“Andre is an important African-American cultural figure. But it has come at a cost” – Kate Novack.
A Southern boy born in Washington, D.C and raised in Durham, North Carolina; André Leon Talley was raised with an “understanding of luxury” by his grandparents. His love for fashion was cultivated at an early age by his grandmother and his discovery of Vogue magazine, which he first found in the local library.
In 1983, Leon Talley bagged a job at the publication that formed his love for fashion, Vogue, as the Fashion News Director. In 1988, he moved up the Vogue ranks and became Creative Director until 1995. He left Vogue and moved to Paris in 1995 to work for W, while serving as Contributing Editor at Vogue. In 1998, he made his return to Vogue as the Editor-at-Large until his departure in 2013 to pursue other editorial ventures.
Quite the impressive resume, right? In April 2018, the Kate Novack directed documentary film “The Gospel According to André” was released. The film, gives an in-depth look into the larger-than-life journey of one of the most powerful and influential black men in the fashion industry. Recently, Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times penned a really beautiful yet equally heartbreaking piece about the documentary film and where André Leon Talley’s life is right now.
“He was so many things he wasn’t supposed to be and they couldn’t get around it.” – Whoopi Goldberg.
Vanessa’s article delves into the mindset of a man who has been an outcast for a good portion of his life. His race, his larger-than-life stature, his sexuality and his audacity to become who he went on to become, made his presence publicly celebrated yet privately disdained.
“Fashion does not take care of its people. No one is going to take care of me, except I am going to take care of myself” – André Leon Talley
The article starts delving into the long time racial abuse that André suffered at the hands of fashion insiders, particularly from a Saint Laurent employee who dubbed him “Queen Kong” because, as he says in his documentary, “I was like an ape. I was a gay, ape Queen Kong”. He goes into how he regrets never having stopped that kind of racial slurring that had been directed at him and especially, by that particular person. The more I read the article, the more I realized that out of all of André’s life regrets, the one I felt like he should have discussed more is his attempt at breaking the mold and creating more seats at the table for black people in the fashion industry.
“He is making such a statement about the value of black lives. It is an affirmation”
Vanessa cites that most of his professional life, race was not a subject that André really liked to discuss which was a major red flag for me. He never discussed it with Anna Wintour or with Oscar de la Renta; people who were supposedly his very good friends. Rather, he chose to hint at it with very subtle nuances in his work, most notably the Vanity Fair shoot he collaborated on with Karl Lagerfeld as the photographer. André chose to interpret “Gone With the Wind” and had Naomi Campbell playing Scarlett O’Hara and designers John Galliano and Manolo Blahnik playing her servants. And that was it.
“I look around everywhere and say, ‘Where are the black people?’ – André Leon Talley
But where would the black people be if he, as one of the only black people at the table, didn’t pull out chairs for other black people to sit at the table? This sparked a conversation with two of my friends on whether or not, the current state of Andre’s slummy life is a result of him wanting to be the only black at the table. I think the interpretation of “Gone With the Wind” was an attempt from Leon Talley to push the black narrative into fashion but I believe that he could’ve done much more than just one elaborate gesture. The inclusion of black people in the fashion industry needed so much more from him.
His lack of continuous fight does make me believe that a part of him wanted to be the only black person at the table, it elevated his grandeur much farther than just being “André Leon Talley”. It affirmed a deeper sense of insecurity within him that he had been harboring throughout his life and his career. His role of importance, his role of power and of influence in the industry gave him a great platform to create a greater legacy for himself and for black people who wanted to be just like him and his white counterparts, or even better than them. Which also raised the question of “how powerful was he really?” As the Creative Director, Editor-at-Large and now Contributing Editor at the biggest publication in the entire world, was there no way for him to command the respect that was shown to him publicly, privately? When you call some of the biggest power players in the industry friends?
I had to ask myself “If I was in André’s shoes, what would I have done?” and I couldn’t lie to myself. I probably would’ve also wanted to be the only black person at the table, especially during the glory fashion years BUT I certainly could’ve never been that person for 40 years. The whirlwind of Leon Talley’s career included a vindication of the image that had been carved of him from his schooling days to his days sitting front row at the Paris fashion shows.
All in all, the New York Times piece shone a light onto the fashion industry and the minds behind the machine, a light that may have been there; but very dimly so. No one has the courage to stand up for what is right without the daunting thought of having to compromise their careers and their credibility. André swallowed a bitter pill for over 40 years and lives a very lonely and heartbreaking life because the career he has spent his life building didn’t prove to love him back in the same way in which he had loved it.
“You don’t get up and say “Look, I’m black and I’m proud’. You just do it and it somehow impacts the culture” – André Leon Talley