From the moment it debuted on television I was obsessed with watching America's Next Top Model. Led by former model Tyra Banks, the show was a sight to be seen. Every season was the same drama outlined with impossible challenges and high stakes photoshoots that would lead one hopeful girl a step closer to her career as a model. The most iconic thing were the end of the week deliberations where one model would be sent home, lacking the it factor desired by Banks. As gaudy and outlandish as America's Next Top Model was, I adored it (and still do). It was one of my first introductions to fashion. Banks and her esteemed panel of judges exposed me to decades of fashion and beauty I was otherwise blind to. Seeing Twiggy, Janice Dickinson, and even Tyra herself week after week made my head spin. Tuning in every Wednesday night gave me fashion tips, an understanding of designers, and an overall knowledge of the industry. But most importantly it gave me André Leon Talley.
It's comical looking back at it now; the fact that one of the most recognized and celebrated fashion editors at Vogue was brought to to me via a reality television show. But I’m grateful nonetheless. From his weekly introduction and his lively commentary I knew that Talley was special. His name mirrored his presence, so grand and sophisticated, he was a wonder to everyone around him. In examining his upward trajectory one thing was apparent: his craft was his life. No matter his age, his environment, or fashion faux pas he committed nothing could diminish his love and adoration for the entrancing world of fashion.
Growing up in Durham, North Carolina Talley spent his adolescence being raised by his maternal grandmother. Between academics, his modest upbringing, and pastoral surroundings one would think the fashion world was out of reach - but this couldn’t be further from the truth. As if by fate, Talley gazing upon a copy of Vogue at a newstand was all it took. Every issue of the magazine stood as a beacon in his rural Southern town. Flipping through the pages an impressionable Talley was amazed by the creativity embedded in every spread. Each editorial look exposed him to an entirely new cultural landscape of high brow beauty and fashion. More than anything, he was in awe of the representation featured on each page. Vogue was an escape; a fantastic, unattainable dream full of luxury and prestige suddenly became achievable upon the recognition of diverse models. Each layout filled with pieces on Pat Cleveland and Naomi Sims were aspirational works of art. If he was able to see Black models throughout each issue, then he could someday see himself represented on the pages one way or another. Becoming a part of fashion - something so magical and far away was now in reach.
After attending Brown University on scholarship, Talley was thrust into the thick of it. He would go on to spend his next few years on an apprenticeship with Dianna Vreeland and the costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was given the opportunity to learning all about the vernacular, skills, and dedication it takes to make it in fashion. And it would be his skills and know how that him fluidity throughout the decades. Talley would go on to Andy Warhol’s Factory, Interview magazine, Women’s Wear Daily, the New York Times, and Ebony working as a writer and climbing the ranks to success. Looking at his career one could believe it was a matter of right place right time, a stroke of luck that happen to the fortunate few in the industry. But this is not the case. Through long hours and endless days he put in André Leon Talley was destined for greatness.
It was 1983 when the stars aligned. It was the year Talley became a part of Vogue acting as the fashion news director followed by his well-known editor position that would come years later. In his rightful place, he used his creative vision and eye for detail to compose the most incredible commentary on what he saw in front of him. A blouse couldn't simply be described as white but was, "the color of Devonshire clotted cream." Colors weren't just bright, but a recollection of his past as he described a collection as having, "Warhol Pop brights". Every article written was a combination of poetry and Talley's own flare for language. His signature style included tossing in french dialog and a mixture of made up phrases that were simply off-the-cuff and in the moment. It was his originality and fresh perspectives that made him so valuable and essential to every environment he entered.
André Leon Talley was vital to fashion, there's no question about it. But it's important to note that his impact went beyond his vibrant writing and infectious personality. In the fashion world: a space full of whiteness, opulence, and exclusivity stood a six foot six, queer Black man from the impoverished South. On the surface it seemed as though he glided effortlessly within these spaces coming off cool and casual. Yet the unfortunate reality remains that like most of those sharing his cultural identities Talley was still subject to racism and homophobia running rampant in the industry. No matter how closely he was to icons such as Anna Wintour, Karl Lagerfeld, and Tom Ford he failed to escape the darker side of fashion that would rear its ugly head.
Despite this, Talley made it through the ranks. While he was aware of the whispers and criticisms he took the opportunity to move forward use his ranking to advance the careers of those in his community. Upon styling Michelle Obama and Serena Williams he assured to pioneer POC designers such as Jason Wu and LaQuan Smith - allowing them them to showcase their talents that otherwise went unrecognized. He pushes marginalized voices to the forefront, promising to mentor models, designers, and those in the field that were in need of support. He made a deliberate effort to be a familiar face and kind spirit amongst the hectic lifestyle.
In the blur of designers and models there is always an innovator gone too soon. How are we to move on without them? We continue by honoring them. Understanding how their diligent work and creative minds led us to where we are today. Its pertinent to remember André Leon Talley and the legacy he left behind. It was a feat to be the first African American male creative director at Vogue. In his efforts he paved the way for those to follow and demonstrated it was possible for those of his background to make it in such a tough world. We are to go on remembering his extravagant capes and kaftans, his humor, and appreciation for a beautiful gown. The confidence he held in himself matched with his love for fashion created such a unique individual that we will all surely miss.
Illustration by Inci Sahin