My longtime friend and mentor André Leon Talley stars in The Gospel According to André, a documentary premiering Wednesday night at the Tribeca Film Festival, chronicling his rise and 48-year reign as one of the most venerable fashion editors of all time.
“André, what’s important to you now?” I ask over lunch at Majorelle in Manhattan’s midtown.
“Lo, that I have toiled these many years in these chiffon trenches,” Talley, 68, begins as he holds forth in larger-than-life prose. Swaddled in a flowing caftan, his signature look, he continues: “I hope I have shared in a unique way my enthusiasm and knowledge about the culture and the history of style in all its rainbow hues of beautiful diversity.”
Talley’s story in the film is told as much through his own voice as it is through the eyes of his best friends from his childhood in Durham, N.C. “It helped me to grow up there. We didn’t know we were poor—the culture and the foundation of our lives was hardworking dignified and rich. It was all based around church.”
Style is certainly part of religion, especially when it comes to the black church, and for Talley, style was always a parallel religion—one based on pride rather than status: “Everyone in my family had style. We didn’t talk about style. We lived it.”
Talley describes watching his grandmother and her seven sisters dress for church socials as his earliest fashion education. He excelled in French in school and set his sights on the French fashion world. The world to which he aspired had never before had a black man in the role of star-maker and power broker at publications like Women’s Wear Daily and Vogue, as Talley would become.
“Grace and fortitude” lit the way for him as a trailblazer in this new territory, because “you have to physically create miracles for yourself every day,” he says. Forty-eight years in fashion, which notoriously eats its young, is an achievement. “You have to realize that no one can destroy your dream, your knowledge, your power if you have a voice,” he adds.
“Vogue became the world for me when I was like 12 or 13. I went across town to Duke University the first Sunday of the month and brought it with my own money. It was my escape world and then it became my home,” he says. “The value of clothes became very important to me from very young.”
As much as Talley was influenced by the louche life of opulence on the pages of fashion magazines, he was equally influenced by Martin Luther King Jr. and the “impeccability of his white shirt and blue suit and his moral code. I was inspired by people who were avatars.”
In my mind, Talley is an avatar who validated and facilitated all the black models, designers, editors and fashion people in my living memory and our generation ascending now. It’s a leap for anyone, let alone a little black boy from North Carolina, to make it from his bedroom to a corner office in Paris.
“Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory is just one of the greatest books ever. I remember so well that when I saw Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball covered in Vogue by Gloria Steinem, in a major eight-page, color extravaganza, I wanted to see people like that—Carmen De Lavallade, Oscar de la Renta and Lauren Bacall.”
One particularly delicious memory on the power of literature in his life was reading his first major novel: “I read Madame Bovary on a Trailways bus coming to New York to visit my aunts, sitting next to my grandmother with a shoe box full of fried chicken, potato salad and biscuits, reading and eating heavenly fried chicken. You know you had to box your lunch, you know.”
Thinking out of the box has always been one of Talley’s strengths. “I hungered for Vogue, for escaping into the beauty of art,” he says. Talley swung through Brown University on scholarship, and soon his escape into the world of beautiful people became a full-time reality. A letter-writing campaign landed him an internship at the Costume Institute at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art with legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland, who came to love him like a son.
Talley moved from receptionist at Andy Warhol’s Interview to his own byline, assigned to interview designers like Karl Lagerfeld and Halston. “The world is lacking in Andy Warhols,” Talley continues. “Like Vreeland, they both made you feel so important and look at the world with the wonder of a child. When you look at the world through the eyes of a child, you tolerate everything. I’ve survived because I have a sense of wonder and magic.”
Growing up in the segregated South gave Talley “armor” for the business world.
“Vogue was integrated when I got there; there were black writers like James Baldwin,” he says.
What was it like to be the only black per—? He stops me before I can finish the question.
“I never thought of myself as the only—I thought of myself as the first; that way I could be happy,” he says. “We’ve come a long way, baby, but we have lot longer to go.”
There’s a smile in his voice, but his eyes are deadly serious.
“The best moment of my life was the Michelle Obama interview for the cover of Vogue. There are not enough words just [to] describe her. Her style? Original, eclectic and inclusive. She influenced all Americans,” Talley says.
Who is the future of fashion?
“I love LaQuan Smith,” he says. “I went to his first show and I gave him $2,000 to take his first trip to Paris. You have to go to Paris to see the way the sunlight hits the French limestone. Your first trip to Paris is the mother lode. People go to the same places all the time. Paris is a little village. Fashion will find you.”