A fashion journalist? It’s so much more than that… André Leon Talley, 70, has spent his life alongside creators and artists, models and photographers, from the like of Warhol to Saint Laurent or Mariah Carey and Anna Wintour. From them he learned some lessons about life and style. He mostly got an eternal gratitude from his grand-mother. We met this monument of a man.
By Raphaël Malkin, in New York.
Article originally published in L'Étiquette issue 3
In 2006, Mariah Carey pays tribute to the luxury and chic of Paris in the music video for Say Somethin’. With pulsing pop in the background, the singer pretends she’s buying all that’s for sale in the luxury shops of the Left Bank, then dances surrounded by Louis Vuitton suitcases, while wearing a matching bikini. Around her, we recognise Pharrell Williams and Snoop Dogg. But we also make out a man dressed in a black vinyl coat. From the tip of his gloves, the clothes are juggled insanely. Journalist, muse, confident, right hand to Diana Vreeland or Ana Wintour, friend of Oscar de la Renta and Karl Lagarfeld, assistant to Andy Warhol, icon, mountain, André Leon Talley is always impossible to miss. His gestures are ample, his words swift. ‘If Schiaparelli dared to imagine a robe with a lobster motif, giant orange lobsters, for the Duchess of Windsor, why couldn’t people have roosters on their evening clothes,’ he said one day. Another time: ‘you have to wear mohair next the chimney, darling.’ In the documentary about him produced by HBO in 2018, ‘The Gospel According to André’, Anna Wintour had this to say about him: ‘his personality and his passion, his way to get behind the stage and peek his head out to serve another choice words, drew enthusiasm in people, made them want to better themselves.’ But André Leon Talley is far from just an extravagant with a silver tongue. For long, he was also an intruder. The only black man to hold a position of importance in the world of fashion. As he rose through the ranks, this yankee kid from the South has contributed to impose around him the idea of a necessary diversity.
In 2013, André Leon Talley chose to distance himself from the noise of the fashion world. Since then, he enjoys spending time in his residence of White Plains, not far from New York. At the end of a garden surrounded by white azaleas, stands a pavilion with a colonnade unlike those we find surrounding fields in the South. At the entrance, the statue of a flamingo keeps watch. In this scorching afternoon of July, André Leon Talley holds court under the shade of his porch. Sat on a freshly painted bench, he wears a long caftan of black lace struck with blue and golden streaks. On his feet, velvet slippers. His hands resting on his knees, André Leon Talley starts by saying a few words in near perfect french. He recalls his thesis, at the end of his study, about French painter Eugène Delacroix. He speaks of Rimbaud and of Proust and confess his love for the fresh air of Provence. Thanks to his passion for fashion, André Leon Talley has travelled many times in France, and has even lived for a time in Paris. ‘It’s incredible, really, everything that’s happened to me,’ he says, raising his eyebrows. ‘I was supposed to stay in the south and become either a soldier or a school teacher.’
L’ÉTIQUETTE. What’s your relationship with clothes?
ANDRÉ LEON TALLEY. All my life, I’ve worn well-made clothes. Clothes conceived by renowned designers. Because they loved to create for me. Azzedine Alaïa made for me the most beautiful of coats, in thick wool, like that of Dr. Jivago. Karl Lagarfeld designed velvet channel jackets. It really was haute couture. It was in 1983, back then he wasn’t creating for men at all. I’ve got taste, an eye. I like nice clothes, the same way I like nice furniture, nice books, nice homes, or nice trees. I never managed to go out in a t-shirt and jeans. Impossible. If I had to wear denim, it’d be a sleeveless waistcoat, like those men wore at the end of the 19th century. It would probably be made by Jean-Paul Gauthier…
É. Do you think clothes have shaped your personality, your journey?
A.L.T. Clothes were instrumental in my personality. But it’s my mind which makes me whom I am, my education, my history and my creativity. People say I’ve got an aura, and what I wear reinforces it. Here, I’m sitting on my porch, I’ve got a particular aura, I capture the ambience that surrounds me. Clothes sharpen personalities, they don’t make them. Nancy Pelosi, the president of the House of Representatives, is one of the best dressed persons in Washington today. Her suits are a perfect fit. But she would still be an outstanding woman without the suits.
É. How did you shape your relationship to fashion, and, more broadly, to what is beautiful?
