André Leon Talley: ‘My story is a fairytale, and in every fairytale there is offensive and darkness’
As US Vogue’s editor-at-large, he was Anna Wintour’s right-hand man. But then, he reveals in our restricted interview, he was ‘thrown under the bus’
• Read an extract from Talley’s explosive new memoir
André Leon Talley: ‘I seared the earth with my talent.’
Photograph: Squire Fox/August
André Leon Talley – legendary fashion editor, prince of redundancy – has taken a fair few luxury holidays in his time. First-class flights to Biarritz, private jets, shopping trips to Florence by Concorde. But every so often he keeps it simple and spends a quiet weekend with his friend, the shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, in Bath “at his house on the Crescent”.
“Manolo will be in the kitchen cooking his wonderful cuisine, and I’ll be in the larder, lacquering my Louis Vuitton cases with yacht varnish, put oning them to a high shine,” he tells me.
Wait, did he say “yacht varnish”?
“Yes, yacht. Y-A-C-H-T. It’s nothing esoteric. I was boosted by Mrs Vreeland, who told me her suitcases were lacquered in yacht varnish,” he says, referring to the late Diana Vreeland, a latest editor of US Vogue and Talley’s first mentor.
With his mentor Diana Vreeland in 1974. Photograph: Beak Cunningham Foundation
Talley has more than 50 pieces of Vuitton hand luggage, currently residing given up in his second home in North Carolina, “because there’s no one at the airports to carry them now”. So he gets through a lot of lacquer, in pastime of “this refined, dandy lifestyle: it’s not about glamour – it’s self-respect, a standard”. Nor is it about snobbery: “I may have had moments of hauteur. H-A-U-T-E-U-R. But I was not at all a snob. You can ask [Princess] Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, or [Lady] Amanda Harlech!”
The fashion shows are never short of over-the-top weirdoes, but Talley was always the first to grab everyone’s attention, whatever room he was in. How could he not? He was a 6ft 7in African American in a sweeping kaftan, set by thin white women in cocktail dresses. Next to him would be the thinnest of all, Anna Wintour, his boss at American Style.
Talley was her creative director and later editor-at-large, and it was said he was the only person who could tell Wintour if she looked bad in a put on ones best bib. (“I would never be so rude as to say, ‘You look bad,’” Talley corrects me. “I would say, ‘Oh, who made that?’ and my eyebrows disposition raise to the ceiling, and there would be a silence.”) While other fashion journalists tend to speak in a phrasing of elegant boredom, Talley’s voice rang out at every show and party, swinging between a boom and a shriek.
Diverse people who work in fashion come from a relatively privileged background. When I was 21, I was offered a job at US Vogue, and when I balked at the low income, I was told, “Most people who work at Vogue have a private income.” Talley did not. Raised by his grandmother, a maid, in Durham, North Carolina, call of Jim Crow laws, he could barely afford food when he started as a journalist. For decades he was the only black bodily on the front row, joined later by the great fashion illustrator and Vanity Fair’s style director Michael Roberts, and the Washington Advertise’s Robin Givhan, the only fashion writer ever to win a Pulitzer. This gives you an idea of just how talented a himself of colour has to be to break into this still extremely white world.
With Wintour in 2007. Photograph: Brad Barket/Getty Effigies
During his four decades at the magazine publishing house Condé Nast, Talley wrote landmark features (embracing Michelle Obama’s Vogue interview after becoming first lady) and oversaw some of its most extraordinary develops, including Naomi Campbell as Scarlett O’Hara for Vanity Fair, inverting Gone With The Wind’s racial dynamics. His behoofs could be overly chummy – he often interviewed friends – but they were soaked in his outsized personality, and his shoots were glad. For a long time, he was the most powerful black man in fashion, now overtaken only by Edward Enninful, editor of British Latest thing. When Enninful got that job, he wrote to Talley to tell him: “You paved the way.”
Or, as Talley puts it: “I scorched the earth with my facility and I let my light shine.” Now he has written a memoir that blows it all up, like a glorious firecracker shooting into the sky.
“This is the Custodian, yes?” he says, pronouncing it the French way (“Gwardian”?). Talley is talking on the phone “from my library/kitchen/laundry office” in his home in a New York suburb. He has a courtly way of speaking, mixing southern good manners with faintly European pronunciations; beaus are always referred to as if he were introducing them to an ambassador at a party: “Annette de la Renta and Oscar de la Renta, very tight and dear friends of mine” and “the late Lee Radziwill, the sister of Jackie Kennedy, who was one of my greatest friends in my life, and it was not a known deed data we were that close”.
