Remembering Trailblazing Fashion Icon André Leon Talley

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The Gospel According To André, 2017
The Gospel According To André(Film still)

The legendary Vogue editor had an illustrious career championing Black models and designers, while injecting fashion with a much-needed sense of humour

André Leon Talley, the fashion journalist and former editor-at-large of American Vogue, has died at the age of 73. He passed away at a New York hospital on Tuesday of an unknown illness.

“It is with great sadness we announce the passing of André Leon Talley on January 18, 2022 in New York,“ read a posthumous statement on Talley’s Instagram page. “Mr Talley was the larger-than-life, longtime creative director at Vogue during its rise to dominance as the world’s fashion bible. Over the past five decades as an international icon was a close confidant of Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Paloma Picasso, Diane von Furstenberg, Bethann Hardison, Manolo Blahnik and he had a penchant for discovering, nurturing and celebrating young designers.“

Raised by his grandmother in Jim Crow-era North Carolina, a young Talley first came across an issue of Vogue at a public library in Durham – a place where “bad things never happened”, according to his 2020 memoir The Chiffon Trenches. This chance discovery was to change his life forever: after completing an MA in French Literature in 1972 at Brown University, he jetted off to New York to make his fashion dreams become a reality.

After his arrival in 1974, Talley asserted himself within New York’s lively fashion scene, doing everything from volunteering with Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute to working as a receptionist at Andy Warhol’s much-mythologised Interview magazine. Following later stints at Women’s Wear DailyW and the New York Times, Talley finally arrived at US Vogue, where he became the fashion news director, and later in 1988, the first Black creative director of the magazine. During his tenure, Talley ushered in a more inclusive era for fashion, championing Black models like Naomi Campbell and designers like Stephen Burrows. “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 an impossibility,” he recalled in his memoir.

In 1995, Talley left Vogue and moved to Paris to work for W, later returning in 1998 as editor-at-large until his subsequent departure again in 2013. His working relationship with US Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour was a fraught one; in The Chiffon Trenches, Talley divulged that she was “never really passionate about clothes. Power was her passion.“ In 2018, Wintour decided Talley’s time was up as a freewheeling, humorous host of the Met Gala red-carpet livestream, and she replaced him with a YouTube star. “I had suddenly become too old, too overweight, and too uncool, I imagined, for Anna Wintour,” he wrote.

But outside of Vogue, Talley still exerted a sizeable influence in the realm of fashion. He served as a judge on America’s Next Top Model and became the Obama family’s fashion advisor in 2008, introducing Michelle Obama to fashion designer Jason Wu – she later wore a white chiffon ball gown at her husband’s presidential inauguration ceremony in 2009. Talley also wrote two brazen memoirs during his lifetime – A.L.T in 2003 and The Chiffon Trenches in 2020 – and was the subject of the 2017 documentary, The Gospel According to André, in which brands him as “the Nelson Mandela of couture.“

Speaking of Wintour in The Chiffon Trenches, Talley wrote: “My hope is that she [Anna] will find a way to apologise before I die, or that if I linger on incapacitated before I pass, she will show up at my bedside, with a hand clasped into mine, and say, ’I love you. You have no idea how much you have meant to me.’”