The fashion industry and the world lost another cultural monument: the larger-than-life, André Leon Talley. That name holds weight across the globe for a multitude of reasons, but no bigger reason than his love for making fashion inclusive of Black folks. More than anything, he proved that there’s beauty in Blackness and we are not a monolith by any means.
Born in Washington, D.C., Talley came into this world a fighter on October 16, 1948. Shortly after his birth, his parents moved to Durham, North Carolina. At that point, his grandmother, who he affectionately called Mama, raised him in the heart of the Jim Crow South. In his memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, he recalls what it felt like to be a little Black boy with big dreams in a state that enforced racial segregation. He wrote, “To my 12-year-old self, raised in the segregated South, the idea of a Black man playing any kind of role in this world seemed an impossibility. To think of where I’ve come from, where we’ve come from, in my lifetime, and where we are today, is amazing. And, yet, of course, we still have so far to go.”
His grandmother and the south heavily influenced him as they immersed him in the importance of Black culture. Style and glamour always enamored Tally in a way that motivated him to be something bigger than he ever imagined. His passion for fashion started in the church, but grew exponentially as he gained more knowledge. The soon-to-be journalist would spend hours in the Durham city library flipping through books and magazines, filling his brain with joyous ideas. “My world became the glossy pages of Vogue, where I could read about Truman Capote’s legendary ball, given at the Plaza, in honor of Katharine Graham,” he wrote. The visuals of Vogue made him think about beauty and fashion and soon had the realization that fashion was his world as it provided an escape.
Keeping with pushing boundaries, Talley fell in love with French after watching Julia Childs cook on television. After high school, he attended a historically Black college, North Carolina Central University (NCCU) in his hometown. He later studied French Literature at Brown University, where he received a scholarship. During that time, fashion became his devotion and, with his friends, they created fashion moments that ultimately taught him what freedom looked like. He was no longer in the Jim Crow South. “Brown gave me a freedom and liberation and propelled me into a world I love,” he said in the documentary, The Gospel According to Andre.
In 1974, he took the biggest risk of all and moved to New York. Also known as ALT, he started his career in fashion volunteering at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Costume Institute helping Diana Vreeland, who quickly became his mentor. In the documentary, he shared, “She taught me the language of clothes, the language of style.” That probably speaks to one of his greatest quotes, “Fashion is fleeting. Style remains.”
Talley’s style is a marker of his impact on the world. His style legacy is chock full of capes, perfectly tailored suits, textured gloves, and next-level headwear, especially turbans. Ironically, Barbra Streisand inspired him to explore thrift stores, and one summer during a trip to New York City, ALT bought his first cape from a thrift store. Little did he know that moment would become a staple in his journey to fashion icon.
Before he knew it, he was in Paris using his love for narration and fashion to write for Women’s Wear Daily. ALT’s exuberant personality was always perfectly illustrated in every word that he penned. There are very few humans that can say they worked as a receptionist at Interview Magazine under Andy Warhol, became best friends with Karl Lagerfeld and Saint Laurent, worked as the Women’s Wear Daily Paris bureau chief with John Fairchild at the helm, served as the creative director and editor at large of Vogue with Anna Wintour, not to mention his brief reign at EBONY as the fashion editor.
André Leon Talley was so much more than a fashion journalist and editor. He is one reason Black celebs feel empowered to be their full selves at the MET Gala. Simply because he has always given us authenticity at every point of his career. ALT’s resume includes dressing forever First Lady Michelle Obama, advising Oscar de la Renta, judging “America’s Next Top Model”, and sitting on the Board of Trustees of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Across decades, the pioneer mentored the likes of Naomi Campbell and received awards, including the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. It is one of the highest honors from the French government and they honored ALT for his contribution to the fashion industry.
When news broke that the godfather of fashion passed away at 73 on January 18th, the tributes were overwhelming. British Vogue editor, Edward Enninful shared, “Without you, there would be no me.” The Cut Editor-In-Chief, Lindsay Peoples Wagner, echoed similar sentiments saying, “not even sure how to wrap my mind around all you’ve done, and the legacy you’ve left behind, but you gave us hope and aspirations that we never would have dreamed if it hadn’t been for you andre.” And because his ascendancy supersedes clothes, on The View Whoopi Goldberg declared that “there was no greater advocate for women than Andre.”
As he stood six feet and six inches tall, Talley represented possibility — he was a Black Superhero. He was proof that you can be the grandson of sharecroppers and a fashion editor. He attested his strength to keep going to his faith and his ancestors. ALT took up space as a Black man without screaming, “I’m Black and I’m proud.” His actions did just that. From curating a Black adaptation of “Gone With the Wind” with Naomi Campbell as Scarlett O’Hara for Vanity Fair to becoming a mainstay on the front row of every major fashion house presentation, his presence reimagined fashion, beauty and culture. There is a hole in the fashion industry without Andre Leon Talley but we keep his words close, “I’d like to be remembered as someone who made a difference in the lives of young people – that I nurtured someone and taught them to pursue their dreams and their careers, to leave a legacy.” May his words and legacy live on forever.
Joce Blake is a womanist who loves fashion, Beyonce and Hot Cheetos. The sophistiratchet enthusiast is based in Denver, CO but has southern belle roots as she was born and raised in Memphis, TN. Keep up with her on Instagram @joce_blake and on Twitter @joce__blake.
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