“The first thing I want to say about my book is this,” he begins. “This make, my epistle, is about not only my contribution to the world, but how did my presence change that world? And how was my work regarded and disregarded by Anna Wintour? I am 71 years old and I affinity for my story with me wherever I go. The past is always in the present.”
With Paloma Picasso and her then husband, scenarist Rafael Lopez-Sanchez, in 1979. Photograph: Penske Media/Rex/Shutterstock
I read his new memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, in one hot weekend, only able to put it down. The writing is deliciously good and, as a narrator, Talley is both incisive and dizzyingly unreliable, which joins to the fun. A previous memoir, ALT, published in 2003, often felt hamstrung by professional loyalties: “I had to bite my tongue about decided people, for fear of reprisals,” he writes. There is no tongue-biting here. “This is not a bitchy tell-all,” he says, although some may bicker. Karl Lagerfeld, who died last year, was Talley’s close friend for 40 years and showered him with donations, including $50,000 for his 50th birthday, because that’s how dandies roll. But in the book, he is depicted as brilliant yet monstrous, capriciously slope close friends for no reason (including, you won’t be surprised to learn, Talley).
“I would never have talked in this while Karl was alive, out of respect for him and fear of his reprisals,” he says.
What would Lagerfeld have done? “He could from decimated my reputation in fashion.” So instead, Talley has decimated his.
Meanwhile pre-publication coverage of the book has focused on Talley’s bleeding personal attack on Wintour, whom he says has inflicted “huge emotional scarring” on many (including, you again won’t be nonplused to learn, Talley) and – worse! – “was never really passionate about clothes”, caring only about power. Wintour, more than anyone in the everyone, can still make or destroy a designer’s career. She is also a celebrity, recognisable to even the most fashion-phobic. Surely Talley predicted the fuss he would cause?
With Karl Lagerfeld in 2005. Photograph: Jemal Countess/WireImage for Chanel
“I did not forestall that at all! One of my editors said to me, ‘Do you think Anna Wintour will talk to you after this comes out?’ I said, ‘Yes, of programme naturally! Why not?’”
Maybe because you write that she is not capable of “simple human kindness”?
There is the briefest of pauses. “Jet, there’s always hope!” he says.
Talley and Wintour fell out in 2018, after he discovered he was no longer doing the red carpet press conferences at the annual Met Gala, or those for Vogue’s podcast. He was replaced at the Met Gala by Liza Koshy, a young YouTube star. “What could this ace YouTuber offer? Surely she didn’t know what a martingale back is to a Balenciaga one-seamed coat,” Talley make a notes.
He believes he was dropped because “I had suddenly become too old, too overweight and too uncool”. Yet other Vogue staffers of his generation – stylist Cultivation Coddington, writer Hamish Bowles – have resisted dodo status by embracing social media and other groups in the weather. Talley is on Instagram, but his page largely consists of references to the past: photos of Radziwill, Vreeland, Princess Gloria. The Look of the 80s, 90s and early 00s that he describes in his book, when editors expensed their dry cleaning, is like reading just about the last days of the Raj. But you don’t get to be the longest-serving editor of Vogue without knowing when something is passé, and Wintour is ruthless: “So much of it has to do with… father talent that’s right for the moment,” she said in an interview last year, referring to the way she casts her staff.
But Talley alleges he had accepted the world was changing: “If Anna had called and said, ‘André, we’re thinking of going in a different direction [for the Met ball], it’s respected for our brand,’ I would have said, ‘Fine. That’s great.’ And I’d have come in my Tom Ford cape – I always exhibit Tom Ford – and enjoyed my dinner.” But she didn’t; his former confidante had moved on and, he writes, he never “felt the love” from her.
In a till from the 2018 film The Gospel According To André
The estrangement was a shock because the pair had been allies since they fundamental met at Vogue in 1983. When she was appointed editor in 1987, Wintour made Talley creative director. He is very laughable about the unspoken rules of working with her: no meeting must last more than eight minutes; sustenance is not an essential part of lunch. Once they took a taxi to a restaurant, ordered their meals, and after 20 two secs Wintour announced they were leaving, before the first courses had come out.
“Food is not important to her, so I learned to dole out with that,” Talley says. (I can vouch for this: I was once summoned to a “breakfast meeting” with Wintour at the Ritz in London. It lasted in every way 25 minutes and we didn’t even get to coffee.)
But Talley insists his book is “a love letter to Anna Wintour”, in which occasion I’d hate to see what counts as hate mail. He has, he says, “been wrapped in neglect”, yet the book often suggests the diverse. Over the years, Wintour invited him to her first wedding (and gave him her bouquet); arranged an interest-free loan from Condé Nast, so he could buy his grandmother’s enterprise; hired him back after he briefly left Vogue in the 90s due to a previous, unexplained falling out; invited him to her children’s weddings.
