There is a scene at the beginning of “The September Issue”, the 2009 documentary on the making of Vogue’s doorstop of the year, which features a meeting between designer Vera Wang, dressed in a striped shirt and no makeup, and, like a character from a completely different film set, editor André Leon Talley: very tall, very imposing, with dark glasses, silk tie and tailored suit, wrapped in a mink shawl. They are discussing the state of fashion in New York.
“It’s a famine of beauty,” says Mr. Talley with an air of great tragedy. In case he did not understand the weight of his words, he would repeat them: “A famine of beauty”. And again: “A famine of beautyhoney.”
Then, finally: “My eyes are hungry for beauty!”
Beauty was important to Mr. Talley, who for decades was one of the stars of Vogue and the industry. Since his death on January 18 at the age of 73, that phrase of the “beauty famine” has been cited over and over in obituaries and hundreds of social media posts commemorating his life. Partly because it is so representative: grandiloquent and absurd at the same time; the words of a diva, spoken at a time when divas were going out of style. But also because it is a reminder of how much help can be found in the dress, the object, the apartment, the beautifully conceived sentence.
It is an everlasting truth. Mr. Talley was simply part of a tradition in which she recited him, with exclamation marks, from the rooftops.
Since his death, he has often been called “the one,” the title of a 1994 profile on the New Yorker. Although he was referring to the fact that at the time Mr. Talley was often the only black editor in a given environment, he could easily be applied to the role he played, both in fashion and in representing fashion for the world.
He was the last of the great pontifical editorial characters, those characters who saw personal style as a kind of religion, the dictates of chic as a catechism, and considered it essential to practice what they preached. That he categorically believed in the virtues of dressing up rather than undressing.
He was an archetype rooted in the early days of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and embodied by characters like Carmel Snow and Diana Vreeland, Mr. Talley’s first mentor, not to mention the designers he idolized like Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. In their wake he dressed with finesse and bespoke erudition (he had a master’s degree at Brown and was a voracious reader, often quoting Truman Capote, whom he saw as a kindred spirit) and challenged the lucid guardians to bar the skinny boy of Durham, NC, from the door.
His costumes served to dazzle and distract from how anomalous he was. But no matter how exaggerated the signs appeared, he was always rooted in substance: in the idea that you couldn’t understand the present without understanding the past and that it was essential to always do your homework. He knew more about designer references than designers. He knew that the gilding on the top of the Invalides where Napoleon was buried was real gold leaf and the name of Marie Antoinette’s hairdresser. (Marie Antoinette, he once said, was the first victim of fashion.)
He bought some Charvet boxers, to build his character from the inside out; he played tennis with a Louis Vuitton towel around his neck, a Louis Vuitton racket cover and a Piaget watch with diamonds; he had special shirts made exclusively for his holiday visits to Karl Lagerfeld’s villa in St. Tropez so as not to offend the fickle designer’s eyes by wearing the same thing for an entire day.
She entered the front row of fashion shows in her capes, kaftans and sometimes an impressive fur hat or fedora, unrepentant to block the view of those behind (rarely, if ever, turned back), holding her court from its place. She throws the stoles over her shoulders and trills her words with abandon.
“Drink the moment,” she told Rihanna as she entered the Met Gala in 2015 in flowing gold satin gowns from Chinese designer Guo Pei. (She wore acres of purple purple.) “Drink it! You will inspire people with this dress.
He was a supporter of the great gesture, carried out not only publicly but also privately. In both personal and professional matters, he may be stinging, prone to take offense, unreasonably demanding, but also unreasonably generous. For every story of him having a fight with a former friend, there’s a story of him hooking up with a stylist whose work he believed in when the rest of fashion had turned its back.
It played a pivotal role in John Galliano’s career, having him hold his return show at São Schlumberger’s 17th-century Paris hôtel particulier in 1994, when Galliano’s supporters had retired and the designer was thinking of close his line. He talked to Ralph Rucci, who called him an “oracle”, every day, and used Manolo Blahnik shoes in almost every fashion shoot he ever did. He was a snob, but a snob for talent and culture rather than pedigree.
That model of a great modern publisher has now disappeared from the landscape, swept away by a flood of streetwear, digital democratization, small budgets and a system of values that elevates the functional to the fantastic. The moment fashion finally came face to face with its own history of racism and the doors that Mr. Talley did so much to open finally gave way, he lost his position of power: a victim of his own expectations. and spending habits. (He had a difficult relationship with taxes and expense accounts.)
He was criticized for not doing enough to speak out for young people of color (for focusing on his career rather than theirs); for having satisfied the prevailing power structure, instead of calling it out; for letting himself be seduced by the superficial appeal of a Goyard bag and a Fabergé brooch. Objects that he loved, that they could never reciprocate.
But it took a lot of effort to be him. As detailed in his 2020 memoir, “The Chiffon Trenches”, in which he finally addressed the racism he had faced in his career and what it meant to be the only black in so many rooms: always being seen as giving l example, both for those who may have thought it did not belong to him, and for those who came after him.
“You don’t get up and say, ‘Look, I’m black and I’m proud'”, he said in “The Gospel According to André”, the 2018 documentary about his life. “Just do it. And somehow it has an impact on culture ”.
When he wasn’t on stage, which meant any public place to him, he would retire to a house in White Plains, New York, where visitors were rarely allowed. There he would take care of his garden, heal his complaints, and recharge before venturing again to play his role with aplomb, even though he was often relegated to the status of a style freak show.
It is no coincidence that after leaving Vogue, one of his jobs was that of judge of “America’s Next Top Model”, to which he introduced the word “drekitude”, a combination of “dreck”, as in “wreck” and “attitude” which means “hot, hot, mess”. She uttered the term with great rhetorical flourishes and waving her hand.
He kept dreaming big, even as the magazines around him got small. As over the top as her language and his look may seem, they embody how fashion can function as a tool for self-fulfillment and self-respect, and the joy it can bring. This is his legacy, along with the barriers he has broken down and the designers whose work he has supported.
He understood that it takes extreme to redefine the norm. By sheer willpower and fashion, Mr. Talley, like the publishers he had revered, was all of these. Who will take the cloak – who has even more such cloaks – now that he’s gone?