André Leon Talley dreamed of a life “in the pages of Vogue, where bad things never happened”
Whenever we see a “fashion moment”, we use the words of André Leon Talley, from his description of Galliano’s Japonisme show in 1994.
Talley, who died yesterday aged 73, was a flamboyant, over-the-top figure in the fashion industry, prone to snobbery and rather bossy. He had a lifelong love for French culture and the cross-fertilization of fashion, art, poetry and life.
Most importantly, he worked at Condé Nast for four decades, where as Creative Director and Editor-in-Chief of Vogue he shaped the way we understand and talk about fashion.
Born in Washington in 1948, Talley was raised by his modest grandmother in isolated North Carolina and graduated from high school in 1966. Light-hearted and bookish, he dreamed of:
live a life like the ones I saw in the pages of Vogue, where bad things never happened.
A regular at the church, he later said that this particular ritual was like going to a royal court. The shiny women’s clothes and neat accessories seen there were put away mentally.
Talley went to college at historically black universityCentral University of North Carolina, before completing his master’s degree at Brown University, Rhode Island – the first in his family to attend an Ivy League school.
At Brown, he wrote his thesis on black models in the poetry of Charles Baudelairea figure who supported fashion as the epitome of modernity.
New fashion stories
Talley’s first fashion job was as an assistant to Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The “Fashion Empress”, as he called her, had been fired as editor-in-chief of American Vogue (1963-1971) for her overly literary imagination and expensive fashion shoots. In her second life as a curator at the Met’s Costume Institute, she pioneered a theatrical approach to fashion exhibitions in which dress was tied to epic themes.
She was the perfect mentor for Talley and infused her imagination with stories of refined luxury, fashion personalities past and present, and the influence of global culture.
In 1975, Talley was employed by Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. Earning US$50 a week, he wore preppy clothes, striped shirts and tight jeans.
He immersed himself in this universe of regulars at Studio 54, where the young man was regularly photographed with the jet set and the old icons of cinema, whose Warhol myth was highlighted in a new and unusual way.
Read more: Halston: The sparkling rise – and dramatic fall – of a fashion icon
In the 1970s and 1980s, American fashion magazines were doing important work retrieving stylistic stories and older fashion narratives.
Talley rose to cover Paris fashion shows for Women’s Wear Daily and Vogue, becoming the first African-American man to work at that level, and began wearing bespoke suits after the Duke of Windsor.
For Women’s Wear Daily, in addition to writing, Talley began styling photographs. He was adept at capturing the languorous sensuality of 1970s fashion, but his eye was not always appreciated.
In France, its proximity to the fashion aristocracy of Yves Saint Laurent and Betty Catroux provoked jealousy. Talley was intimidated by rumors suggesting he was only popular because he slept with people as a black man; his name was “Queen Kong” by some.
In 1978, her report on the Yves Saint Laurent Broadway collection saw Vreeland write that it was the best fashion report she had read: “a masterpiece of description”.
Talley had a talent for a very careful reading of fashion. Not just what it looked like, but where it came from, how it resonated, and what larger worlds it might hint at.
In 1983, Talley joined Vogue as fashion information director, later becoming creative director and editor, wearing the Savile Row regimental dress or Balenciaga-style capes.
For Talley, Vogue wasn’t just about fashion. In his time, as in that of Vreeland, “it also became a literary world”. He was one of the first to mix couture with cheap clothes in fashion shoots, styling Chanel couture with the model’s jeans in a Helmut Newton series for Vogue.
For the 1996 Vanity Fair Gone with the Wind shoot, photographed by Karl Lagerfeld, Talley replaced black with white. Naomi Campbell became Scarlett O’Hara as her first model, being mean to her servant, a pretty white boy. Fashion designer Gianfranco Ferré played a black maid. British designer John Galliano was another maid and shoe designer Manolo Blahnik played the gardener.
The background and decorations were authentic antiques from Lagerfeld’s fine collection, creating a visual narrative that surprised readers accustomed to more advertising and marketing-aligned broadcasts.
fall into disuse
Talley has faced some unfortunate times in recent years. He found himself rebuffed by Anna Wintour at the Met Ball, when his regular commentary was replaced with that of an influencer.
“I had suddenly become too old, too fat and too uncool” he wrote in his memoirs 2020Muslin trenches.
The book covered many difficult phases of his life. He recounted childhood sexual abuse, reflected on what it was like to be the only black man in the high fashion ladder, and his sadness at “falling out of style” with many. He was kicked out of a house he thought he had an arrangement to live in.
He wrote about his disappointment with both Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour. Nonetheless, he pushed back against the idea that Wintour was reactionary, saying she “shattered the glass ceiling” when she made him the first African-American man to be named Vogue’s creative director in 1988.
Over the past few decades, Talley has embraced her height, appearing on the red carpet in kaftans and capes from designers such as Lagerfeld for Chanel and Tom Ford. Talley encouraged the freedom to dress with a degree of care and self-reflection. As he noted:
There is not necessarily a certain way to dress. You have to dress well according to how you see yourself in society.