanding connoisseur and a bon vivant who, like most of the most interesting people in fashion, was all the more passionate about it because he was not born for it.

He was a fashion editor in the broadest and most elastic sense of the word – he styled stories and shoots (fashion speaks of “portraits”), wrote the copy and did the interviews that went with them. , quarreled with and flattered the celebrities and wealthy women who featured in it – for voguewith which he is most associated, but also more briefly for Interview (under Andy Warhol), for Daily Women’s Clothing at the height of his powers, vanity loungeand, often passed over in silence, for Ebony. Later, he was a mentor at SCAD, the Savannah College of Art and Design, and a member of its board of trustees. But he was also, perhaps above all, his own project, Pygmalion as well as his subject, perhaps with a little more Icarus. He embodied the transformative power of fashion, not just the domain of socialites and amateur shoppers, but a trail of invention. “I was so inspired by Andre that he made himself up,” said model Veronica Webb, whose career Talley has championed. “He had become this person who was able to live his dreams. He told me, don’t be afraid. Because coming from where you come from and being at the level where you are – and I think he was talking about the two of us, you know, collectively and figuratively – is divine.

Taste is a language, and fluidity, he seems to have realized early on, was the currency of the realm. He knew fashion and the history of fashion; when Diana Vreeland, the first of a number of white women who would be mentors, boosters and protectors, helped him find work in New York when he arrived in 1974, according to his biographer Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, she promised an executive to Oscar de la Renta that “he knows all the haute couture dresses of the last 50 years and has worn them all”. He became an expert on the social graces of high society and despising those who disrespected them. There were tributes, notes and condolence cards – Bolen remembers receiving a four-page letter after the death of a family dog. Its height for those without its expertise could be chilling. “Honey, I don’t have a slumber party,” he told his old friend, Princess (still correctly titled) Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, for an interview in the English magazine Buffalo Zine“because people don’t know how to sleep at home and do it properly.”

Upper-class taste wasn’t the only language he was learning to speak. Talley was fluent in the lingua franca of fashion, Mandarin statements like those in Vreeland. The ultra-André statements for which he became famous – as in his declamation to Vera Wang in the September issue, which is often remembered: “My eyes are thirsty for beauty!” – owe something to its operatic grandeur, more is more. “It almost felt like a parody of fashion,” said Linda Wells, who had known Talley from her time at vogue, their way of speaking. “But they weren’t travesties because they were so into it, they loved it so much, they believed in it so much, and they were so good at it.” And there was his French – Talley graduated from Central University of North Carolina with a degree in French literature in 1970 and earned a master’s degree in French at Brown after that – which he attributes to his entry into the world of the fashion. “That’s why I was so successful, because I could speak the language,” he told a table of friends in his 2017 documentary, The Gospel According to Andrew. This earned him the post of head of the Paris office of Daily Women’s Clothing in the late 1970s, in the heady days of Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld’s Chloé rival, where he worked until his furious resignation in 1979, his honor questioned by an executive who suggested that he had slept with the creators he covered.

Beauty and style, it is well known if not always recognized, are professional spheres that can be cruel and ugly, especially for a black man, and for many years Talley was most visible, if not, as a New Yorker profile by Hilton Als in 1994 was titled “The Only One”, which culminated in an ugly moment: Loulou de la Falaise, a French friend of many years, casually referring to him with a racial slur, which Talley merely laugh. Talley hated this piece — it “doesn’t exist in the universe I’m walking in,” he later told this magazine, and he defended de la Falaise. But in recent years he has openly acknowledged – sometimes, as in The Gospel According to Andrew, through tears – that slights and racial slurs had dogged him throughout his career. “He was a remarkable, hard-working, tough and thoughtful person,” said legendary fashion editor Polly Mellen, a former colleague of vogue, told me when I joined her in Connecticut. “He left a legacy that will stay with us.” She said she loved André and kept a picture of the two of them, with French fashion editor Carlyne Cerf from Dudzeele, hanging on her wall. But when I asked her if she thought he was treated fairly by the fashion industry, her voice changed slightly. “I don’t like to think about that, Matthew,” she said.

For years and years he strove to work in the halls and halls of wealth and access, and he could be generous in shining his light on those he favored. Andre Walker, who met Talley as a teenager, remembers being introduced to Lagerfeld by him, after sneaking backstage at a fashion show. “Karl, meet your future,” Talley told him. “He was our emissary,” said Veronica Webb, whose life changed when he introduced her in vanity lounge and introduced her to Lagerfeld. “He was the tip of the spear. It was he who literally blew the doors of the castles. He had erected himself into an imposing figure, wrapped in high fashion robes and shrouded in furs, unsinkable under the protection of good clothes and the best taste. “One of the great things about fashion is, you know, you invest all that time and money because it makes you waterproof,” Webb said. “It feels like it’s waterproof.”

But no one is safe, even Talley. In Chiffon trench coatshis 2020 memoir, he expressed his bitterness and spleen towards Condé Nast (“special in his ability to spit people out”) and, above all, Anna Wintour, who had been one of his great champions, giving him some of the greatest opportunities of his career (he was the first and, to date, only black creative director of vogue when she gave him the job in 1988) and, obviously, drove them away from him too. Talley wrote that he was sidelined, underpaid, and ostracized by the magazine and by Wintour herself; he acknowledged a debt to her, but doubled down on criticism he had made in interviews that Wintour “will never allow anything (or anyone!) to interfere with his white privilege.” Nevertheless, he wrote that he thought of her every day. Wednesday, vogueThe obituary included a loving memorial of her. “Like many decades-long relationships, there were tough times, but all I want to remember today, all I care about, is the brilliant, compassionate man who was a friend. generous and loving to me and my family for many, many years, and who will be sorely missed by all of us,” he said.

“Fashion is a very unacceptable and unforgiving place,” Webb told me. “No matter how many years you are in your career, no matter who you are, there’s always something about you that just isn’t enough.” “Everybody has in and out seasons,” Walker said. “Even Karl. I mean, Karl reigned forever, but sometimes the talks in the streets, or the talks in town, weren’t so favorable. It’s a temperamental, Darwinian business, even for his most loyalists; perhaps for this reason Talley sometimes proclaimed that he preferred beauty and style to fashion. “There are many things about luxury that have been very healing for Andre – the craftsmanship , beauty, timelessness,” Webb said. He leaves behind a larger-than-life image, an estimable body of work, and a high-fashion collection that required its own warehouse in North Carolina, where it all began. “He didn’t let his upbringing define him or get in the way of anything he wanted to achieve,” said stylist Akeem Smith, who towards the end of Talley’s life, having never met him, arranged a GoFundMe to try to raise expenses for him (Talley was grateful but insisted that the donations be returned quickly.) “That’s what resonates. What he means to me is someone who really exercised his taste and tenacity to get exactly what he wanted out of life.

Then Smith had another thought. “Clothes!” he said. “Who is going to get the clothes?