Remembering André Leon Talley
The industry lost one of its best people.
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This week I wrote for TIME about André Leon Talley, one of my favorite interview subjects through the years. Most recently, he generously spoke at length with me last year as I was reporting ANNA: The Biography. Here is an excerpt from the TIME piece:
Former Vogue creative director and editor-at-large André Leon Talley, known for his rare combination of exuberance, intellect, and brilliant humor, died on Jan. 18 in White Plains, New York at the age of 73. So many, in and outside of the fashion industry, have shared memories of interactions with him, which is a testament to the kind of person he was; happy to hold forth and share his knowledge—and love—of fashion with anyone interested in listening.
I think he would have liked very much that these anecdotes—instances so commonplace in his life, I’m sure, that I wonder how many he would even remember—are spilling onto the Internet. Which is why I want to share my own.
In a 2009 interview with Time Out New York pegged to the release of R. J. Cutler’s Vogue documentary The September Issue, Talley was asked about his legacy:
In your September column for Vogue, you ask Serena Williams how she’d like to be remembered. How would you like people to remember you?
I’d like to be remembered as someone who made a difference in the lives of young people—that I nurtured someone and taught them to pursue their dreams and their careers, to leave a legacy. You cannot live your life in the elitist world of fashion and not step out or you’re disconnected. You have to realize that fashion is not the endgame.
I am one of the many young people Talley helped. He was neither my mentor nor my friend and I’m not sure if he even thought of it as helping, but over the course of my roughly 15 years as a journalist, he made himself personally accessible to me whenever I reached out. I don’t recall a publicist ever standing between us. In an industry self-serious enough that a creative director recently issued a formal statement instructing people to call him by his first name only, this is so rare with a fashion personality as famous as he was.
I wasn’t asking for career advice, rather interviews for stories. Being a fashion journalist has always scared me—it does to this day. Talley, one of the industry’s major stars, of course intimidated me. But whenever our interviews would begin, that fear went away, because he was smart, warm, entertaining, and so happy to be talking about fashion.
Last year, I spent a long time talking to Talley on the phone…
If you want more André (and let’s be honest, obviously you want more André) here’s a coverage guide.
What to Read
If you want to hear from ALT himself, read his two memoirs, A.L.T. and The Chiffon Trenches. Yes, Anna Wintour infamously figures prominently into the latter, but truly my favorite part of the book is the first half, in which Talley details how he went from Durham, North Carolina to New York City to front row seats along the runways of Paris. I love his stories about befriending titans of industry like Karl Lagerfeld. They first met when Andy Warhol sent him to interview Lagerfeld for Interview, and at the end they had high tea and he invited Talley into his bedroom where he gave him green and pink silk shirts with matching scarves, saying, “I am tired of these shirts! You should have them.”
The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan has a way of writing so beautifully about everything, and her tribute to ALT is no exception:
It wasn’t easy being first, being the only one — being the trailblazer who was supposed to open doors for others, be a representative for everyone, make a community proud, be kind, be fabulous, be woke and stay sane. Talley was complicated. He was funny and cutting, proud and prideful. And generous. When he was moved by one’s beauty or accomplishment or character, no one could lavish accolades with as much enthusiasm as Talley.
Vogue’s Hamish Bowles (also the recently appointed editor-in-chief of World of Interiors) worked with ALT for a long time, and published a great piece about him on Vogue.com (note: “Vreelandese” refers to Diana Vreeland, Vogue editor of the sixties who became special consultant for the Costume Institute, where Talley volunteered, quickly establishing himself as one of her mentees):
When the copy for his sui generis style columns arrived, it was penned (or dictated) in stream-of-consciousness Vreelandese, and a succession of very loyal copy editors fashioned it into something the general reading public might find more easily digestible. I am grateful to one of these, Riza Cruz, who joined Vogue in 2006 and recalled a classic exchange, verbatim, that I reproduce here to give a sense of life in the André lane.
André, dictating copy to Riza: “So in Capri in the 1970s, DVF and Marisa Berenson used to comb their hair on ironing boards to make it straight. They’d straighten it with ironing boards! On irons! Iron-ing. Can you pick up the phone? Right now, I want to confirm that. Put it on speaker!” André rattles off the number for Diane von Furstenberg, who duly confirms the story. “Mm hmm,” he said in response, clapping his hands thrice. “Now that’s what I call fact-checking!”
Anna Wintour’s relationship with ALT was long and, as she admitted in her statement published to Vogue.com, “complicated.” This was surely a reference to the enormous publicity their falling out drew after Talley wrote about it in his memoir, The Chiffon Trenches. Her full statement:
“The loss of André is felt by so many of us today: the designers he enthusiastically cheered on every season, and who loved him for it; the generations he inspired to work in the industry, seeing a figure who broke boundaries while never forgetting where he started from; those who knew fashion, and Vogue, simply because of him; and, not forgetting, the multitude of colleagues over the years who were consistently buoyed by every new discovery of André’s, which he would discuss loudly, and volubly—no one could make people more excited about the most seemingly insignificant fashion details than him. Even his stream of colorful faxes and emails were a highly anticipated event, something we all looked forward to,” said Anna Wintour. “Yet it’s the loss of André as my colleague and friend that I think of now; it’s immeasurable. He was magnificent and erudite and wickedly funny—mercurial, too. Like many decades-long relationships, there were complicated moments, but all I want to remember today, all I care about, is the brilliant and compassionate man who was a generous and loving friend to me and to my family for many, many years, and who we will all miss so much.”
