André Leon Talley, a ‘Force’ in Fashion, Dies at 73

André Leon Talley, the larger-than-life fashion editor who shattered the glass ceiling of his industry as he rose from the Jim Crow South to the front ranks of Paris haute couture, tapping into his encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history and his quick wit in roles as author, public speaker, television personality and curator, died on Tuesday. He was 73 years old.

His death, after a series of health problems, was confirmed by his friend Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation.

“André Leon Talley was a singular force in an industry where he had to fight to be recognized,” said Mr. Walker, calling him a “creative genius” and noting his ability to create his own personality from “deep knowledge academic”. understanding of fashion and design.”

Called “The One” by The New Yorker by virtue of being the rare black editor at the top of a field that was notoriously white and notoriously elitist, the 6-foot-6-inch-tall Mr. Talley was an unmistakable figure. wherever he went. . Due to the drama in his personal style (he favored capes, gloves, and regal headdresses), his pronouncements (“My eyes are hungry for beauty”), and the work he adored, he cultivated an air of haughtiness, although his friends knew him for his style. subcutaneous sentimentality.

It was, said actress and talk show host Whoopi Goldberg in the 2018 documentary “The Gospel According to André,” “so many things that it wasn’t supposed to be.”

She was a receptionist at Interview magazine with Andy Warhol; the Paris bureau chief of Women’s Wear Daily under John Fairchild; Creative Director and Managing Editor of Vogue under the direction of Anna Wintour. He helped dress Michelle Obama when she was first lady, was an adviser and friend to designer Oscar de la Renta, and became a mentor to supermodel Naomi Campbell. He cast Ms. Campbell as Scarlett O’Hara in a Vanity Fair shoot that reinvented “Gone with the Wind” with black leads long before fashion woke up to its own racism.

Most recently, he was a judge on the reality show “America’s Next Top Model,” artistic director of online retailer Zappos, advisor to musician’s tech startup, and deeply involved with the Savannah College of Art and Design. .

Mr. Talley was a fixture at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where, according to the church’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, he came with celebrities like Mariah Carey and Tamron Hall, but was known for his earnest faith.

“With all his celebrity and globetrotting, he came at the best of times and he showed up at the worst of times,” Butts said. “He showed up to worship. He supported the church, he gave generously, and his friends loved him.”

Mr. Talley, who was openly gay, lived alone, and had little semblance of a romantic life, had no immediate survivors.

Kate Novack, the director of the 2018 documentary, said he was “a classic American success story, but noted that his success “came at a cost.”

“André is one of the last of those great editors who knows what he’s looking at, knows what he’s looking at, knows where he’s coming from,” Tom Ford said in the documentary. “André throws all these different words and it’s so big and great that a lot of people think, ‘This guy is crazy,’ but it’s crazy fabulous.”

André Leon Talley was born on October 16, 1948 in Washington, DC, the son of Alma and William Carroll Talley. From the age of 2 months, he was raised by his grandmother Bennie Frances Davis in Durham, NC, where she worked as a housekeeper on the male campus of Duke University.

He grew up educated in the southern church and good manners, idolizing the Kennedys and obsessed with France and the escape it seemed to offer from a city where college students sometimes stoned him when he crossed campus to buy Vogue and where, he said, he was abused. sexually as a child.

She majored in French studies at North Carolina Central University and received a master’s degree from Brown University, where she wrote her thesis on the influence of black women on Baudelaire and Flaubert, and on the paintings of Delacroix.

A chance meeting with editor Carrie Donovan, then working at Vogue, convinced him that he needed to move to New York, and in 1974 he volunteered to help Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.

It was through Ms. Vreeland, she wrote in her memoir, “The Chiffon Trenches,” published in 2020 by Random House, that “I learned to speak the language of style, fantasy, and literature.” It was also through Mrs. Vreeland that he entered the world of magazines, and through Interview that he met Warhol.

“He was constantly trying to grab my crotch,” Talley later told The New York Times. “It was not a Harvey Weinstein moment. Andy was a charming person because he saw the world through the kaleidoscope of a child. It was all ‘wow, wow’”.

At Interview, she also met Karl Lagerfeld, the Fendi designer whose omnivorous cultural tastes and intellect became her pole star, especially once she joined Women’s Wear Daily and moved to Paris. There he enjoyed glamorous evenings with Yves Saint Laurent and his acolytes, moving from the castles of the aristocrats to the nouveau nightclubs.

Through it all, Talley wrote in her memoirs, she sailed in her “armor,” specifically, “banana braid knee socks and fancy loafers” and “Turnbull & Asser shirts.”

For him, fashion was both inspiration and disguise, camouflage against the racist criticism he experienced, such as being called “Queen Kong.”

It was only in hindsight, Talley wrote, that he realized “the blinders he had to keep on to survive.”

In the late 1980s, his extravagant tastes and in-depth knowledge of fashion caught the attention of Mrs. Wintour, for whom Mr. Talley became an adviser, friend, and complement, a link to older society, more romantic, less corporate, and less results-oriented. get older. She even advised Ms. Wintour on her Met Gala outfits.

“What I remember is that I was not so much her protector,” Ms. Wintour said in the documentary. “My fashion story is not that great and his is impeccable, so I think I learned a lot from him.”

As sacral fashion monsters like Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen gave way to more technocratic 9 to 5 designers, Talley found himself on the outside.

There were “many in that industry who really loved André for his talent,” Butts said. It was also the case that “there were others who exploited his talent and used it to their advantage,” who “never really respected him as a man and patronized him.”

After his memoirs were published, he fell out with Mrs. Wintour, whom he accused of abandoning him. (In “The Chiffon Trenches”, Mr. Talley suggested that she played a somewhat parasitic role in his life, feeding off this energy.)

He had struggled with his weight since his grandmother’s death in 1989, and in recent years was mostly isolated in the White Plains, New York, home where he lived, sleeping in a bed given to him by Mr. de la Renta. The house became the subject of a lawsuit last year, when the actual owner, his former friend George Malkemus, tried to evict him (Mr Talley had a history of poor financial decisions).

Yet for all his complaints and disappointments, Mr. Talley continued to believe in the power of the well-placed seam and perfectly polished shoe, the way in which the most superficial objects can transform our deepest aspirations into reality.

“To my 12-year-old self, raised in the segregated South, the idea of ​​a black man playing any kind of role in this world seemed impossible,” he wrote in his memoir. “Think of where I come from, where we have come, in my life, and where we are today, it’s amazing. And yet, of course, we still have a long way to go.”

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