André Leon Talley Talks Race and Power in Fashion

·7 min read

André Leon Talley and Ford Foundation president Darren Walker chatted virtually about race, representation and power in the worlds of art, fashion and design Tuesday night at an event hosted by the Museum of Arts and Design.

Before the conversation got underway, the recent death of Donald Tober, whose wife is chairwoman emerita at MAD, was acknowledged.

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Walker and Talley have not met in person since last March before the pandemic took hold. Walker had planned to host a book party last fall for Talley, whom he first met at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City in 1995. The coronavirus shutdown squashed their celebratory plans, but Talley’s memoir “The Chiffon Trenches” stirred up waves of publicity for several months.

Sheltering at home hasn’t dented Talley’s style. Vogue’s former editor at large said he still dresses as if he were going out — Tom Ford caftan, Valentino socks, Hermès gloves…you get the idea.

Asked if he knew as a graduate student at Brown that he was going to be André Leon Talley, he said, “I did not know at Brown that I was going to be André Leon Talley — Fashion. Curatorial. Icon.” After meeting a RISD professor, who recognized his love of fashion and encouraged him to head for New York, he relocated to the city, attended a Coty awards and never looked back.

However storied Talley’s career has been, most interviews including Tuesday’s MAD-hosted one, delve into his relationship with “the inimitable” Anna Wintour, as Walker said. But the ice may be melting between the two former colleagues — even as Wintour last year came under fire for the continuing lack of diversity at Condé Nast. Talley said, “Anna Wintour singlehandedly gave me the most important position in my career ever. There had never been a Black man second on the masthead [as creative director]. She set the way in 1988. That moment made it possible that Edward Enninful was named editor in chief of British Vogue three years ago.”

Talley added, “Black people were not editors in the heyday of Mrs. [Diana] Vreeland. They were society ladies.”

At Vogue, Talley said rebooting John Galliano’s career was one of the pinnacles of his own career. Talley said, “He was down and out. He was almost homeless. She [Wintour] allowed me to restore him to his vibrancy.”

Contrary to media reports of a frosty divide, Talley said he still has a “very wonderful relationship with Anna Wintour through emails and texts. We warmed up, since the book was published. One of the reasons that I wrote the book was to show this was not a vendetta about Vogue [or] Anna Wintour. This was an epistle of love. I wanted to show the complexity of our complex relationship and it still is to this day.”

Talley said he will write Wintour an email when he thinks she has done wonderful things, such as the focus on diversity following the police killing of George Floyd last summer. Walker, however, reminded Talley of previous conversations they had during the Vogue days, when Talley would say, “’You just won’t believe the racism, Darren. You just won’t believe how racist fashion is, this industry is and Condé Nast is.’ I remember once you said, ‘I feel like I have to suit up everyday and deal with the racism.’”

Earlier in the conversation Talley detailed racism he faced while living in Paris working for Women’s Wear Daily. “I did not sour on the city and the scene. There were factions within the Saint Laurent camp. The p.r. director of Rive Gauche was very jealous. She was a bitter lady because she had terrible romantic disappointments in her life. She started calling me a very racist thing, ‘Queen Kong.’ That was told to me by Paloma [Picasso] and I kept that bottled up in me until I confessed to that in my documentary. Paris is a very complex place. They love you and then they want to spit you out,” he said.

After rumors were spread that he was sleeping with every designer (which he said was not true), Talley said he found that to be very racist because it was told to him by his boss at the time, Michael Coady. Talley said he realized years later that the rumors were made up to get him fired. But it had been so hurtful that he resigned, Talley said.

He said his faith in God and songs like those by Nina Simone have carried him through. “We sang ourselves into the Civil Rights [Movement]. When we marched, we did not march to a place like the Capitol. We marched singing. We sang our way into freedom and to the signature of the Civil Rights Act,” Talley said. “People would pray. They were marching. They were respectful.…Songs are so important because they give you a sense of being out of yourself. Yet being of the self and projecting a sense of self and a sense of destiny.”

Walker added, “While those people [on Jan. 6] weren’t singing, they were marching because of the ideology of white supremacy. And that ideology was very present in fashion.”

Shifting gears, Walker reminded Talley of how he traveled on the same train to Washington, D.C., with the Obama family, clandestinely on assignment for Vogue to write a cover story about Michelle Obama. “Barack wanted to replicate the train that brought Abraham Lincoln into the capital for his inauguration. Somehow the ladies who had gotten involved with the organization of the shoot got me on the train. I had to dash from New York to Philadelphia in the middle of the night in a car. I paid $2,000 to get a SUV to get me to Philadelphia by 6 a.m. so that I could get on that train,” he said,

Minding his own business with his Louis Vuitton set of hard luggage while waiting to get on the car assigned to journalists, a woman seated next to him said she was a close friend of Michelle Obama’s and signaled him to follow her to join the car where the Obama family was seated. After a press person questioned his new seat, she was told that Talley was a friend of the family. “I sat in the train. I met Joe Biden. When Barack and Michelle came by, they said, ‘Oh look, you’re here. You’re here.’ It was a wonderful trip. I went to the inauguration with Diane von Furstenberg. Nancy Pelosi got us seats behind where he was inaugurated. We were up behind where Yo-Yo Ma played. That was a day. I will never forget that day. Ever. We were just layered up in sables and furs and everything.”

He added, “We were very grateful to go to the first inauguration of the first Black President, Barack Obama. I wish my grandmother had been there to see the cover story that I wrote. It’s in my living room. I keep the magazine on the coffee table.”

Referring to the controversy around the February Vogue cover image of Vice President Kamala Harris, Talley said the choice of sneakers and clothing reflect what she has worn on the campaign trail, and the young Black photographer, Tyler Mitchell, does not have the same aesthetic universe as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn or Annie Leibovitz. Speaking more broadly, Talley said he is encouraged by how diversity is gaining ground, citing Lizzo’s popularity and a skirt-wearing Harry Styles as examples.

Going forward, Talley said he is working on a show for a great patron of couture and the arts, whose name he did not disclose. The hope is that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the de Young in San Francisco or the Houston Museum of Fine Arts will mount it. His subject has 9,000 pieces of first-rate designer clothing inventoried and paintings by Pablo Picasso, Marc Rothko and others. “The world of art and the world of fashion are aligned in her world of beauty,” he said.

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