André Leon Talley, the fashion editor who broke thru the industry’s glass ceiling by going from the Jim Crow South to the front rows of Paris couture, used his encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history and quick wit to become an author, public speaker, TV personality, and curator. He died on Tuesday. He was 73 years old.
His friend, Darren Walker, is the president of the Ford Foundation, and he confirmed his friend’s death. He had been having a lot of health problems.
It took a lot of work for André Leon Talley to get his name out there in the fashion world, but he was a “creative genius” and had “a deep academic understanding of fashion and design,” Mr. Walker said. He called him that because he was so good at making himself look like someone else.
It was called “The Only One” by the New Yorker because Mr. Talley was the only African-American editor at the top of a field that was known for being very white and very elitist. He was 6 feet, 6 inches tall. Dramatic in his personal style (he wore capes, gloves, and regal headpieces), his words (My eyes are starving for beauty”), and the work he loved, he tried to project an air of grandeur, even tho his friends knew he had a hidden heart.
When Whoopi Goldberg made the documentary “The Gospel” in 2018, she said that he was There were a lot of things he was not supposed to be.
During Andy Warhol’s time at Interview magazine, he was the receptionist. He was the Paris bureau chief of Women’s Wear Daily under John Fairchild; he was the creative director and editor at large of Vogue under Anna Wintour. This is how it worked: He helped dress Michelle Obama when she was first lady. He worked with the designer, Oscar de la Renta, as an adviser and friend, and he became Naomi Campbell’s mentor. Vanity Fair did a shoot that reimagined “Gone With the Wind” with black characters long before fashion realized that it was racist. He cast Ms. Campbell as Scarlett O’Hair.
He was a judge on the TV show “America’s Next Top Model” later in his career. He was also a consultant for Will.i.am’s tech start-up and a big supporter of the Savanna College of Art and Design.
Mr. Talley was a regular at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. The church’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, says that he came with celebrities like Mariah Carey and Tamron Hall, but was known for his serious faith.
“With all his fame and travel, he came to the best and the worst of times,” Mr. Butts told the story. “He came to the temple to pray.” He helped the church, gave a lot, and his friends loved him.
Mr. Talley, who was openly gay, lived alone and didn’t seem to have any kind of romantic life. There were no immediate relatives who knew him.
That’s what Kate Novack, who made the 2018 documentary, said about him. She said he was “a classic American success story,” but she also said that his success had “cost.”
André is one of the last great editors who know what they’re looking at, what they’re seeing, and where it came from. André throws out all these different words, and he’s so big and grand that a lot of people think he’s crazy, but it’s a great crazy. ”
When he was born, André Leon Talley was the son of Alma and William Carroll Talley. He was born on October 16, 1948. He was raised by his grandmother, Bennie Frances Davis, from the time he was 2 months old. She worked as a maid at Duke University’s men’s campus in Durham, NC.
People in his small town sometimes threw rocks at him when he crossed the street to buy Vogue, and he said that as a child he was sexually assaulted. He was brought up in the Southern church and learned about good manners. He also loved the Kennedys and was obsessed with France and the escape it seemed to offer from his small town.
At North Carolina Central University, he studied French. He went on to get a master’s degree from Brown University, where he wrote his thesis about the influence of black women on Baudelaire and Flaubert, as well as on Delacroix’s art.
The editor, Carrie Donovan, who was working for Vogue at the time, told him that he had to move to New York. In 1974, he agreed to help Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he worked with her.
When he wrote his memoir, “The Chiffon Trenches,” he said that thru Mrs. Vreeland, he learned how to speak “the language of style, fantasy, and literature.” This is what he meant. It was also thru Mrs. Vreeland that he got into the magazine world and met Warhol thru Interview.
Later, André Leon Talley told the New York Times, “He was always trying to get my crotch. He kept trying. Not like Harvey Weinstein: “It was not like that at all.” This is how Andy saw the world: thru the eyes of a child. Everything was “Wow, wow, wow.”
At Interview, he also met Karl Lagerfeld, the Fendi designer, whose omnivorous cultural tastes and intellect became his inspiration. When he joined Women’s Wear Daily and moved to Paris, Lagerfeld became his inspiration. There, he had a lot of fun with Yves Saint Laurent and his followers. They went from the palaces of aristocrats to new nightclubs.
His “armor” was “Banana Cable knee socks, elegant moccasins, and Turnbull & Asser” shirts, which he wore thru everything, he said in his book.
For him, fashion was both a way to hide from the racist insults he got, like being called “Queen Kong.”
When André Leon Talley looked back, it was only then that he saw “the blinders I had to keep on in order to stay alive.”
In the late 1980s, his flamboyant tastes and deep fashion knowledge caught the eye of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. For her, Mr. Talley became an adviser, friend, and foil, a link to a more romantic, less corporate, and less bottom-line-oriented time. He even told Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Ms. Wintour, what to wear to the Met Gala.
It was said in the documentary, “What I remember is that I was not so much his protector.” “My fashion history isn’t very good, but his is perfect, so I think I learned a lot from him.”
He was on the outside when fashion icons like Mr. Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen gave way to more technocratic, 9-to-5 designers.
It was said by Mr. Butts that there were “many people in that industry who really did love André for his skills.” Some other people took advantage of his talent and used it for their own benefit. They “never really gave him respect as a man and were condescending.”
After his memoir was published, he got into a fight with Ms. Wintour, whom he said had left him. In “The Chiffon Trenches,” André Leon Talley said that she played a kind of parasitic role in his life, taking this energy and giving it back to him.
He had been struggling with his weight since his grandmother died in 1989. In recent years, he lived mostly alone in the house in White Plains, New York, where he lived, sleeping in a bed that Mr. de la Renta gave him. The house was the subject of a lawsuit last year when the real owner, his old friend George Malkemus, tried to evict him (Mr. Talley had a history of bad financial decisions).
Then, despite all his complaints and disappointments, André Leon Talley still thought that well-placed seams could make our dreams come true. He thought that even the smallest things could make our dreams come true.
In his memoir, the idea that a black man could play any kind of role in this world seemed impossible to him when he was 12. He was raised in the segregated South. “To think about where I’ve come from, where we’ve come from, and where we are today is amazing.” We still have a long way to go, tho.