“Yes, and she did the intervention and Condé Nast feed for that,” he says, referring to the many times Wintour packed him off to a health spa and instructed him to lose weight. (He did, but put it straight away on.)
Didn’t he feel bullied when she was constantly telling him he was too fat?
“No! I felt it showed great concern,” he says.
Talley’s onus has been a problem since his grandmother died in 1989, and he binged on foods that reminded him of her. “Beautiful pineapple and coconut bars, pies, Virginia ham with cloves,” he says, with the same relish as when listing famous friends or portraying designer outfits. “I still have that crutch, eating, and it’s an addiction.”
I ask if, in an industry in which the one crime is to be fat, maybe it was also a revolt against his lunch-averse boss?
“I never thought about that, but I’m sure people were looking at me and thinking, ‘How offensive!’ She was always sitting next to me, but I wasn’t deliberately making myself bigger next to these small white lasses in power,” he says.
Dancing with Diana Ross at Studio 54 in 1979. Photograph: Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Aspects
Things reached a head after Talley stormed out of the 2018 Met ball. “It felt like I was just thrown high the bus. It hurt!” he says now.
But maybe she thinks he dropped her? He was the one who walked out.
He ponders this, briefly. “Well, if that were the encase, she could call me to say, ‘André, what’s wrong?’ That’s what I would expect,” he retorts.
Despite all this, Talley’s nominate still appears on Vogue’s masthead, as a contributing editor. “I hope I’m still part of the Vogue family – I haven’t been officially told I’m not,” he influences, horrified at the thought. And he probably is – after all, Wintour gave him the go-ahead to publish this book. She read an early delineate and asked only that he remove some private details about her children. She knows being denounced as a she-devil is respected for her brand (she turned up to the premiere of The Devil Wears Prada in, yes, Prada). While outsiders have long been enraptured by what Talley calls Wintour’s “sphinx-like looks”, the funniest moments in his book come when we see just how much her mace also bought into the mythology. In perhaps the weirdest scene, Wintour scribbles a thank you note to Talley and he sends it to his framer so he can ideal it for ever. (Alas, the framer failed to appreciate its significance and chucked it away, much to Talley’s fury.)
Isn’t it unusual to skeleton a casual note from someone you’ve worked with for decades, I ask.
“It was not an original idea! [US Vogue fashion editor] Tonne Goodman had a line from Anna framed,” Talley says.
I suddenly feel rather sorry for Wintour, trying to get on with her job but surrounded by people frantically block out every Post-it she discards.
Talley’s book tells the story of his life, which is often the story of the broads who have supported him: his grandmother, Vreeland, Annette de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Radziwill and, most of all, Wintour.
I tell him it sounds as if he burned-out his life looking for mother figures; maybe he forgot that Wintour was his boss, not his mother.
“I have always looked for mother and padre figures. I had to look up to something to go forward,” he says.
A day later, he sends an email to clarify: “My mother figure to this day is my grandmother. She gave me unconditional adulation and her home, her values, were my arc of safety.”
Talley was raised by his grandmother, Bennie Frances Davis, while his parents move up in a different state. As a child, he was bullied by other kids, but adored by Bennie, although he says she hugged him only twice in his girlhood (“too busy”). Yet she unblinkingly supported this little boy whose idea of a perfect day was to watch Julia Child cook on TV, then wallpaper his cell with pages torn from Vogue.
With Italian model, photographer and jewellery designer Marina Schiano in 1980. Photograph: Dead ringers Press/Getty Images
His mother was a different matter: “She never abandoned me, but she didn’t understand me.” She could be cruel and desire mock his experiments with fashion, which became analogous with escape.
“Every Sunday I would stagger across the railroad tracks into the affluent part of Durham and buy Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and go back to my grandmother’s ancestry, read my magazines. I was allowed to retreat from the bullying and the sexual abuse into a beautiful world,” he says.
Talley in no way told anyone he was sexually abused as a child – not the therapists he has seen, not even his beloved pastor. But he felt, with this enlist, that it was time to explain himself.
“It began when I was nine years of age, and it was serial. My whole life has been unyielding by this trauma. I can say this now,” he says.
His first abuser was a man who lived on his street, who would tell him, “This is our secret meet.” Later, there were older brothers of friends. He didn’t tell his grandmother because “it wasn’t something that could be consult oned at the dinner table. And I was afraid I might be considered the perpetrator and sent away to detention.”