A.L.T. As a child, I lived with my grandmother in Durham, a city in North Carolina, in the South. She was a cleaning lady at Duke University. Despite her modest conditions, she liked things in her life to be perfect. She put particular care of the geraniums in her garden, she would clean her porch every Saturday, and she would wash the house’s linens like they were work of arts, putting them in big boiling pots of water. Then, she’d dry them in the sun, before wetting them again with warm water to humidify them before ironing them. True luxury, that’s it: clean white linens. My grandmother was elegant instinctively. She had the habit of dying her hair lavender blue, and I thought it was good that gave her that colour. She wore very nice clothes, they weren’t expensive, but they looked nice, and mostly, they were high quality. When she died, she was wearing a beautiful coat she had boat some forty years earlier. She also liked gloves and hats. Even if she didn’t come from the aristocracy, she was an aristocrat. Next to her, I learned a certain life ethic. That’s where my taste for the finer things, for what is impeccable, comes from. Today, if I dress well, if my porch cleaned each week and if I order big bouquet of white flowers to decorate it, it’s thanks to her.
É. You say that fashion is particularly important in the American South. Why?
A.L.T. In the U.S. black culture, fashion is ritualised. You dress up for certain occasions. When I was a child, every Sunday, we’d go to mass at the Missionary Baptist Church, deep in the woods. Everybody was extremely well put. It was during segregation, but it didn’t make a difference, the black people of Durham could buy what they wanted in white-owned shops downtown. Men looked like Martin Luther King. They wore dark suits, white shirts, and polished shoes. I learned what elegance was when at church with my grandmother and the other parishioners. I found the same thing when I first visited Paris in 1978, for the magazine Women’s Wear Daily. It was the Yves Saint Laurent show, and it was inspired by an opera by George Gershwin, Porgy and Bess, the story of two black lovers in the American South. I was sitting in the front row, my youth in North Carolina was unfolding before my eyes. The models looked like people I’d met on Sundays in church for years. They had this fake nonchalant way of wearing their hats on the top of their head. And this balance between the fluidity of the material and the rigidity of the tailoring… It was incredible. In the South, what we wear matters most at funerals. Especially for the departed. The day of his funeral, I made sure that my father was the most well-dressed man in the world. In his coffin, he was wearing a mohair suit from Bergdof Goodman, a thick shirt, a Charvet tie, and white Italian gloves. I put down next to him a small flagon of Van Cleef & Arpels Cologne.
É. As a teenager, you were reading Vogue.
A.L.T. I found the magazine by accident, in Durham’s public library. The covers had me in awe. I had never seen something both beautiful and intriguing. Boys my age liked to swim, fish, or play football. Me, I liked pictures. I started to spend my time devouring all issues of vogue. I’d read the credits of the photographs and felt close to these people. It felt like I was in New York, with Richard Avedon or Marisa Berenson. Vogue was also the only place where I could see glamorous black people. It’s in Vogue that I discovered models like Naomi Sims and Pat Cleveland. Back then the magazine came out twice a week, 35 cents for an issue. I’d cross town to go and buy it. I followed the railroad tracks, I crossed the campus of Duke, and found myself in the white part of town. I piled up the issues in a room of my grandmother’s house, it was like my office. It was written that the people making Vogue were fashion editors. I had no idea what that meant, but I knew it’s what I wanted to do with my life.
É. How were you dressed back then?
A.L.T. In high school, I had a very strict style, traditional. I wore the best cashmere sweaters my grandmother could afford, my pants were straight, and I was wearing mocassins. After my graduation, I left North Carolina to go study at Brown, in Providence. I discovered a whole new world. I started hanging out with white people, while the high school I went to in Durham wasn’t integrated, as they said back then, there was only black people. University was freedom. I built up a style there. I put vaseline on my eyebrows so they would shine, and pink on my cheeks. I liked sailor’s pants that would stop above the ankle, like those of Sonia Rykiel. One day I found a superb dark blue coat, like a great cape. When I went back to the South dressed like that, my grandmother made fun of me, telling me I looked like the Ghost of the Opera. It’s later, when I became a fashion editor and moved to Paris that I started wearing nothing but suits. I was thin, handsome, it suited me. To wear a suit, it’s to keep a keen eye on your body as a man. I had read a lot about English tailoring. Later, I went to London, to Huntsman, on Savile Row. Their history was like a dream. The Duke of Windsor had for a long time been dressed here. I wanted to touch the fabrics, to talk with the tailors. Somewhere, in a cupboard, I must still have a fitted striped suit from them.
É. Your start in fashion were influenced by your meeting with the legendary Diana Vreeland, who was for a long time the editor-in-chief at Vogue.
