André Leon Talley, the great fashion editor who shattered the glass ceiling of his industry as he walked from Jim Crow South to the forefront of Paris couture, where he shared his encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history and his quick wit for roles as a writer, public speaker, television -personality and curator, died Tuesday. He was 73.
His death, after a series of health battles, was confirmed by his friend Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation.
“André Leon Talley was a unique force in an industry in which he had to fight to be recognized,” Mr Walker said, calling him a “creative genius” and noting his ability to create a persona for himself from ” a deep academic understanding of fashion and design. ”
Called “The Only 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, Mr. Talley – 6 feet 6 inches tall – an unmistakable figure wherever he went. . Given drama in his personal style (he preferred robes, gloves and royal headdresses), his statements (“My eyes starve for beauty”) and the work he adored, he cultivated an atmosphere of highness, even though his friends knew him for his subcutaneous sentimentality.
He was, said actress and talk show host Whoopi Goldberg in the 2018 documentary “The Gospel According to André”, “so many things he should not be.”
He was a receptionist at Interview magazine under Andy Warhol; the head of the Paris office for Women’s Wear Daily under John Fairchild; the creative director and editor of Vogue under Anna Wintour. He helped dress Michelle Obama when she was first lady, was an advisor 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 footage for Vanity Fair, which resumed “Gone With the Wind” with black protagonists, long before fashion woke up to its own racism.
He was most recently a judge on the television reality show “America’s Next Top Model”, artistic director of online retailer Zappos, advisor to the musician will.i.am’s tech start-up and deeply involved in the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Mr. Talley was a fixture in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where, according to the church’s pastor, Pastor Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, arrived with celebrities like Mariah Carey and Tamron Hall, but was known for his serious faith.
“With all his fame and globetrott, he came in the best of times, and he showed up in the worst of times,” said Mr. Butts. “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 no small appearance 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” has come at a price. “
“André is one of the last of the great editors who knows what they’re looking at, knows what they see, knows where it came from,” Tom Ford said in the documentary. “André throws out all these different words and he’s so big and so magnificent that a lot of people think, ‘this guy is crazy’, but it’s a fabulous insanity.”
André Leon Talley was born on October 16, 1948 in Washington, DC, to Alma and William Carroll Talley. From the age of 2 months old, he was raised by his grandmother Bennie Frances Davis in Durham, NC, where she worked as a maid on the men’s campus at Duke University.
He grew up with school in the Southern Church and good manners, idolized 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 sexually abused as a child.
He studied French at North Carolina Central University and received a master’s degree from Brown University, where he wrote his thesis on the influence of black women in Baudelaire and Flaubert and in Delacroix’s paintings.
A chance meeting with editor Carrie Donovan, then working on Vogue, convinced him 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 Mrs. Vreeland, he wrote in his memoirs, “The Chiffon Trenches,” published in 2020 by Random House, that “I learned to speak the language of style, imagination, and literature.” It was also through Mrs. Vreeland that he entered the magazine world, and through Interview, that he met Warhol.
“He was constantly trying to grab my step,” Mr. Talley later to The New York Times. “It was not a Harvey Weinstein moment. Andy was a charming person because he saw the world through a child’s kaleidoscope. Everything was ‘gee golly wow’.”
In interviews, he also met Karl Lagerfeld, the Fendi designer, whose omnivorous cultural taste and intellect became his pioneering star, especially when he joined Women’s Wear Daily and moved to Paris. There he enjoyed glamorous evenings with Yves Saint Laurent and his acolytes moving from aristocratic castles to nouveau nightclubs.
Through it all, Mr. wrote. Talley in his memoirs, he navigated in his “armor” – specifically “Knee socks with banana cable and elegant moccasins” and “Turnbull & Asser shirts.”
For him, fashion was both inspiration and disguise, camouflage against the racist barbs he experienced, such as being referred to as “Queen Kong.”
It was first seen in hindsight, wrote Mr. Talley that he realized “the blinders I had to wear to survive.”
In the late 1980s, his flamboyant taste and deep fashion knowledge captured Mrs. Wintour, for whom Mr. Talley became a counselor, friend, and foil, a link to an older, more romantic, less business-oriented, and less bottom-line-oriented age. He even advised Mrs. Wintour, Vogue’s editor – in – chief, on her Met Gala attire.
“What I remember is that I was not so much his protector,” said Ms. Wintour in the documentary. “My fashion history is not that big and his is impeccable, so I think I have learned a lot from him.”
Then fashion monsters sacred as Mr. Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen gave way to more technocratic 9-to-5 designers, Mr. Talley himself on the outside.
There were “many in the industry who really loved André for his talent,” said Mr. Butts. It was also the case that “there were others who exploited his talent and used it to their advantage”, which “never really gave him respect as a man and was condescending.”
After his memoirs were published, he fell out with Mrs. Wintour, whom he accused of having left him. (In “The Chiffon Trenches”, Mr. Talley suggested that she play a somewhat parasitic role in his life, nourishing this energy.)
He had struggled with his weight since his grandmother’s death in 1989, and in recent years he was largely isolated in the house in White Plains, NY, where he lived and slept in a bed that Mr. de la Renta gave him. The home 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, despite all his complaints and disillusionment, Mr. Talley with believing in the power of the well-placed nail and the perfectly polished shoe, the way in which the smallest objects can turn our deepest hopes into reality.
“To my 12-year-old self, raised in the far south, the idea of a black man playing any role in this world seemed impossible,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Thinking about where I came from, where we have coming from, in my lifetime, and where we are today, is amazing. And yet, of course, we still have that far to go. “