A Look at André Leon Talley’s Legacy
Jul 11, 2018 by Contributing Writer on The Nickelodeon Blog
Local fashion blogger and aspiring stylist Dani Lynn reflects on André Leon Talley’s legacy. Find Dani’s work at The Style Odyssey and information on the Nickelodeon’s screening of The Gospel According to André here.
You may know him as the unapologetically honest judge from America’s Next Top Model always attired in luxurious kaftans, but André Leon Talley is much more than that. Since his late twenties, Talley has played many pivotal roles in the fashion industry. Reporting for Women’s Wear Daily, Interview Magazine, and The New York Times are a few of his early accomplishments. He worked alongside Andy Warhol, became friends with Karl Lagerfeld, and was the protégé of former editor and chief of Vogue, Diana Vreeland, from whom he learned the language of style and clothes. Talley landed the role as Vogue’s fashion news director and from there was promoted to Vogue’s creative director. Most importantly, Talley has paved the way for future journalists of color and shown how important it is to stay true to yourself, in spite of those who aren’t comfortable with who you are.
Though he has become a celebrated person within the fashion industry, it wasn’t, and still isn’t, an easy task at hand. Talley has never been outspoken about his personal life or struggles within the industry. The Gospel According To André allows viewers to learn about Talley’s southern upbringing during segregation and his reputation as a boisterous man who never seemed to be truly accepted, past or present.
Talley was born in Durham, North Carolina in 1948 where his parents left him to be raised by his grandmother. His grandmother significantly impacted and molded who he is today. His grandmother raised him in the church –– church at the time was a place where African Americans felt at peace, could celebrate themselves openly without fear, drop their work uniforms, and dress in their Sunday best. This is, partially, where Andre’s love for fashion grew. He came from a fashionable family and it was “a moral code to dress well.” Talley came across a Vogue magazine in a public library and his love for fashion grew, becoming an escape from the Jim Crow south. This was one of the first times he saw black models, such as Pat Cleveland and Naomi Sims, and he recalled thinking that not everyone is racist. “It made the culture of style come alive to a young black in the south.”
Talley’s style was inspired by various women throughout his life. Barbara Streisand inspired him to shop at thrift stores where he found his first cape, which became one of his staples, and Julia Childs inspired him to learn the French language. He transgressed the boundary of what black masculinity should be. His style and how he carried himself wasn’t’ deemed respectable in many eyes, including those of the church. Talley fled from the south as soon as he could; once he was done with his studies at North Carolina Central University, he received a scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) where he truly learned what it meant to be himself. RISD was a newly discovered source of freedom for Talley and this is where he met people who had the same interest as him away from the suffocation of the south. He moved to New York City shortly after graduating from RISD.
Once he moved to NYC, Talley hit the ground running, volunteering for the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute and eventually meeting Diana Vreeland; he gravitated to Vreeland’s theatrical and dramatic gestures. Talley and Vreeland had a bond like no other; she gave him unconditional love and reminded him of his grandmother. This relationship was a breath of fresh air for Talley who quickly and often found himself back in the familiar spaces of racism, judgment, and isolation. In the film, André tearfully expresses how racism came from his colleagues and friends who would speak hurtfully when they thought he was out of ears reach; one colleague gave Talley a racist nickname to use when he wasn’t around.
Many couldn’t understand how Karl Lagerfeld and Diana Vreeland would want to associate themselves with this over-the-top black man and went as far as to say he used sex to get the positions he held. Talley boiled it down to them not being confident in themselves and discusses how, now that he further out of the spotlight, friends like Anna Wintour have isolated themselves from him when convenient or simply just stopped speaking to him.
Talley has been quiet throughout his career when it comes to the struggles of being an African American male in the fashion industry. Many people have asked why, including me. Then, I thought about what was instilled in him while during high school. Talley was taught that the best revenge was success, which may have resulted in the internalization of his pain. Talley alone has acquired quite a bit of success and has wordlessly, yet boldly, showed his naysayers that they will not win. He continues to express his feelings about the lack of color in the industry through his work.
Andre Leon Talley is more than just the judge who was on America’s Next Top Model, more than a fashion icon. He is someone we can relate and look up to. He is talented, intelligent, and resilient and embodies that you are more than your beginnings. At the end of the day, it’s about where you’re going and end up. He has paved a way for other African Americans to find their place in the fashion industry and supported the talent of black designers and models. He has and will continue to be vocal about the fact that there needs to be more diversity in the fashion industry.