André Leon Talley, Former Vogue Creative Director, Dies at 73
Featured Image: Vogue
Fashion icon and American journalist André Leon Talley has died at the age of 73. He is remembered for breaking the glass ceiling in an industry that prides itself on elitism.
Born October 16, 1948, in Washington D.C. to Alma and William Caroll Talley. It was André’s grandmother, Bennie Frances Davis, who raised him. As a child, he romanticized far away places like France — his fantasies provided him an escape from the sexual abuse he endured. Later on, he would major in French at North Carolina Central University and would receive his master’s from Brown University.
In his memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, he wrote, “To my 12-year-old self, […] the idea of a Black man playing any kind of role in this world seemed an impossibility. To think of where I’ve come from, where we’ve come from, in my lifetime, and where we are today, is amazing. And, yet, of course, we still have so far to go.”
In his documentary, The Gospel According to André, he acknowledged his life in the South during Jim Crow. “I loved my home and my family. I went to school and to church and I did what I was told and I didn’t talk much. But I knew life was bigger than that. I wanted to meet Diana Vreeland and Andy Warhol and Naomi Sims and Pat Cleveland and Edie Sedgwick and Loulou de la Falaise. And I did. And I never looked back,”.
In an interview with The Guardian, Talley explained his upbringing. His grandmother, Bennie, supported him unconditionally, turning an eye at his ideas of wallpapering his room with torn-up issues of Vogue, which became his escape. “Every Sunday I would walk across the railroad tracks into the affluent part of Durham and buy Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and go back to my grandmother’s house, read my magazines. I was allowed to retreat from the bullying and the sexual abuse into a beautiful world, he told journalist Hadley Freeman.
André Leon Talley was a force to be reckoned with. Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation and longtime friend, recognized this. He recognized him as a singular force in an industry that “he had to fight to be recognized in,”. In “André Leon Talley’s Tales From the Dark Side,” Vanessa Friedman of The New York Times touches on his experience within the fashion industry and the impacts Talley had on the industry. More importantly, she touches on what impact the industry had on him:
“In fashion, the difference between fact and fantasy often seems to come down to what you call it. Or how you see it. That shifting line is part of why it’s such a compelling avatar for our ambitions and identities. Oftentimes you have to dress the part and pretend before you play the part…It is also a bildungsroman about an African-American boy from the Jim Crow South who made it to the front row of the Parisian fashion world by way of Interview, WWD, Ebony, Vanity Fair, and above all, Vogue.
“It is a tragedy: the story of how one man sold, if not his soul, then his heart, his intelligence, and his body of knowledge for the sake of a suite of branded suitcases and Hilditch & Key crepe de Chine shirts. And it is a horror story, about what happens when you confuse your professional life with real life.”
During his time at Brown University, Talley wrote his thesis on the influence of Black women in Baudelaire and Flaubert. In a profile with The New Yorker in October of 1994, journalist Hilton Als called him the “only one,” recognizing that he was the rare Black editor in a field that prides itself in elitism and gatekeeping of professional roles. In it, he said “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.”
His friendship with Anna Wintour was decades long. Following his death, Wintour has released a statement honoring him and his impact on the industry on Vogue’s website. “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.”
“No one could make people more excited about the most seemingly insignificant fashion details than him, […] 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,” she continued.
Despite all of his qualms with the industry, André Leon Talley believed in the power of six-ply cashmere sweaters, beauty, and people. In his memoir, he writes, “I do believe there’s a heaven. I do believe that God has given me the resilience and the survival skills to withstand the chiffon trenches.”
And even when he was out of a job and the tension of the fantasy had finally broken, André Leon dreamed of a rich legacy:
“My story is a fairytale of excess, and in every fairytale there is evil and darkness, but you overcome it with light. I want every person I come across — the stranger on the street, the church member in the pew next to me — to feel love. I have not been privy to love in my life, but I want them to feel that they have received some love from engaging with me, André Leon Talley.”