Remembering André Leon Talley: Remarkably Accessible in an Elitist Fashion Industry
Anterior 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 hearing them.
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. So I decided to share mine.
Interview with Judith in 2009. Time Out New York pegged to the release of R. J. Cutler’s VogueDocumentary September issueTalley was interviewed about his legacy.
In your September column for Vogue, you ask Serena Williams how she’d like to be remembered. What would you want people to recall about 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. It is important to recognize that fashion is not your only option.
Talley was a mentor to many of my peers. He was neither my mentor nor my friend and I’m not sure if he even thought of it as HelpingHe was not, however, over my 15-year career as a journalist, he always made himself available to me personally whenever I needed him. I don’t recall a publicist ever standing between us. A creative director in a serious industry issued recently a formal directive instructing everyone to refer to him only by his first name. This is rare for a celebrity fashion designer.
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. However, I was able to forget my fear when our interviews began. He was warm and friendly, knowledgeable, funny, and so excited to talk about fashion.
Talley and I spoke for a lot last year on the telephone as I was completing the biography about Anna Wintour that I am publishing in May. In the eighties, Wintour and Talley developed a close friendship while they were both working for former employers.Vogue editor-in-chief Grace Mirabella. He didn’t say yes to my interview request right away, instead asking for time to think about it. That made sense—his falling out with Wintour had been a major news story in recent months following the publication of his memoir Chiffon Trenches, and I didn’t know if he would care to say anything more about their relationship.
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Two months later, he said that he’d thought of it and was open to speaking with me. He took the time to meet with me over weekends during that beautiful spring. Like he always was in the past – incredibly kind and generous with his time. He offered to make himself available for me to do follow ups. The first interview with him in April took over an hour and half. That was our last conversation.
His motivation for helping me is not clear. He might have known how difficult it was to write about Wintour. He was aware of his place in fashion history. Perhaps he just wanted to speak about it. His presence was so strong that others were asked about him by those who interviewed him for the book. Someone who worked with both him and Wintour at Condé Nast recalled one winter when the office had emptied out for the holidays. Talley and the editor were both at work, so he gifted her a gorgeous designer gift with gold ribbon.
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In these conversations, he was often described as both warm and sensitive. He spoke freely about these moments, without my asking. It was a rare moment in an industry that values image and is therefore very calculated. He was also proud to discuss the work that he had done in fashion: assisting Diana Vreeland as an unpaid volunteer when she was curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute; styling prominent women, including Wintour and socialites like Anne Bass; helping John Galliano produce his famous fall 1994 runway show; writing the March 2009 VogueMichelle Obama covers; comedy added The September Issue with memorable proclamations like, “It’s a famine of beauty.”
He was also known as one of the earliest, vocal advocates for diversity in the pages of Condé Nast magazines and the fashion industry more broadly, his efforts only sometimes successful. He famously cast Naomi Campbell as Scarlett O’Hara for a Vanity Fair story during a brief period in the nineties when he wasn’t employed at Vogue. In Chiffon Trenches, he credited Wintour with making him “the highest-ranking Black man in the history of fashion journalism” when she gave him the job of Vogue‘s creative director after she became editor-in-chief in the summer of 1988. “If the importance of this is lost on you, please remember again that this was 1988,” he wrote,” and I was not superseded in that ranking until Edward Enninful’s momentous rise as editor in chief of British Vogue, thirty years later.”
Here’s the final part of Chiffon TrenchesHe recounted the moment Enninful won British Vogue from a white woman, writing, “I dashed off a simple e-mail to him with huge congratulations. He responded succinctly: ‘Thank you, André. You paved the way.’”
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Talley was able to make fashion relevant in all parts of the globe. VogueHe is a great person, and that’s just one of many things you will forget about him. This was something I thought of when I found a post that I had written after the first episode. America’s Next Top Model—I had interviewed him on set during the taping of the show’s fourteenth cycle in 2011—premiered over a decade ago:
Finally, last night, after months of hype, André Leon Talley debuted on the America’s Next Top Model Judging panel. He was, as expected, the most entertaining part of the program. But coining the word “dreckitude” was only one of many highlights of his critiques. He was kind: “There’s definitely a vulnerability in your body.” Analytical: “There’s drama to it, but it’s just sort of a stereotypical kind of drama.” Brutally honest: “I don’t like the hair, the face—it’s a mess!” And he hammed it up for the cameras: “This would definitely hit the reject floor at Vogue. Slap! Next!”
Amy Odell, the author of ANNA The Biography is out May 1st from Gallery Books.