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André Leon Talley

Source: Creative Services / Getty

André Leon Talley was bullish in his pursuit of fashion. Toiling and surveying the landscape, he forged his way in and through the industry, leaving a path for other Black creatives. From his cultural editorials, with references to art history and iconic operatic works, he enhanced fashion and brought his own je ne se quoi to an industry that was, in his peak, blissfully ignoring people of color. He saw beauty in the every day, commenting in his documentary, “One should have a moment everyday if one can possibly,” before adding, “but it doesn’t happen every day in NY now,” almost wishing for a time most of fashion mourns: when fashion had money, was aspirational, and covers were moments that would be later used as cultural references and marked as “firsts.” He continued, “Moments should come to you everyday. You have to see the world through the kaleidoscope eyes of a child and just be in awe of everything.”

Talley didn’t just create moments, he built foundations for future generations to build upon. We talk about not being able to pour from an empty cup; however, Mr. Talley was the one who sourced the materials for the cup, molded it, and then had to fill it himself. In the mirage and the mayhem, maybe it wasn’t that he didn’t want to share, but he was still looking to be satiated. And in between his struggles, quite possibly, he didn’t have the bandwidth. In a 2018 piece for the New York Times, Mr. Talley sadly revealed, “Fashion does not take care of its people. No one is going to take care of me, except I am going to take care of myself.” Despite his prestigious career which was highlighted through the grandiose fanfare around his documentary, perhaps an attempt to give himself the flowers which the industry withheld, he somberly admitted to the New York Times, “I’m broke.”

And just as Mr. Talley was picking up steam, allowing us to sit at the feet of his throne and learn about his contributions through his intimate documentary, an eye-raising memoir, and even a stately campaign with Ugg, a curveball no one could expect came: the pandemic. When the rumors of potential eviction of Mr. Talley from his White Plains home very publicly came to light through the NY Post in 2021, I wondered who out of the wealthy greats, like his friend Marc Jacobs (net worth $200M) or even Diane von Furstenberg (net worth $1.2B) would come to his rescue in a time of need. Mr. Talley’s housing was a murky arrangement with George Malkemus, the former head of Manolo Blahnik and his partner Anthony Yurgaitis, where in court filings, revealed that Mr. Talley’s monthly payments varied depending on his stream of income, though he paid $955,558 over the eleven years of living there according to an accounting exhibit. Mr. Malkemus and Mr. Yurgaitis paid about a million dollars for the house. It read petty. Even in Karl Lagerfeld’s death in 2019, an extremely close friend of Mr. Talley and a footstool to his rise in fame, Lagerfeld left money to his publicist Caroline Lebar, whom he had given a longstanding position to in his company, and nothing to Mr. Talley.

Mr. Talley’s death has further brought the economic disparities of the fashion industry to life. Some people in the industry are underpaid or not paid at all for the work they do under the pretenses of internships and experience. According to the 2015 documentary The True Cost, only 2% of people who make our clothes earn a living wage. The fashion industry is afforded to those who come from wealth and have the financial support to sustain their lifestyle because the paycheck will not. The industry is littered with gifting and luxury — seemingly subsidizing poor salaries for editors and writers with first-class tickets and the latest handbag. However, it quickly becomes sobering because you can’t pay rent with couture as Mr. Talley learned.

In his death, there is an outpour of love and remembrance from many of the most influential people in fashion ranging from designers to publicists to magazine editors and celebrities. However, in the wee hours of his death, I couldn’t help but wonder — where was everyone with his loud public cries for help?  André Leon Talley never had a love life. “I was busy doing my career. That is the flaw in my life that is there. I’ve never fallen in love or never experienced love […] I kept on moving on and loving the world I was in,” he explained in The Gospel According to André. Fashion was his love life and we as an industry, failed him like a lover who one day when you come home, you no longer find their things there. He was abandoned by the industry that he helped cultivate. A romance that turned into unrequited love.

But again, one must wonder if it was romance, convenience, or even exploitation. Wintour candidly admitted, “My fashion history is not so great and his was impeccable. So I think I learned a lot from him,” when discussing having Mr. Talley right by her side. Nevertheless, the same industry he worked in tore him down. Skinny for his entire life, at 40, his string bean figure morphed into a rotund shape. Encouraged by his colleagues, Wintour and Lagerfeld, he began his journey in and out of diet centers — three times, which Wintour paid for herself. As his size increased, he turned to caftans. He became known for these stately pieces, wearing them on Met Gala red carpets and even having one commissioned by Dapper Dan for a press run. However, how much of this was his personal style or an attempt to camouflage? It was later revealed that his death was Covid-19 related, a virus that is more susceptible to overweight individuals. It’s rumored he was terrified of Covid, taking little to no visitors and having packages and gifts left on his porch. 

In his death, there’s been an outpouring of love: intimate memories being shared, tributes to his greatness, and creative vigils both in-person and digital expressing fashions’ great loss. The FDIC holds banks accountable. Doctors swear by the Hippocratic Oath — but where is the checks and balances for the fashion industry? (No — Diet Prada doesn’t count). Mr. Talley lived a trailblazing life and his death shouldn’t overshadow that. However, in honoring his larger-than-life presence, it’s an opportunity for the industry to do better, to be better. There’s a reason fashion is often considered vapid and the stench of shallowness can’t seem to be removed from its folds. As Mr. Talley reminded us, fashion does not take care of its own. It also isn’t kind to natural life progressions, like aging or complicated conversations, like weight. As we create an aspirational world for others and make dreams come true through clothes, amplify through words, and express time and culture through the runway, may we not forget real life and the people for whom didn’t exist, neither would this industry. Fashion is an amalgamation of people — let’s treat each other as such and consistently strive to build a sustainable, embracing community.

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