André Leon Talley, a ‘Force’ in Fashion, Dies at 73

André Leon Talley, the largest fashion publisher who shattered the glass ceiling of his industry when he moved from Jim Crow South to the front ranks of Parisian couture, harnessing his encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history and his wit in roles of author, public speaker, television personality and curator, died Tuesday in White Plains, NY. He was 73 years old.

His death, in hospital after a series of health struggles, was confirmed by his friend Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation.

“André Leon Talley was a singular force in an industry where he had to struggle to be recognized,” said Mr. Walker, calling him a “creative genius” and noting his ability to create a character for himself from “a deep academic understanding of fashion and design “.

Called “The Only One” by the New Yorker by virtue of his being the rare black publisher atop a notoriously white and notoriously elitist field, Mr. Talley, 6 feet 6 inches tall, was an unmistakable figure wherever he went. Dedicated to drama in his personal style (he favored capes, gloves and royal headdresses), in his statements (“My eyes are hungry for beauty”) and in the work he adored, he cultivated an air of hauteur, although his friends knew him. for its subcutaneous sentimentality.

It was, said actress and talk show host Whoopi Goldberg in the 2018 documentary “The Gospel According to André”, “so many things it shouldn’t have been.”

He was the Interview magazine receptionist under Andy Warhol; the head of the Paris office of the Women’s Wear Daily under John Fairchild; the creative director and general editor of Vogue under Anna Wintour. He helped dress Michelle Obama when she was first lady, was an advisor and friend of fashion designer Oscar de la Renta and became a mentor to supermodel Naomi Campbell. She cast Ms. Campbell for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in a take on Vanity Fair that reinvented “Gone With the Wind” with black stars long before fashion awakened to its own racism.

Most recently he was a judge on the reality TV show “America’s Next Top Model”; artistic director of the online retailer Zappos; a consultant for the technology start-up of the musician; and deeply involved with Savannah College of Art and Design.

Mr. Talley was a fixture at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, where, according to the church’s pastor, Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, he arrived with celebrities such as Mariah Carey and Tamron Hall, but was known for his faith serious.

“With all his stardom and around the world, he came at the best of times and showed up at the worst,” said Butts. “He showed up to worship. He supported the church, he gave generously and his friends loved him ”.

Mr. Talley, who was openly gay, lived alone and had little semblance of a romantic life, had no immediate survivors.

Kate Novack, the director of the 2018 documentary, said it was “a classic American success story,” but noted that its success “came at a cost.”

Designer Tom Ford, in that documentary, said: “André is one of the last of those great publishers who knows what they are looking at, knows what they are seeing, knows where he comes from.” He added: “André throws away all these different words and he’s so big and so great, a lot of people think, ‘This guy is crazy’, but he’s fabulous madness.”

André Leon Talley was born on October 16, 1948 in Washington to Alma and William Carroll Talley. Since he was 2 months old, he was raised by his grandmother Bennie Frances Davis in Durham, North Carolina, where she worked as a housekeeper on Duke University’s men’s campus.

He grew up studying in the southern church and in good manners, idolizing the Kennedys and obsessed with France and the escape it seemed to offer from a city where college students would sometimes stone him when he walked across campus to buy Vogue – and where, he said, ha was sexually abused as a child.

He holds a BA in French Studies from North Carolina Central University and a master’s degree from Brown University, where he wrote his thesis on the influence of black women in Baudelaire and Flaubert’s writing and Delacroix’s paintings.

A chance encounter with director Carrie Donovan, who was then working for Vogue, convinced him to move to New York and in 1974 he volunteered to help Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.

It was through Ms. Vreeland, she wrote in her memoir, “The Chiffon Trenches”, published in 2020, that “I learned to speak the language of style, fantasy and literature.” It was also through Mrs. Vreeland that he entered the world of magazines and through Interview he met Warhol.

“He was constantly trying to grab my crotch,” Mr. Talley later told the New York Times. “It wasn’t a Harvey Weinstein moment. Andy was a fascinating person because he saw the world through a child’s kaleidoscope. Everything was ‘gee, wow.’ “

At Interview he also met Karl Lagerfeld, the Fendi designer whose cultural tastes and omnivorous intellect have become his guiding light, especially after joining the Women’s Wear Daily and moving to Paris. There he spent glamorous evenings with Yves Saint Laurent and his acolytes, passing from the castles of the aristocrats to the nouveau nightclubs.

Through it all, Mr. Talley wrote in his memoirs, he navigated his “armor” – specifically, “knee socks with banana braids and elegant loafers” and “Turnbull & Asser shirts”.

For him, fashion was both inspiration and disguise, camouflaging himself against the racist jokes he suffered, such as being called “Queen Kong”.

It was only in hindsight, wrote Mr. Talley, that he realized “the blinders I had to keep to survive.”

In the late 1980s, his flamboyant tastes and deep knowledge of fashion attracted the attention of Ms. Wintour, for whom Mr. Talley became an advisor, friend and counterpart, a link to an older, more romantic, society. less corporate and less profit-oriented age. He even recommended Ms. Wintour her dresses for the Met Gala.

“What I remember is that I wasn’t so much her protector,” Ms. Wintour said in the documentary. “My fashion history isn’t that big and his is flawless, so I think I’ve learned a lot from him.”

While fashion giants like Mr. Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen gave way to more technocratic designers from 9 to 5, Mr. Talley found himself on the outside.

There were “many in that industry who really loved André for his talent,” said Mr. Butts. It was also the case, he added, that “there were others who took advantage of his talent and used it to their advantage”, who “never really gave him respect as a man and were condescending.”

After his memoir was published, Mr. Talley got into a fight with Mrs. Wintour, who he accused of abandoning it. (In “The Chiffon Trenches”, he suggested that she had played a somewhat parasitic role in her life, feeding on this energy.)

He had struggled with his weight since his grandmother’s death in 1989, and in recent years he had been largely isolated in the White Plains home where he lived, sleeping in a bed Mr. de la Renta had given him. The house became the subject of a lawsuit last year when the current owner, his former friend George Malkemus, attempted to evict it (Mr. Talley had a history of bad financial decisions).

Yet for all his complaints and disappointments, Mr. Talley continued to believe in the power of the well-placed seam and perfectly polished shoe, how the most superficial objects can make our deepest aspirations a reality.

“For myself of 12, growing up in the segregated south, the idea of ​​a black man playing any kind of role in this world seemed impossible,” he wrote in his memoirs. “To think where I come from, where we have where I come from, in my life, and where we are today, is amazing. And yet, of course, we still have a long way to go. “

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