In the tributes to André, who died on Tuesday, people call him a trailblazer on race, as the first person of color to reach a top post at Vogue — and, in today’s Women’s Wear, the paper added in ageism and weight. To me, these are largely woke-era accommodations, and instead of painting a full, complex picture of a very complicated human being, they are a reduction of his qualities. His intense curiosity, his imagination, his broad-gauge knowledge of history and culture.
…he is fascinating to people, in part, because he is the only one--the only black gay male in the fashion world. "It's exhausting to be the only one with the access, the influence, to prevent the children from looking like jigaboos in the magazine--when they do appear in the magazine. It's lonely."
What to Watch
The Gospel According to André is a must-see documentary about Talley that came out in 2017. It’s currently streaming on HBO Max and Hulu (with premium subscription), and available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime and Apple TV, among other platforms. I saw it when it came out and loved it (and plan to rewatch). The trailer:
ALT was a judge on America’s Next Top Model, cycles 14 through 17. He was brilliant in the role. You can buy Talley’s seasons on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and other platforms. Here is a clip of Talley judging on TikTok that a friend and Back Row reader sent to me the other day that shows just how nurturing he was.
What to Listen To
I could listen to ALT’s voice all day long. He could describe the act of paint drying and it would be more entertaining than most shows on television. Some of my favorite interviews that you can listen to while you’re driving/doing the dishes/folding laundry/etc.:
He went on the New York Times book review podcast in 2020 to discuss The Chiffon Trenches.
You can also listen to Robin Givhan’s live 2017 interview with him.
Social Media Dribs and Drabs
Some delightful ALT tributes and memories are scattered across social media.
I’ll highlight just a small portion (and I’m linking out to Instagrams because Substack embeds don’t show full captions). But this list is in no way comprehensive.
Naomi Campbell said in an Instagram post that ALT was the one who encouraged her to reach out to Anna Wintour to ask for a cover, resulting in the below for September 1989 — marking the first time a Black model appeared on a September issue (the year’s most important).
Talley’s former assistant Teddy Tinson also shared memories to Instagram, writing, “I’ll always cherish the one-of-a-kind education you gave me from city to countryside, continent to continent, decade to decade; From neon bike shorts or cashmere suits paired with fur coats on Seventh Ave, to capes and caftans paired with fur stoles in Spain…and more hats and bags and shoes and gloves...(always carry a good glove!)”
Designer Ralph Rucci has shared memories in a number of Instagram posts, such as this one: “He loved to stand for long fittings because then he could scream about the process of couture. This is a photo of the first time he wore this majestic coat. It was at a fall/ winter fashion sxhow that I was giving at the tents. He knew exactly how he would enter. There were approximately 1100 people seated in the audience and Andre wanted to walk to his seat before the show started in full regal presence. So, music came up gradually, house lights went down, and a spot followed this Deity to his seat. Yes, people were in awe.”
Stylist and fashion editor Anne Christensen shared a scan of a note Diana Vreeland wrote to ALT in 1978. (Scroll to the last slide at the post linked.) Vreeland wrote to compliment him on his Yves St. Laurent review, concluding, “All of your pieces — Valentino, Lagerfeld, Lulu’s party, etc. — are all very remarkable. Everything is so immediate, gay and totally clear!”
Designer Diane Von Furstenberg shared a photo with ALT from President Obama’s inauguration, when “it was so cold, we wore ski clothes.”
Photographer Robert Fairer recalled going with ALT to find Melania Trump a dress for her wedding to Donald Trump at the couture houses in Paris, the subject of a Vogue feature. “Grand doesn’t even describe our escapades,” he wrote.
Check out this Twitter thread by Christopher Barnard, commemorating ALT’s work for Vanity Fair (where he worked in the nineties for a brief period that he was not employed by Vogue). Pictured here is his famous “Scarlett ‘N the Hood” story with Naomi Campbell as Scarlett O’Hara. But click through to see more.
Iman reposted a memory previously shared by ALT (and I’m embedding this photo of the two of them in the interest of full fabulousness). In December 1983 they attended the Costume Institute opening of Diana Vreeland’s Yves St. Laurent retrospective. He wrote, “I got to escort Iman, who decided a giant mohawk was only fitting for her black couture Alaia dress. The dress was flown over from Paris, just for the evening. The inset panels had glitter that moved inside chiffon windows as she walked. Iman, decided to get dressed in my apartment, a small tiny, duplex at 1 Astor Place, downtown.”
Again, this list is in no way comprehensive, but I liked how these posts highlighted specific, vivid moments in ALT’s life and career. Please drop more of your favorite Talley tributes and stories in the comments so we can all enjoy them.
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