By Robin Givhan
The fashion editor André Leon Talley achieved rarefied status in an industry that he had to bend to his will.
When he arrived in New York in the early ’70s with his degrees in French history and literature, he was a tall, skinny black man from the segregated South who barrelled through the gilded doors of a world that was populated by European aristocrats, ivory-skinned socialites, limousine liberals and snobs.
He rose through the ranks due to his intelligence and savvy, as well as his unrelenting belief in the glories and glamour of fashion.
When he died on Tuesday at 73, he had achieved greatness in his profession.
He’d served as creative director of American Vogue and even today, no other black person has held that title.
His very presence in a film or television show — “Sex and the City,” “Empire” — had become shorthand for fashion in all of its hierarchical majesty. He had written multiple memoirs, curated fashion exhibitions and counselled aspiring designers, as well as veteran ones.
In fashion, simply saying André was enough. Everyone knew who that was.
But from beginning to end, André was always his grandmother’s child.
Bennie Frances Davis raised him in Durham, NC. She was a cleaning woman at Duke University and she was of that generation of black Americans whose occupation all too often belied both their ambition and their abilities.
She was proud and stylish, hard-working and wise. A churchgoing woman, Davis rooted her grandson in the power of faith and the rituals that would help him stay true to it.
Talley would often talk about his childhood in Durham, and he traced his understanding of style in all of its sweeping importance and meaning to his having watched his grandmother prepare herself for Sunday service with her blue-rinsed hair and her gloves.
“He’d also recall the manner in which she kept their home — always making the extra effort to ensure that her house was tidy but also dignified.
“She starched her linens and ironed her towels. She laid out his clothes for church and made sure that everything — even his underwear — was neatly ironed.
“He watched her tend to all of these details even though she’d already spent the work week scrubbing and mopping for others. It is no wonder that he ministered to his adult self with a similar extravagant fortitude.
Religion was important to Talley.
He worshipped at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. He loved how fashion became its own form of praise on Easter Sunday, or really, any given Sunday.
But he also relied on faith to shore him up, particularly as he got older and people began to view him as more of an icon than simply a man.
It wasn’t easy being first, being the only one — being the trailblazer who was supposed to open doors for others, be a representative for everyone, make a community proud, be kind, be fabulous, be woke and stay sane. Talley was complicated.
He was funny and cutting, proud and prideful. And generous. When he was moved by one’s beauty or accomplishment or character, no one could lavish accolades with as much enthusiasm as Talley.
Early in his career, Talley worked at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, as well as Women’s Wear Daily.
He spent much of his career based in Paris and by the time he arrived at Vogue in the 1980s, he was friendly with some of the industry’s most influential designers, including Karl Lagerfeld.
Talley has written about their relationship, one in which the designer lavished the young editor with gifts and he engaged Lagerfeld with his knowledge of French history and astute opinions on style.
Talley’s success was astonishing, not simply because he overcame the hurdle of race in an industry that was overwhelmingly white and Eurocentric, but because he did so by knowing more about European history and its relationship to fashion than the great majority of the gatekeepers who deigned to let him in.
In 1994, Hilton Als wrote a profile of Talley for the New Yorker, headlined “The Only One.” It chronicles the working life of Talley and details his origin story.
But it also recounts an incident during a luncheon that he hosts at Cafe Flore in Paris.
After eating, the guests gather for a photograph. There’s much laughing and joking and one of the guests refers to Talley, her host, using the n-word. The manner in which she says the word suggests that she uses it to titillate — like a moth flying daringly close to a flame.
Everyone laughs. Talley laughs, too. But as Als writes, “He shuttered his eyes, his grin grew larger, his back went rigid, as he saw his belief in the durability of glamour and allure shatter before him in a million glistening bits.
“Talley attempted to pick those pieces up. He sighed, then stood, and said, 'Come on children, let’s see something’.”
How often did Talley have to pick up the pieces of his dreams and ambitions and glue them back together? How many hairline fractures went ignored?
Talley carried on, a majestic and imperious figure in his robes and velvet slippers, a godfather full of grace pulling others into his light — such as a talented, mid-career Nigerian designer he happened to meet during a panel discussion in Lagos, or a New York City kid who expressed admiration for his work.
Over the years, Talley helped fashion evolve. As an editor, he cast Naomi Campbell as Scarlett O’Hara in a re-imagining of “Gone With the Wind” for a visual story in Vanity Fair.
He championed the work of Sean Combs when the rapper decided he wanted to be a fashion designer.
He wrote Vogue’s first cover story on first lady Michelle Obama and managed to so charm her and her entourage that he ended up travelling with her inner circle of friends and family rather than with the rest of the media.
As Talley grew older, he seemed ever more cognizant of his role in history and he saw the ways in which he was a bridge to an industry that had the potential to be even more glittering, if only because it was one that was more inclusive.
When Edward Enninful was appointed editor of British Vogue, becoming the first black person and the first man to hold that title, Talley was effusive in his delight. He thrilled at the opportunities for young black models and designers.
And it’s important to say here that whenever I have had moments of professional success, Talley was always full of boisterous generosity.
Even as he struggled with health woes in his later years, Talley made the effort to be present. And he did so in a way that was more than gloss.
Talley knew that he couldn’t open the industry’s doors for everyone. But a welcoming space waited once folks were inside. Talley believed in fashion’s wonder. And he wanted all his children to see it.