Thank you for subscribing to Back Row. This post draws on exclusive reporting from my book ANNA: The Biography, out Tuesday, May 3 (check out the latest review in the New York Times). If you are new here, don’t forget to subscribe to support independent fashion and culture journalism and get more posts like this delivered to your inbox around twice a week.
Like many people, I could listen to André Leon Talley talk for hours. He could describe a construction site or a blade of grass and I would be at the edge of my seat, lingering on his every phrase, such was his distinctive voice. I had the opportunity to speak at length with Talley before he died. In interviews conducted last spring as part of my reporting for ANNA: The Biography, he generously shared his memories of Anna Wintour, an audio clip from which I’m including here. They had recently had a public falling out, which we also discussed. A turning point in their relationship, Talley said, was Anna dropping him from his position as the host of Vogue’s Met Gala livestream in 2019, when the theme had been Camp. No one from Vogue, I learned through my reporting, had bothered to tell him he had been replaced with a YouTuber.
“One year, I was just thrown off with no explanation whatsoever. And they replaced me with this influencer,” Talley told me. “That's fine, decisions have to be made like that, move on — but an explanation would have been preferred. So that was very hurtful and damaging to me.” Talley didn’t attend the Camp-themed gala in 2019. The 2020 event had been canceled due to the pandemic, and the timing and nature of the next event was uncertain at the time that we spoke.
Given the decline of fashion magazines, the Met Gala may prove to be the biggest success of Anna’s career, transformed from a sleepy society dinner known almost solely in certain Manhattan circles to the Super Bowl of red carpets. I was curious to know how Talley felt about what the event had become.
“The only thing about the Met that I wish hadn’t happened is that it’s turned into a costume party,” designer Tom Ford says. “That used to just be very chic people wearing very beautiful clothes going to an exhibition about the 18th century. You didn’t have to look like the 18th century, you didn’t have to dress like a hamburger, you didn’t have to arrive in a van where you were standing up because you couldn’t sit down because you wore a chandelier.”
In our interview, Talley said, “The Met Ball to me was a moment in time when it meant something. And Anna Wintour recreated the Met Ball and made it outstanding with the millions of dollars she raised every year. Except the ‘Notes on Camp’ — the exhibit called ‘Notes on Camp’? I think it went off the rails.”
This year’s dress code is “Gilded Glamour” and white tie — which Talley probably would have loved. He had also noted that the event, “used to be a beautiful evening, when people dressed up beautifully in white tie or tails. I think when Anna imposed white tie on the men, that was a great moment.”
And he recalled how his friend Anne Bass had emailed him the night of the Camp gala: “She said, ‘Would you have wanted to see these people?’ You know, I wasn’t there. And Anne used to go to the Met Ball, too, but if you go from being a chandelier that lights up and change somewhere in the hallway to a hamburger, then I think you’ve lost the plot. And I think that’s where maybe Anna should have had some sort of input and said, well we don’t need to have you change — just come in maybe a dress that’s less like a performance piece and just look beautiful.”
One of the misconceptions about the Met Gala is that Anna approves every single thing everybody wears to the party. While she approves a lot — sources estimated around 80 percent of it — she doesn’t approve every single look. Talley also thought Lady Gaga, who essentially did a mini performance on the 2019 red carpet, involving changing from one look to another, to another, to another, was too over-the-top. “I love Lady Gaga,” he said, “but when she unfurled in that cape into that bra and panty thing up the pink steps, I think it was a bit decadent. It was decadent, it was decaying — it was a decaying moment. That’s just me, it was a decaying moment. Actually, it was a death knell at that point, and then we had the pandemic.”
Talley also said that he and Anna had been texting in a friendly way around the time of our conversation. He praised her recent work, including the Vogue covers featuring Lizzo and Kamala Harris. He added, “To this day, I still want the approval and the admiration and the acceptance of Anna Wintour. I mean, I really do want that, and I say that to you and for your book, I say — I've never said it to anyone else. But I realized that's much needed in my life because I had such a close relationship with her.”
“She talked about their friendship,” a source who attended the service told Page Six. “But what took her over was when she told the story about Andre crossing the Atlantic to be with her when her mother died.” The source told us, “Her words were: ‘He crossed the Atlantic to be with me when my mother died,’ and that’s when she welled up.”
“It was very intentional as if she wanted everyone to see her emotions,” the source said –adding that Wintour made sure to look at attendees as she read. The Vogue icon did not wear her signature shades when she spoke, we hear.
Fashion influencer @ideservecouture has called for Vogue to put an empty chair at the top of the steps on Monday night for Talley.
Much of the fashion internet seems to agree.
Subscribe to Back Row to get more posts like this delivered to your inbox around twice a week.