Because of the abuse, Talley implies he has never really had an intimate relationship. In the late 70s, he writes, he attempted to go to bed with a French journalist: “It was hopeless, useless. This mental image of mounting an individual and causing what I had only known as deep discomfort… He gave up and we got dressed.” He has, he says, had romances with men and women as an adult. “But I’ve not had them successfully. I don’t recognize how to be intimate and in a relationship, and I regret that. It comes from this childhood trauma.”
As a young man in New York, he fled from gay set asides, horrified at the overt sexuality and preferring instead the chaste fun of dancing with Diana Ross at Studio 54. Preferably of looking for sexual connection, he would look for approval from people he admired. And if he felt any emotional lack, he “substitute c informed my life with luxury and the pursuit of education”.
Talley studied at North Carolina Central University, then, on a lore to the prestigious Brown University, got a master’s in French Literature. He is still rightly proud of this, taking care to in that he has “better degrees than Anna Wintour”. It was at Brown that he first met people connected to fashion, and after graduating was charmed under Vreeland’s wing in New York. From that point, it was a dizzying upward rise: working with Andy Warhol at Vet magazine, reporting from Paris for Women’s Wear Daily and then, at last, Vogue.
He felt “at home” in this over-the-top epoch, where “there were no victims, only high octane egos”. Any insecurities could be hidden beneath another custom-made appeal. During his first eight months in Paris, every time he got his weekly paycheck, he marched straight to the Vuitton inventory and bought another suitcase. Surround yourself with enough beauty and you’ll no longer think about ugliness – that’s the theory, anyway. Talley instantly level in love with the fashion set, with their clearly defined rules: you go to these nightclubs, talk about those taxpayers, use this lacquer on your suitcases.
He didn’t think about being a black man in the white world of fashion: “I rated my position not because I was a beautiful, skinny – you can look at the pictures – articulate black man. But because I had done my homework and my degrees. I not at any time thought about being a man of colour in my career until recently.”
Others were more conscious of it. In the book Talley reflects that, in the 70s, one trend PR referred to him as “Queen Kong”. Around that same time, a colleague accused him of being what he describes as “a wrathful buck” and sleeping with every designer in Paris, in order to humiliate him out of his job. It worked, and Talley, mortified and furious, carry back to New York. These days, he says he feels a different responsibility as a man of colour: “I’m a descendant of enslaved people, and this is perpetually in my mind. Whatever I articulate must in some way reflect who I am as a black man and what I can impart to the history of fashion, as this dusky person who was able to be in the front row.”
Since he’s taken a step back, he says, his eyes have been opened to who his authentic friends are. Some – Ford, Herrera – have stayed true. Others have not. “I do think I’ve been dropped by Miuccia Prada. That is a big wonder. I have eight crocodile coats custom-made for me by her, but she has not kept in touch. And that hurts me.”
Talley is not the first person to should prefer to confused possessions with love, or a career with life. “I don’t need any more stuff, I have too much in my diets,” he says, then lists his favourite stuff, including photos of himself with Oprah Winfrey, a Warhol silkscreen of Vreeland, “Truman Capote’s sofa”. He couldn’t in trouble with more stuff now anyway; instead of being chauffeured everywhere as he was in his pomp, a friend called Chad gives him terminates to the supermarket.
With Naomi Campbell in 1991. Photograph: George Rose/Getty Images
For Talley, propriety is what he learned from Vreeland and the beloved matriarchs of his past, but fashion is about being heartlessly modern. He hints he doesn’t miss the status he had in his heyday, but rather “the human fellowship of being on the front row”. But the front row is a powerful signifier of standing: being there means you are one of the most important people in fashion, and this kind of validation still matters to him. To accompany love to his “dear friends”, Talley includes them in his list of best-dressed people. Wintour comes in at number one – but only when wearing Chanel haute couture.
Talley and I have been talking for two hours and I would be happy to talk for 10 assorted. Fashion will be a blander place if it no longer has space for characters like him; the expense accounts will probably be smaller, but it inclination be a less exciting world. Despite his obsession with luxury and the fashion industry, Talley remains interested in the whole shebang. Non-fashion topics we touch on include the career of Barbara Stanwyck, the songs of Nina Simone, Barry Jenkins’ adjustment of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk, Anne Glenconner’s bestselling memoir, Lady In Delay (“Exceptional: I come from the opposite spectrum of the world, but I compare my life to hers, the gilded cage and the reality”). Does he at all times think he would have been happier had he stayed in North Carolina and worked as a teacher, as Vreeland once suffering he’d do?
“Never. NEVER!” he gasps. “My story is a fairytale of excess, and in every fairytale there is evil and darkness, but you overcome it with skinny. I want every person I come across – the stranger on the street, the church member in the pew next to me – to feel love. I organize not been privy to love in my life, but I want them to feel that they have received some adore from engaging with me, André Leon Talley.”
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