A.L.T. After graduating from university in the early 70s, I was dreaming of meeting her and working for her. Thanks to the father of a friend from Brown, In managed to get a meeting. Back then, Mrs. Vreeland was collaborating with the Metropolitan Museum in New York, she was planning an exhibition titled ‘Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design.’ She put me through a test: I had to showcase a bathing suit made in golden discs that was worn by the actress Claudette Colbert in the old Cleopatra by Cecil B. DeMille. Diana Vreeland insisted ‘Cleopatra is a young princess, who likes to spend her days lounging in her garden surrounded by white peacocks.’ I had to create the most spectacular image possible, so I decided to paint the model who would wear the bathing suit with gold spray paint. That’s how I became the assistant of Dana Vreeland. The Helper. As time went by, she taught me to think differently. She didn’t give minute instructions, she was trying to inspire people, to push them to imagine things. She insisted of the importance of fantasy, of projection, when it came to fashion. Mrs. Vreeland was rigorous and disciplined, like my grandmother. She had incredible Louis Vuitton luggage. Before each trip, she would welcome into her apartment young women from the Bronx or Queens in order to help her organise her things. Each item of clothing had to be separated by silk paper. My grandmother used to do the same thing with her Samsonite luggage! And like at my grandmother’s house, everything had to shine! The young women were to wash the silverware and dust all the books on the shelves regularly. For a long time, I had tons of Louis Vuitton luggage, and I used the silk paper technique. How times have changed: now, I only use rolling sports suitcases…
É. Not long after, you met Andy Warhol.
A.L.T. Thanks to Mrs. Vreeland, I got a job at the famous Factory, Andy Warhol’s studio, in June 1974. For 75 dollars a week, I was his errand boy. I answered the Factory’s phone, ran to the corner store to get his stuff…
É. How was he?
A.L.T. He taught me never to judge anyone. He loved everybody who crossed his path. For Warhol, people were all different but also equal. He was neither mean nor cruel, as some can imagine. He was always positive, enthusiastic. He had a soft voice. He loved his routine. He went to a Catholic Church every morning. He wore jeans everyday (Levi’s 501, obviously, which he liked to wear with an oxford shirt and a Brooks Brothers blazer - editor’s note), he ate the same thing for lunch every day. He wore wigs, he had scores of them, like a full wardrobe. He also had this habit of always taking out his camera to capture all that he could. He couldn’t help himself. After a while, he offered me a position at Interview, his magazine. My first mission was to interview Karl Lagarfeld at the Plaza Hotel in New York… Often, Mr. Warhol would drop by my office and tell me that he could see me as a fashion designer. He gave me a lot of self-confidence. We would go out late to the Studio 54, we danced, and I went back early in the morning to the decrepit hostel room I was living in. It was a time where I learned to have fun. It’s important to know how to have fun. For a long time, I had at my house works of art he gave me like getting rid of old things. Serigraphy of his work for his self-portrait as a drag queen, others on the Rolling Stones. I gave them away. I’m fairly sure it must cost a fortune.
É. You say that some fashion designers are like ‘poets.’ Any name you can think of?
A.L.T. Karl Lagarfeld or Yves Saint Laurent were visionaries. Today, in this style, there’s still Miuccia Prada, Valentino, Tom Ford, or John Galliano. Through the clothes they make, they talk about literature, opera, ballet, jazz, painting… John Galliano happened on a photo of Luisa Casati, this Italian muse who liked to parade with a live snake around her neck. It inspired him to create a collection of costumes for the Paris Opera. I also remember how Yves Saint Laurent would make the knots on a model’s dress. You could feel his humanity and his love. We can draw a parallel between the care these people put into their creation and the care they put in their own style. Yves Saint Laurent was always wearing a suit. In Yohji Yamamoto, there are three immense wardrobes filled with clothes, all tailor-made. In Tom Ford’s ranch, everything is black, the furniture like the flowers. These people are artists.
É. As a fashion editor, you’ve worked for WWD, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar… What is, precisely, the role of the fashion editor?
A.L.T. You must first observe and analyse, to understand what is the right clothes for the right time, the right colour, the right collar, the right jacket, the right shoes, what’s the quality of such or such piece. You have to be a guide. Very early in my career, I wanted to show that it was possible to associate luxury items to more random items. In 1975, I remember I was myself wearing old kaki shorts from the American army along with a very expensive Karl Lagarfeld shirt and a tie. For the last shooting of the model Iman in Vogue, I had her wear Manolo Blahnik shoes, a Chanel jacket and a pair of her own torn up jeans. Coco Chanel said one day: ‘Elegance is choosing and refusing.’ I agree with that. But that’s not all. The fashion editor must succeed in bringing people out of their reality. If you photograph a model in a swimsuit next to a pool, you must make the reader want not just to wear the swimsuit, but to be there, by that pool. To take a vacation.
