Andre Leon Talley, the former American editor-at-large of Vogue magazine finally gets his due as one of fashion’s most unique and commanding voices.
If Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada is a merely stand-in for Anna Wintour, the current editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine, it could easily be said that Nigel Kipling (her more sympathetic underling in the film, played by Stanley Tucci), is Hollywood’s version of Andre Leon Talley.
The main difference being that Talley’s experience with Vogue and the New York fashion world extends decades beyond his boss the era he defines as the height of couture fashion, the 1970s. The other difference being that Tucci’s character was not a person of color. Andre Leon Talley is a larger-than-life figure who actually happens to be very large in real life, standing at six feet-six inches. As a black boy growing up in North Carolina, Talley lived with his grandmother and would go through her old editions of Vogue for fun. In the new, immersive profile on his career by Kate Novack, The Gospel According to André, Talley describes his upbringing as akin to that of Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory. In high school, he played the flamboyantly elegant Count and learned firsthand the performativity that comes with a grand sense of style.
Talley today is sixty-eight, wears very large and loose garments somewhere between a cape and a kimono, and lives just outside New York in a kind of semi-retirement. In describing his general shape (he has put on weight since his halcyon days in Paris and at Studio 54), Talley says he’s now “quite bloated like a manatee,” emphasizing the final syllable of the word with verve, “but I still make an effort when I go to the Met.”
Beneath such a cherishable and outspoken veneer, Talley’s eminence sheds light on his profound knowledge of an impact on the history of fashion. Novack, who conducts the profile on him with a unique access to his various circles of friends, says that she first came into contact with Talley when he was interviewed for The First Monday in May, a documentary about the Met’s fashion exhibits, by Novack’s husband Andrew Rossi, who produces this film as well. After watching him in a number of other fashion profiles throughout recent years, she found that he consistently stole the show, and not merely for his quotable turns of phrase about what someone’s wearing. Andre Leon Talley has a knowledge of couture fashion that is nearly parochial, especially when today’s major houses are more like corporate brands. He became the editor-in-chief of Women’s Wear Daily in Paris before he turned thirty, and continued on to become the creative director of Vogue in the late eighties (the experience of which this new film fails to dwell on). The artist Will.i.am, in a cutaway, describes Talley as “the Nelson Mandela of couture.”
Novack’s profile is a reminder of just how old school Talley is in his work ethic, courtesy, and sense of place
Talley’s place as an African-American in such an image-oriented industry is carefully handled in Novack’s retrospective and explains the immense boundary-breaking of such a career mainly as an example of an extreme exception to a still-present rule. Talley is very clearly a man defined more by a sense of self than any demographic, yet he remarks painfully on camera about the bias and macroaggression which plagued his ascent into Vogue. A young liaison for Chanel used to refer to him as “Queen Kong,” Andre Leon Talley reports, breaking into tears in one instance, and yet he refuses in the same moment to name names of such bigoted industry chiefs, an unwavering yet unreciprocated sign of respect. Though his presence at Vogue can still feel somewhat cutting edge in the scope of social politics, Novack’s profile is a reminder of just how old school Andre Leon Talley is in his work ethic, courtesy, and sense of place. At home in both Paris and New York, a well-laid history shows subtle evidence of the pious Baptist boy from Durham. The film implies that Talley still eats biscuits on a daily basis, up to a dozen or so. It’s another success of the Gospel that is that Novack seems to take nothing for granted about Talley’s personage, which allows him to speak for himself with range and depth. Questions of sexuality for a former Vogue contributor who wears long flowing capes would often be thrown out, but Talley’s self-description, as usual, yields something more interesting. “I was simply too busy for romance,” he tells the camera at one point, “It never was a part of my life.” Such a simple admission is a beguiling reminder that terms of sexuality are merely labels, often based more on perceived character traits than any real notions of desire. Another check against what we think we know.
Beneath such a cherishable and outspoken veneer, Talley’s eminence sheds light on his profound knowledge of an impact on the history of fashion.
A clear indecisiveness emerges when the documentary works its way out of archival footage into the profile of semi-retirement. His life is shown through lunches with his good friend, NBC news anchor Tamron Hall, and in trips to visit Isabella Rossellini’s farm, but Talley’s age of recollection doesn’t have much spectacle in and of itself. Far too much time in the film is devoted to the election of Donald Trump, impending at the time of its production, which feels coincidental given that Talley’s greatest political statement is a large coat he had commissioned, bearing the Obama Family on the breast. Footage is devoted to Talley’s impressions of Melania Trump’s outfit on Inauguration Day (which he live-tweeted about with Times columnist Maureen Dowd), which contributes to the feeling that the film is a little overlong, and surely set up to feel outdated. Yet Novack’s film remains delightful throughout by the sheer grace of her subject, and one gets the sense that André Leon Talley hardly needs the platform. He is one of the few who has endured in a chimerical industry long enough to change it for the better. In his own works, “Fashion is of the moment, what endures is style.”