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The legendary model, 69, opens up to PEOPLE about her close bond with the late fashion icon, who died at age 73 Tuesday of undisclosed circumstances. "He was an incredible, very unique person," Johnson says.
She notes that their friendship began during their "parallel tracks" in the fashion industry, which led him to become Vogue's fashion news director in 1983 before becoming the publication's first Black male creative director in 1988 and then editor-at-large from 1998 to 2013.
Johnson previously made history as the first Black model to appear on the cover of Vogue in August 1974, while Talley was building up an impressive early résumé at Andy Warhol's Interview, Women's Wear Daily, W and The New York Times.
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"Yeah, we were aware of each other. ... We're never at the same place at the same time, right? I'm traveling the world, but he's a very well-known figure in the fashion industry," she recounts. "Then when he started to reach out to different models, and his relationship with Naomi [Sims] and Iman, and different designers, Black designers, and he really started using his influence in the Black fashion community.
"Even with Serena and Venus, he just started to share himself with Black celebrities and people that are at the top of the craft, and that was a real honor. I kind of came in at that time. We were going to do projects together, and you just can't get him on the phone or send him an email and think he's going to email you back. But I just keep calling every now and then. One time, he'll just pick up the phone, 'Darling!' And then you just start where you left off at," Johnson adds.
Although the Face That Changed It All author admits that she's "not a label girl," she admired Talley's ability to spot any designer, regardless of price range. "He would take one look at me in 10 seconds and tell me everyone I had on," Johnson says.
"If there was anyone that was a king in the industry, it would be him," she adds. "He's a walking encyclopedia. I mean, the engineer of fashion. He could break it all the way down from the beginning and bring it all the way back — and in French! We recognize that genius, so all you can do is bow down to him."
Johnson recalls plenty of "magical" memories from their time together, as well as the "very terse" moments, like an eye-opening conversation about tokenism.
"One of those moments was when I said, 'Well, you were the token in your industry, the editorial industry of Vogue. And I was the token in fashion and the modeling industry,'" Johnson recalls. "He said, 'I was never a token.' I said, 'Oh, you weren't? Well, who else was up there with you?' 'No, I was the only Black [editor] up there.'"
She's faced her own experiences with tokenism and knows "how lonely that can be," adding: "You don't really know it until it's kind of over, and you're able to look back on that and see the inequity."
getty Andre Leon Talley
"I remember when somebody first told me, this is decades ago, that I was the token Black model in the industry. I said, 'I'm not a token,' because I didn't really understand actually what that meant, so it sounded kind of insulting. But it's not, it's a fact and it's a way of limiting Black people, or a race of people, into an industry. They picked one. When I got the firm understanding of that concept, I kind of embraced it." Johnson says ."Any time I talk about [Talley], I hear his voice answering back. 'Oh no, I didn't do that. Don't feel sorry for me.' He's very prideful. He's full of pride. He's regal and smart, quick-witted and brilliant."
Although Talley's death has left an insurmountable void in the world of fashion, Johnson is taking comfort in the legacy he left behind.
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"He had the last word. He wrote his book. He said whatever he needed to say. He did his documentary. He told his story. It makes me smile," she says. "It really makes me smile, and I feel that he did what he had to do, and that's him. That is André Leon Talley. He had that kind of strength to make those things happen. From his words and that's power."
"Like I always said, you're the one out there taking all the arrows in the front and in the back," Johnson adds. "That's when you're a trailblazer, and he most certainly was a trailblazer taking a lot of arrows."