Part II: André Leon Talley's 'Anna' Interviews
Before he died, the late fashion icon shared his memories about Anna Wintour and his thoughts on her legacy.
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This is the second part of my interviews with André Leon Talley, conducted for ANNA: The Biography in the spring of last year. Read the first part here.
You worked on the February 2005 cover story of Melania Trump wearing her wedding dress. What do you remember about that?
My memory is that Melania came into Vogue with Paul Wilmot, public relations man. And I was called into Anna's office. They were all seated in front of Anna's desk, and Anna said, “André, you're going to Paris with Melania to pick her wedding trousseau, she's going to be married to Donald Trump.” And then we went off to Paris and we selected the clothes. We became friends after that. It was a pleasant experience. Anna went to the wedding, I went to the wedding, Hillary and Bill Clinton went to the wedding. But the dress was chosen at Dior. We went to all the houses. Melania spent a week in Paris and we went to all the appointments and the fittings, et cetera, et cetera. So this was my assignment.
So if Anna approved all the clothes that were photographed in the magazine, she would have certainly approved the dress that she wore on the cover and thus Anna would have approved the dress she wore at her actual wedding?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Anna is involved in everything, every detail. Anna was involved in every detail of that.
When you went to something like a wedding with Anna, what was it like? I think people just want to have a sense of what it's like to like hang out with her.
She was the editor-in-chief, and you had to respect the boundaries of who she was. I have to tell you – it was intense. She came to [Vogue contributing editor] Julia Reed's wedding in Greenville, Mississippi with Shelby [Bryan, her boyfriend at the time]. I'd been very much involved with Julia's wedding, I helped her pick her wedding gown, I was busy getting Julia dressed. When I saw Anna, I walked up to the lawn – it was an outdoor wedding – and sat next to her and she was there in her Dior Galliano dress, and she said, "Where is it?" It was like a professional question, Where is it? I said, “What do you mean? What are you asking me?” It wasn't like, "Hi, how are you?" I said, "What are you talking about?” And she said, "The veranda."
I said, “Oh my goodness, you think Julia is living in a house like Tara of Gone with the Wind?” Because her parents' house was one-level, bungalow-style. So that caused me to feel a little anxiety, like she was expecting Julia to come out of a column porch with three tiers – a Georgia plantation or Mississippi plantation. So when you went to things like that, you were very aware that you are in the presence of Anna and you have to just be on your Ps and Qs. It's like walking on eggshells.
Many people have said that she can be hilarious and has a very cutting sense of humor.
I don't find her funny. I guess I always took her too seriously. Maybe I was different to her than other people. I never got what other people got. Sometimes I was treated like family, and other times I was treated like the exiled black sheep of the family.
What do you make of that?
I don't know what to make of it, except that I’ve now gone on and said all is well, I'm at fault, she's at fault, we are human beings. But we moved on. I've said what I have to say, and I wish her well and the best of everything. And she's been kind enough to text me several times [recently].
What did she say?
Oh, thanking me for my Instagram about Lizzo. I love the cover she did of Lizzo. She made her statement about how she was going to bring more diversity into Vogue. And I said that she kept her promise with supersonic speed. Lizzo was a beautiful cover, Naomi was a beautiful cover at [age] 50. Harry Styles was a beautiful cover. And Kamala Harris was an extraordinary cover. She got a lot of backlash from that, but I thought it was beautiful, and I said so on my Instagram. But I haven't heard from her since the Kamala Harris cover. And that's fine. I've come to accept that because I realize how busy she is.
And she reached out to you first?
She reached out to me first and she said, “I thank you for your support of Lizzo.” And I was absolutely dumbstruck. And I said, “Well, it's sincere.” My last text was on January 11th, 2021 at 9:34: "I love the sneakers and I'm sure Kamala loves them also. These backlashes are stupid and out of control, both covers are warm and show her authenticity. You are a winner.” And her [response]: "Post it please!!!" With three exclamation points. And I said, "Will do." And I never heard back from her. And that's very Anna, that's very succinct and to-the-point. It's Anna's way of being, it's fine.
You said you still want her approval. Have you thought about why? So many people want her approval.
I want her approval the way other people do, too. The why is because, perhaps – I don't know. In her blaze of glory and power, you were in the court of the most important fashion magazine, arguably, in the world. She is like the empress and you're a courtier, and you need to have the approval of the empress or the queen. I just see it like that.
Anna has come under intense scrutiny in the last nine months or so regarding diversity in Vogue. Do you think the criticism is fair?
I don't think it was fair the way it was intensely brought up in certain profiles. I think it was relevant for her to talk about it, and she also expressed that it was her fault and she was going to change it, and she did change it. I never thought Anna was racist, because she would not have had me close to her. However, when I said she's not going to let go of her white privilege, it is not me shocking and saying things that are like, she's a racist. It’s because she comes from England, and this colonial attitude, it's very much like the royals – they sometimes are tone deaf where they don't mean to be tone deaf. That's just who they are. It's not racism in Anna. There's not a racist bone in her. This moment of Black Lives Matter and the killing of George Floyd brought to the surface that everybody had to stand up and pay attention. And she's done that greatly by including, more than ever, Black people in her magazine. Before, you never saw that many layouts with Black models. You saw Black celebrities – Pharrell Williams, you saw Beyoncé on the cover. The Lizzo cover would not have been shot five years ago. There's no way. And Anna would have said – I'm just giving you a kind of rhetorical dialogue – “The advertisers say a Lizzo cover won't sell.” There would be explanations given for that.
What would you say Anna’s metrics for success have been at Vogue? Was it ad revenue? Cultural relevancy? Something else?
I have a sense that her metric was advertising. The September book has the most advertising, and she made sure that that happened. As well as having the upper echelon, the high bosses say, "Well done." I think that very important to her was the approval of the late Alexander Liberman [Condé Nast’s former editorial director], the late Si Newhouse [who owned the company]. I think that she had those two gentlemen under her thumb. I think now, [it’s] her sense of cultural relevancy.
People have said she was very good at managing Liberman and Newhouse.
Every month she would go present the issue that was about to be published. She put on her best Chanel suit and she goes in there by herself and she walked with confidence. I saw her do that many times. There's an inner confidence in her. My problem with her is I'm a flawed human being, I am totally full of vulnerability. But Anna doesn't cave in to her vulnerable side, she doesn't break down. She's cool as a cucumber, nothing can get her hair tousled except the wind.
You are a highlight of The September Issue, the documentary about Vogue by filmmaker R.J. Cutler.
R.J.'s a cool man, he's a great person. And I think he did a great job on The September Issue, and he was going to cut me out. You know, the part where I'm playing tennis – breathing, trying to play tennis. I said, “You can't cut that R.J., you have no film! That is a hilarious moment, that is a moment of laughter.” And he says, “You're right.” And he put it back in.
I want to explain to people who pick up this book what it means that Anna is the most influential person in fashion.
This is the woman who can persuade you to change your mind and convince you that her way of thinking is right. She can get people to say “yes” when they thought “no.” She's not going to do it with an iron nail. She does it with chiffon velvet glove.
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