André Leon Talley, the last great fashion editor

There’s a scene at the start of “The September Issue,” the 2009 documentary about Vogue magazine’s director of the year, which features an encounter between designer Vera Wang, dressed in a striped shirt and no makeup, and , like a character from an entirely different film set, editor André Leon Talley: very tall, very imposing, dark glasses, silk tie and made-to-measure suit, wrapped in a mink shawl. They discuss the state of fashion in New York.

“It’s a famine of beauty,” says Mr. Talley with an air of great tragedy. In case she did not understand the weight of his words, he repeated them: “A famine beauty.” And again: “A famine of beautyhoney.”

Then, finally: “My eyes thirst for beauty!”

Beauty mattered to Mr Talley, who for decades was one of the major players in Vogue – and the industry. Since her death on January 18 at the age of 73, this “beauty starvation” line has been quoted time and time again in obituaries and in the hundreds of social media posts commemorating her life. This is partly because it is so representative: grandiloquent and absurd at the same time; the words of a diva, spoken at a time when divas were going out of style. But also because it is a reminder of all the help that can be found in the beautifully designed dress, object, apartment, phrase.

It is an eternal truth. Mr. Talley was simply part of a tradition in which you declaimed it, with exclamation points, from the rooftops.

Since his death, he has often been called “the only one”, the title of a Profile 1994 of him in The New Yorker. While this refers to the fact that at the time Mr. Talley was often the only black editor in any given context, it could just as well apply to the role he played, both in fashion and in the representation of fashion in the world.

He was the last of the great pontificating editorial characters, those characters who regarded personal style as a kind of religion, the dictates of chic as a catechism, and considered it essential to practice what they preached. Who categorically believed in the virtues of dressing up, rather than dressing up.

It was an archetype rooted in the early days of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and embodied in characters such as Carmel Snow and Diana Vreeland, Mr. Talley’s early mentor, not to mention designers he idolized like Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. In their wake, he adorned himself with bespoke finery and scholarship (he had a master’s degree from Brown and was a voracious reader, often quoting Truman Capote, whom he considered a kindred spirit) and dared brilliant guardians to ban Durham, NC’s skinny kid from the door.

His costumes served to dazzle and distract from how abnormal he was. But no matter how over the top the insignia seemed, they were still rooted in substance: in the idea that you couldn’t understand the present without understanding the past and that it was crucial to always do your homework. He knew more about creator credentials than the creators. Knew the gilding on top of the Invalides where Napoleon was buried was real gold leaf and the name of Marie Antoinette’s hairdresser. (Marie Antoinette, he once said, was fashion’s first casualty.)

He buys Charvet underpants, to better build his character from top to bottom; played tennis with a Louis Vuitton towel around his neck, a Louis Vuitton racket cover and a Piaget diamond watch; had special shirts made just for his vacation visits to Karl Lagerfeld’s villa in Saint-Tropez so he wouldn’t offend the mercurial designer’s eyes by wearing the same thing for an entire day.

He would sweep the front row of fashion shows in his capes and caftans and sometimes a towering fur or fedora hat, unabashedly blocking the view of those behind (he rarely, if ever, looked out), holding court ever since. his seat. Throws his stoles over his shoulders and trills his words with abandon.

“Drink the moment,” he told Rihanna as she walked into the Met Gala in 2015 in flowing gold satin gowns by Chinese designer Guo Pei. (He wore acres of cardinal crimson.) “Drink it!” You will inspire people in this dress.

He was a proponent of the grand gesture, done not only publicly but also in private. In both personal and professional matters, he could be thorny, prone to offend, excessively demanding, but also unreasonably generous. For every story of him falling out with an old friend, there’s a story of him sticking with a designer he believed to be working when the rest of fashion turned their backs on him.

He played a central role in John Galliano’s career, having him stage his comeback show at São Schlumberger’s 17th-century Paris mansion in 1994, when Mr. Galliano’s backers had pulled out and the designer was considering closing his line. He spoke to Ralph Rucci, who called him an “oracle,” every day, and wore Manolo Blahnik shoes in almost every fashion shoot he ever did. He was a snob, but a snob of talent and culture more than pedigree.

This model of a modern big publisher has now disappeared from the landscape, swept away by a wave of streetwear, digital democratization, shrinking budgets and a value system that elevates the functional above the fantastic. By the time fashion finally came face to face with its own history of racism, and the doors Mr. Talley had worked so hard to open finally gave way, he had lost his position of power: a victim of his own expectations and habits. expenses. . (He had a difficult relationship with taxes and with expense accounts.)

He was criticized for not doing enough to advocate for young people of color (for focusing on his career rather than theirs); to respond to the dominant power structure, instead of calling it; for being seduced by the superficial appeal of a Goyard bag and a Fabergé brooch. Objects he loved, who could never love him back.

But it took a lot of effort to be him. How detailed was he in his 2020 memoir, ‘The Chiffon Trenches’, in which he finally tackled the racism he had faced throughout his career and what it meant to to be the only black man in so many plays: to always be seen as setting an example, both to those who thought he was out of place and to those who followed him.

“You don’t stand up and say, ‘Look, I’m black and I’m proud,'” he said in ‘The Gospel According to Andrew,’ the 2018 documentary about his life. “You just did. And somehow it impacts the culture.

When he was not on stage, which for him meant any public place, he retired to a house in White Plains, NY, where visitors were rarely allowed to enter. There he would tend to his garden, heal his grievances and recharge before venturing out again to play his part with aplomb, though he was often relegated to style sideshow status.

It’s no coincidence that after leaving Vogue, one of his jobs was as a judge on “America’s Next Top Model,” to which he introduced the word “drekitude,” a combination of “dreck,” as in “wreck,” and “attitude” meaning a “hot, hot, mess.” He advertised the term with big rhetorical flourishes and hand gestures.

He continued to dream big, even as the magazines around him grew small. As over-the-top as her language and look might seem, they embodied the way fashion can work as a tool for self-actualization and self-respect, and the joy it can bring. It’s his legacy, along with the barriers he broke down and the designers whose work he championed.

He understood that it was necessary to go to the extreme to redefine the standard. By force of will and fashion, Mr. Talley, like the publishers he had venerated, was all of these. Who will take up the torch – who still owns such coats – now that he is gone?

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