28 Days of Black Fashion History: André Leon Talley
Updated: Feb 3
It's September, 2018. André Leon Talley writes an opinion piece for The Washington Post documenting the historic Vogue issue on which Beyoncé graced the cover, shot by the equally talented Black photographer, Tyler Mitchell. He writes of how the cover is an homage to Black women who could never dream of themselves on the cover of Vogue. But in that same article he also speaks of the significance of the white sheet behind Beyoncé, its suggestion of bygone Black women who washed and folded the sheets, delivering them to their masters in the big, white house; the ancestry of slavery. In his words, “the sheet symbolizes so many black women who struggled until they became towers of their community, of their family — but rarely of the world.” (The Washington Post, September 2018)
CREDIT- CINDY ORD/GETTY
This article is no departure for the beloved, larger than life, fiercely loyal, outspoken, trailblazing icon and legendary fashion journalist André Leon Talley. He brought a fresh perspective to fashion, one that celebrated diversity without screaming and one that offered cultural knowledge that could not be tapped into by “the old guard.” “I sounded no bullhorn over diversity but nurtured it where I could.” (The Washington Post, September 2018)
Talley with fellow Vogue editors in 2008
Photo- Andrew H. Walker_Getty Images
His legacy is so expansive, it is difficult to cover (and do it justice) in a single blog post. (I mean, the man has 2 memoirs AND a biopic), but I will try to make the short version as thorough as possible, highlighting his contributions to the culture.
Born in 1948 in Washington, D.C., he was raised by his grandmother in North Carolina. Although quiet and obedient as a child, he always knew that there was more to life than the town of Durham, and he intended to experience it. He graduated from North Carolina Central University and received a Master’s degree from Brown University. His master’s thesis about Black women in 19th century French art and literature was picked up by wealthy white students at Rhode Island School of Design, which helped parlay him into an unpaid internship at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Diane Vreeland. He would eventually move on to work at Andy Warhol’s Interview, then move to Paris (as the bureau chief of WWD) and eventually to American Vogue.
Pierre Berge, John Fairchild and Andre Leon Talley in 1979
Talley excelled as an editor and fashion personality in a notoriously white and elitist industry with his quick wit and extensive knowledge of fashion history. However, he acknowledged that he kept “blinders” on “ in order to survive.”
Photo- André Leon Talley Instagram _andreltalley
The first Black man to hold the position of creative director at Vogue, André was often the only Black person in the front row of fashion shows. In his biopic The Gospel According to André, Whoopi Goldberg lovingly referred to him as “the Black rockette”. Talley knew he was often the only one or the first, but he also was aware that his mere presence made an impact. Dubbed the “pharaoh of fabulosity” by a Vogue staffer, Talley’s presence was not only felt because he was “the only one” but his 6 foot 6 inch physical stature also made him hard to miss.
Andre Leon Talley and Whoopi Goldberg front row at Marc Jacobs
But his presence made space for others. Says Judith Gaffney, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, "He was one who pioneered and made space. Even though there wasn't space for him, he made space." (Business Insider, January 20, 2022).
He would become a role model for many, a familiar face that was obviously lacking for many designers (and journalists) of color in the fashion industry.
Talley with Edward Enninful in 2018
Photo- Dimitrios Kambouris_MG18_Getty Images for The Met Museum_Vogue
"Seeing someone Black and Southern take up such a huge space in fashion meant something to me," says Shelby Ivey Christie, a fashion and costume historian, who once worked at Vogue. "I knew I was standing on the shoulders of ALT and could only be in that space because of the foundation he'd laid." (Fashionista, Jan 24, 2022)
His fashionable and storied life was filled with incredible firsts, notable celebrity friendships, and coveted roles including stylist to former first lady Michelle Obama who introduced her to Jason Wu, the designer of her inaugural gown.
André Leon Talley wrote the story on Michelle Obama that appeared in
Vogue magazine, March 2009.
André Leon Talley and Janet Jackson at the Vivienne Westwood show in Paris, 2006.
Karl Lagerfeld and Vogue's Andre Leon Talley
WireImage for Chanel
But even as he made his impact on fashion, he continued to be devout in his faith and always remembered where he came from. He was a regular fixture at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, a habit no doubt attributed to his Southern upbringing, and often arriving with celebrities in tow. And he always spoke of the impact of his grandmother, Bennie Davis, a Black woman who, although everyone else saw a maid cleaning the dorm rooms of Duke University, he knew her as a woman who encouraged him to read, took pleasure in clothes, and boarded a bus with him yearly to Washington or New York to buy the best that they could afford.
“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, . . .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.”--excerpt from The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir by André Leon Talley
He envisioned a more democratic and inclusive fashion world, and though “we still have so far to go”, his sheer presence helped move the fashion industry in a more diverse and inclusive direction.
Credit: MARK MAINZ/GETTY IMAGES
Did you know that Talley spent a year as editor for Ebony magazine in the early 1980s. His time there is what made him a household name in the Black community.
Blog post references:
For an amazing gallery of André Leon Talley pictures, visit WWD.