André Leon Talley shared his fabulous encounters with Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren, Karl Lagerfeld and Diane von Furstenburg in his monthly column, “Life with Andre”, a staple of American Vogue in the 1990s.
He had the kind of access to stylists, celebrities and models that fashionistas only dreamed of and wrote about his experiences in such a way that I felt like I was there with him. I sat with him on overstuffed sofas in Victorian-era living rooms. When she ran her fingers across an ice-blue satin, so did my fingertips. The fresh air of the Mediterranean Sea kissed my cheeks on a designer’s yacht at the same time his did. Talley’s column was all about beauty and her words were so descriptive it was like scrolling through Instagram.
Talley died of a heart attack in a New York hospital on Tuesday. He was 73 years old.
Talley and I became friends early in my career as a fashion journalist. When we walked out of the New York Fashion Week shows – some of which I walked in with him because no one stopped André – we did a lot more than talk about the season’s polka dots and folds.
He taught me why Michael Kors suits were reminiscent of Dior’s New Look. He made sure you knew which elements of Carolina Herrera’s evening dress collection were influenced by American high fashion designer Main Rousseau Bocher. Once, I admitted that I didn’t know who the grandmother of American sportswear Claire McCardell was and, I swear, Talley rolled her eyes. It was imperative that you know who McCardell was, he said before we broke up. It was in these moments that I learned that history was central to fashion journalism.
“He was just extraordinary,” said Ralph Rucci, a Philadelphia fashion designer and longtime friend of Talley. “It was an encyclopedia. It was the fashion bibliography you’ve never seen. We went to dinner and talked for hours about couture … We have lost a great, great visionary of our planet. I wish, Elizabeth, that someone knew more about your kind nature. He hid behind being a little rude. “
He was massive, 6 feet 6 inches tall, and his importance was telegraphed through his stack of matching Louis Vuitton suitcases.
As creative director of Vogue America, and later general editor, Talley was the tallest black man in the business, paving the way for the likes of Edward Enninful, editor of British Vogue., and influence countless young designers such as Kevin Parker, founder of Philadelphia Fashion Week. She dressed Jennifer Hudson for the 2008 Oscars and helped Michelle Obama choose her gown at her husband’s inaugural ball of 2009. She was a Tyra Banks judge Top Model of America and full of clever jokes as a host on the red carpets of the Met Gala and the Academy Awards.
But through his memoirs and documentaries, we learned that within himself he was trying to fit into a world that treated him badly. The fashion world is notoriously rude. He is especially rude to fat people. And he’s even more rude to blacks. Talley was not immune from malice. In the 2018 documentary, The Gospel according to Andre told us a well-known designer insinuated he slept up on top. Basically they called me “a black dollar,” he said. A few scenes later, he cried when he remembered a fashion editor calling him “Queen Kong”.
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Talley swallowed her pain as many older blacks do when whites in positions of power dehumanize them. His floating caftans evoked strength and looked dignified. Weakness was not an option.
Talley was born in Washington, DC in 1948 but was raised by his grandmother, Bennie Francis Davis, in Durham, NC, Davis who worked as a maid at Duke University, favored dyed blue hair and wore elegant dark blue clothing in church. He taught Talley the importance of dressing well.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in French studies from North Carolina Central University’s historically black college and later earned a master’s degree from Brown. Talley moved to New York in the 1970s to pursue fashion. He approached Vogue director Diana Vreeland, who according to Talley inspired her fashion sense as much as her grandmother. He got a job at Interview magazine and worked as a correspondent from Paris for Women’s Wear Daily before Anna Wintour hired him at Vogue America in 1993.
Wintour and Talley have been friends and colleagues of Vogue for years. It was even reported that Wintour sent Talley to a diet center three times. In 2018, Wintour replaced Talley as a host of the Met Ball with YouTube personality Liza Koshy, and their relationship has cooled down. Talley said Wintour distanced himself from him because he was “too old, too overweight and too uncool”.
Talley talks about her relationship with Wintour in her 2020 book, The chiffon trenches: a memory.
Talley advocated exclusivity, but was also keenly aware of his role as a black man in the fashion industry. He supported black designers. He supported the black models. It sprang from enthusiasm for the Obamas. Still, he never really talked about race beyond the track because elegance, fabulousness eclipsed the issues of race.
After Talley left Vogue in 2013, he became much more outspoken. He supported Black Lives Matter. He talked about racism in the fashion industry. He talked about how the industry hurt him. And he called his ancestors for strength.
In May it appeared on The Tamron Hall show to address rumors of where she lived and her relationship with Wintour. He said he and Wintour were civilized and wanted to repair their friendship.
The New York Times reported that Talley was openly gay, lived alone, and had little semblance of a romantic life. The Times also reported that it had no immediate survivors.
Fashion reporters described Talley as “larger than life” and remembered him for his confidence and elegance.
Talley not only walked into a room, they wrote, but commanded it. Talley was a unicorn, in a world that was not kind to anyone, let alone a big, flamboyant black man.
I remember Talley as a sensitive human being who cared about people. He even cared about me. I knew it from her rolling sister eyes. .