André Leon Talley loved the surprisingly similar rituals of two ways of life he knew well: the black community of his childhood in North Carolina, and French couture, with its historical and literary associations.
His remarkable persona and work as fashion editor, adviser and seer were founded on church ladies in their Sunday best, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of clothes. Few couturiers knew a fraction of what he did, and the US Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who appointed him her shield – even in heels she stood small beside his 6ft 6in – admitted that he had what she lacked, a deep apprehension of fashion.
Talley, who has died aged 73 of a heart attack, was in the front row of the Paris, and most other, shows for more than four decades, an enthusiastic warm island in an ocean of cool, as well as often the sole black presence. He could photograph, write, arrange shoots, broker ungettable interviews and covers, notably Michelle Obama as first lady, and, most importantly, predict the future based on his passion for the past. Talley’s lofty standards matched Wintour’s own when the Condé Nast empire was at its height in the late 1980s.
Although Wintour said Talley sent her handwritten notes about his experiences with race, so “it was always bubbling under the surface”, he avoided the subject publicly, concentrating on his unique personal status in fashion.
Only in interviews publicising his second memoir, The Chiffon Trenches (2020), written after Wintour had discarded him from Vogue without a word, did he describe her as “a colonial broad”, on whose watch Condé Nast had remained undiversified into the 21st century. He felt he had been exploited as an exotic, and sometimes as ambassador for a black milieu; always the first to be bumped from a guest list. The released anger energised his last years.
He had been creating identity and an unrepeatable career path since his childhood in Durham, North Carolina. Born in Washington to Alma (nee Davis) and William Talley, who had gone there to work as government clerks, from the age of two months he grew up in the Durham house of his grandmother Bennie Davis, for 50 years a cleaner at nearby Duke University.
She encouraged the boy to read and gave him his own shocking-pink painted study, while his father sent a set of encyclopedias. At nine he discovered Vogue in the public library and later walked to a newsstand on the white side of town after Sunday church to buy it.
After Diana Vreeland arrived as editor in 1963, Vogue became Talley’s portal to a better planet. He read every caption, recognised the Beautiful People’s names, especially the French ones: he had been a Francophile since hearing Julia Child say “Bon appetit!” on her TV cooking show. He and Bennie took pleasure in clothes, and yearly boarded a bus to Washington or New York to buy the best that could be afforded. He read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary on one trip, intending to teach French in high school.
But his world widened, as he went on from North Carolina Central University on a scholarship to Brown University, Rhode Island, where he wrote a master’s thesis about black women in 19th-century French art and literature, and was picked up socially by wealthy white students from Rhode Island School of Design; he wrote for their college mag. They were his entree to New York, and, with a letter of introduction from one of their parents, to an unpaid internship in 1974 at the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute, where Vreeland curated extraordinary exhibitions. She noticed his creative input, summoned him to her office, wrote “ANDRE – THE HELPER” on her pad, and ordered him to stay by her side to show’s end.
He recognised her resemblance to Bennie, the same perfect clothes ritually maintained and tissue-paper-packed, the gloves, hard work and discipline. Vreeland found him a receptionist job on Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, where he was taken out on the town by the Factory entourage, and did thorough research before talking to Karl Lagerfeld. The designer was the first of many to dress Talley, tossing him custom-made shirts with matching mufflers at the end of the interview.
Another Talley teen hero, John Fairfield of Women’s Wear Daily, recruited him and in 1978 sent him as bureau chief to Paris. The French could be hostile – a PR executive mocked him as “Queen Kong” – and there were imbroglios over favoured couturiers. Talley eventually left to freelance.
In 1983, he moved in as news editor at US Vogue, under the command of Grace Mirabella, just as Wintour became its creative editor. When she was anointed editor in 1988, Talley took her old job, both a novelty – male, gay, African American – and a link with Vreeland. In 1998, he was appointed editor-at-large.
That title was somewhat unfortunate: after Bennie’s death, Talley comfort-ate the food he associated with her kitchen, and his tall slenderness consolidated into girth beneath wonderful robes and capes sewn for him by major designers. Wintour and his pastor at the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem persuaded Talley to book in for repeated clinic stays, but the struggle with weight never abated. His belief in the power of pageantry to elevate lives, in careful selection, upkeep, and tissue paper, had fallen out of fashion, and in 2013, Vogue discarded him.
There was no personal life to return to in his borrowed home in unchic White Plains, New York, nor had he got much money. Many fashion-world friendships ended in silence. He confessed that, though proudly gay, he had avoided sex since childhood abuse. As a true dandy, like those in favourite novels by Balzac and Baudelaire, his real romance had always been with the clothes.