At the time of his death, 73-year-old André Leon Talley was one of the last great editors and most influential figures in the global fashion industry. At six-foot-six and often draped in capes, caftans and robes, he was literally and figuratively an imposing giant, gracing the front row of fashion shows around the world. The former creative director and editor at large of Vogue magazine was raised in North Carolina by his maternal grandmother, Binnie Francis Davis, who was a cleaner at Duke University. It was while accompanying her on her rounds one day that he first encountered Vogue, and by the age of twelve he had decided to become a fashion editor.
His upward ascent in the world of fashion began after he moved to New York City in the 1970s. But even as his clout in that world brightened, he never forgot his beginnings in the segregated midcentury South, as he wrote in the Introduction to his 2020 bestseller, “The Chiffon Trenches”:
“For so long I was the only person of color in the upper echelons of fashion journalism, but I was too busy pushing forward, making it to the next day, to really think about the responsibility that came with this role. Memories linger in the mind. Now I realize it is my duty to tell the story of how a Black man survived and thrived in the chiffon trenches.”
In retrospect, the very notion of a giant Black man from the Jim Crow South defying the white supremacist synergy all around him simply boggles the imagination. The obstacles he overcame in an industry that valorized white skin during the Reagan and Bush go-go 80s and 90s were, at the very least, daunting. Not now, of course, after Obama and after George Floyd, but then.
Somehow, André Leon Talley rose at Conde Nast and surged beyond, like a force of nature that will not be denied. Was it his maximum fabulosity? The overflow of bon mots from his lips? His disarming size and irrepressible life-force? His encyclopedic understanding of fashion history? Or was it, most likely, a combination of all of the above as well as some intangible x? Among his many accomplishments on the way up was receptionist at Interview magazine under Andy Warhol; Paris bureau chief of Women’s Wear Daily; the creative director and editor at large of Vogue; Style editor at Vanity Fair. And that’s not including his post-Conde Nast Netflix documentary “The Gospel According to André” and television appearances on shows like Sex and the City.
Imagine the will, the tenacity and the perseverance of such an unlikely rise! How did Mr. Talley do it? Anna Wintour has noted that Talley was her superior in the knowledge of fashion history. He was an incredible resource for the editors at Conde Nast to draw upon. “He had a perspective on fashion that went far beyond clothes and fashion magazines — he connected dots many people couldn’t see, from runway to fine art to celebrity to models to photography to pop culture,” Journalist Jason Sheeler, who interviewed Talley, told People magazine readers, “Last week, our interview became a fashion history lesson, as it often did.” Further, designer Tom Ford and many others have wondered aloud at André Leon Talley’s deep understanding of fashion.
No full telling of the life and influence of André Leon Talley would be complete without recognizing his compelling personality, which no doubt, helped him defy the gravity of bigotry. His power as a celebrity’s celebrity was never more in evidence than when he was perched atop the stairs at the annual Met Gala red carpet. Ultra-celebrities were often reduced to fanboys and girls on the gala carpet, seeking his approval. And in 2010 and 2011, during the democratization of fashion through reality television and the advent of social media, Mr. Talley found himself an opinionated judge on America’s Next Top Model and (finally) a star in his own right, even as the influence of the glossy magazines began to fade. André Leon Talley’s wit, knowledge and outspokenness served him perfectly well in the late age of television.
André Leon Talley was a Francophile, to be sure, but his depth of understanding of that culture came through a historically black college. André Leon Talley was a graduate of North Carolina Central University (class of 1970), with a Bachelor’s degree in French Literature, a byproduct of his fascination with the Francophile Jacqueline Kennedy. He followed that up with a Master’s degree in French studies from Brown University in 1973. Mr. Talley is said to have had two major influences in his life, Diana Vreeland, the former editor in chief of the Vogue of his childhood and his grandmother. His admiration for his grandmother never ceased or wavered. “But I, who could see her soul, could also see her secret: that even while she wore a hair net and work clothes to scrub toilets and floors, she wore an invisible diadem,” he wrote of Binnie Francis Davis in his 2003 memoir, ALT.
Finally, as a child of segregation that defied the odds, he was a great champion of diversifying the all-white rooms where big decisions are made. The Twittersphere has been almost unanimously appreciative of his life, which is rare in this hyper partisan age, but it is his championing of diversity, sometimes quietly, but louder after he left Conde Nast that will be his lasting legacy. Next generation fashion designers like Jason Wu, Mimi Plange and LaQuan Smith owe their careers to him. And diversity – now a defining aspect of the present age across all professions – was the great project of his life, from photo shoots to runways to the all-white places of privilege. “To my 12-year-old self, raised in the segregated South, the idea of a Black man playing any kind of role in this world seemed an impossibility,” he wrote in The Chiffon Diaries. “… And, yes, of course, we still have so far to go.” But you, dear sir, have indeed earned your rest.
RIP, André Leon Talley.
Ron Mwangaguhunga is a Brooklyn based writer on media, culture and politics. His work has appeared within Huffington Post, IFC and Tribeca Film Festival, Kenneth Cole AWEARNESS, NY Magazine, Paper Magazine, CBS News.com and National Review online to name a few. He is currently the editor of the Corsair