É. In 1996, you penned for Vanity Fair an editorial titled ‘Scarlett in the Hood’. It was the reinterpretation of the novel ‘Gone With the Wind’ by Margaret Mitchell, which tells the story of Southern landowner in the 19th century. Where did this work come from?
A.L.T. I was inspired by the book ‘Wind and Gone’ in which the writer himself draws inspiration from the novel and switches the characters around, making the black slaves the landowner and the white landowner the slaves. I went to Karl Lagarfeld and told him I wanted to capture this version of the story with pieces from various creator and have him be the photographer for the whole enterprise. He said yes on the spot. Naomi Campbell became Scarlett O’Hara, the white heroine of the story. Manolo Blahnik was a gardener while John Galliano and Gianfranco Ferré were the servants. The shooting lasted for two days in Karl Lagarfeld’s Parisian home. Naomi Campbell was wearing a Chanel golden dress worth 20,000 dollars, Gianfranco Ferré wore a white apron that his own workshop had made for him, and he had tied around his head a black Hermès scarf. I am extremely proud of this work. I think it made sense.
É. You have for long time been the only black personalities in fashion. Because of that, The New Yorker wrote a profile on you in 1994 titled ‘The Only One.’
A.L.T. To be honest, I was quite mad when The New Yorker article came out. I didn’t agree with it. I don’t like to be reduced to the colour of my skin. I’ve never been the spokesman for anything. I don’t see myself as a black man in fashion. I’ve never tried to be an activist, even less a revolutionary for change. The core of my career has always been my creativity. That’s all there is to it.
É. Have you suffered from racism throughout your career?
A.L.T. One day, a public relation officer for a large Parisian fashion firm called me ‘Queen Kong’. I was incredibly hurt. Another time, I’ve heard that people were calling me a ‘gay monkey’ or a ‘duck in the service of creators,’ and that I was ‘moving one bed to the next.’ In 2006, I remember entering in Chanel’s Parisian workshop, wearing a fringed leather coat by Miuccia Prada, and people started smiling. One of them said: ‘look, here comes Josephine Baker.’ It doesn’t matter that Josephine Baker indeed like fringed coat. It was a racist comment. The world can be cruel. We don’t take care of people. So I tried to just rise higher than that, to be stronger. I never reacted.
É. Do you think fashion still carries a ‘joie de vivre’, as you said back then?
A.L.T. Obviously. People are full of enthusiasm when we talk of fashion. They love it, they want to be a part of it. There’s joy in putting on lipstick, or perfume. Today, buying a flagon of Tom Ford’s ‘Fucking Fabulous’ is exciting, whether you like it or not. ‘What’s your perfume? It’s Fucking Fabulous!’ Extraordinary.
É. Have you ever dipped into bad taste through the years?
A.L.T. Who hasn’t? About ten years ago, I decided to wear a turban for a party, and to this day I wonder why. It wasn’t for me. It was a traditional Indian turban, with a large diamond in rusted above the forehead. It was very expensive, I had bought it at Fred Leighton’s jewelry shop on Madison Avenue. Later, when I saw pictures of myself dressed like that, I found myself ridiculous. It didn’t go at all with the purple crocodile jacket and the anthracite suit I was wearing that evening. I’ve never again worn a turban. But there’s worse still… Around the time I started gaining weight, I started wearing velvet tracksuits. Don’t laugh! They were tailor made by Juicy Couture and by name was embroidered in silver letters. My body was changing and they were easy to wear. And they were very easy to maintain, I didn’t need to go to Madame Paulette, the best dry cleaner in New York. The tracksuits, I threw them and the machine, and done. In any case, I didn’t look my best at that time…
É. Today, you wear exclusively long caftans…
A.L.T. I’m 70 now and I’m not in the same shape I used to be. I wear caftans because they match my silhouette. It’s not as extravagant as one might believe, it’s elegant but much more comfortable than a suit. Here, I don’t have to bother with a narrow collar, a tie or anything else. I just have to throw the caftan over my head. The one I’m wearing today was made by a women named Patience, in Lagos, Nigeria. I went to her workshop, she took my measurements, and here we are. I think it’s the first time Patience was making a caftan for a man. I have a few by Tom Ford as well. And Valentino. Haute Couture. Caftans fit for kings!