Does he need a presentation? Many of you will know André Leon Talley for his iconic, larger-than-life persona, but there’s much more to his story to be told. He has always stood out, as he used to be a skinny, tall, flamboyant black man living in the south of the United States at the same time as the birth of the civil rights movement. But after a long and tough journey, he’s become one of the most venerated people in the fashion industry. And despite his tight schedule, we got a chance to meet him personally to have a chat during this past edition of 080 Barcelona, the city's fashion week. Discover how has he paved his own path to success with the documentary The Gospel According to André, directed by Kate Novack.
He originally moved out of this hometown to get his graduate’s degree at Brown University – with a full scholarship – and began his career interning at The Metropolitan’s Costume Institute, where he caught the eye of – and later became close to – the pioneer Vogue Editor-in-Chief, Diana Vreeland. He later worked for both Andy Warhol and his now sadly defunct Interview Magazine, where he would party up every night at Studio 54. In the Rive Gauche era, he moved to Paris and met and rapidly became friends with designers: Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld and Azzedine Alaïa, among many others. He would finally return to The Big Apple to work for Vogue and ended up writing cover stories for the likes of Michelle Obama and even Melania Trump.

We met him at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel – we would expect nothing less from him – one sunny afternoon in Barcelona. He is wearing one of his regal caftans while fanning himself every few seconds, and often using the object itself to further gesticulate and bring life to his grand, legendary stories. We discuss bits and pieces from the documentary based on his life as well as his views on the current state of fashion. In this interview, you will sense his charm, sharpness and joie de vivre – which he would say in an immaculate French accent – that seeps from his words. So, sit back, relax, and enjoy!
In the documentary, there is a moment where you mention that a lot of people don’t get you, like Grace Mirabella from Vogue, who didn’t get you and hesitated to hire you. Why do you think she didn’t understand you?
Probably because I’m black. When I was hired for Vogue, I was very skinny – I’m overweight now –, tall and handsome, now that I can look back at the pictures. That was in 1983 and I think she was intimidated by my uniqueness, my boldness, being an outrider and disruptor – I wasn’t like a violent protester, I wasn’t screaming or anything – but I think she was intimidated by me. She didn’t know what to make of a black man that wanted to be in fashion, although I wasn’t the first one. She had worked with the Baron of Gunzburg – who was an editor at Vogue – for years!
She didn’t get me but Anna Wintour did, and she was the creative director. So when I got the job at Vogue, and Ms Mirabella was the Editor-in-Chief, I had to walk on eggshells. I respected her, we worked well on a professional level, but she did not get me. I’ll give an example: one season, Yves Saint Laurent showed feathers in haute couture (on dresses, girls, capes). When I went back to the States, I decided to do a story in my column about the influence of African traditional dressing in the work of Yves Saint Laurent. If you’ve studied Picasso in general or The Demoiselles d’Avignon in particular, you know his painting was inspired by African masks. And if you’ve studied Giacometti, his first small modernist sculptures were inspired by African sculptures as well. So it made sense to me to write that piece, as I was reminded of these pictures of African men walking around, photographed by Leni Riefenstahl, with the same feathers.
I went to Mirabella’s office and I said that, for the column, we could use a beautiful picture taken by Riefenstahl of a tall, black, African man with feathers, and put it next to a picture of Yves Saint Laurent’s model because it was inspired by this – and I wasn’t being catty or a bitch when saying so, this is what I really thought. There was silence. “What did I do to deserve this underground influence?”, she said; “You come from Andy Warhol! What did I do to deserve this?” In other words, it was kind of insensitive way of accusing me of being too radical, and I wasn’t being radical at all! I went back to Anna Wintour’s office and she said, “Don’t worry, André”, and she and I became friends. So I started to do all my work through her and I would flood my ideas through her.
Moving from Durham (North Carolina) to eventually New York and then Paris must have been incredibly tough and daunting, especially coming from the Jim Crow South. However, you moved from a backwards-thinking place like the American South to a seemingly progressive city like Paris, and you still suffered from racism. In the documentary, we see that the head of PR at Yves Saint Laurent called you...
Queen Kong!
And even at WWD, one of your bosses...
Was saying that I was sleeping around with everyone! (All of the major designers in Paris). And that was a racist, awful thing to say. I actually quit my job for that reason. I went to the American embassy and had my letter notarised because I didn’t want them to say they fired me because I was stealing. That’s what they say about black people, you know, when they want to bring us down. So I sent my letter of resignation. I kept all of that bottled up in me, as I’m an only child – growing up, I didn’t have many people to talk to, as I only had a few good friends.
But, as you can see, racism is everywhere, it happens all the time in America. It’s a shadow that walks behind you no matter who you are – man, woman, or child. You can be Toni Morrison with a Nobel literature prize and there’s still a shadow of racism. If you are black, racism prevails in your life on a daily level.
But in Europe too, right?
Exactly! But less in Europe because when the black models came in the ‘70s, they went to Paris and they were celebrated. The black model who struggled in New York would come to Paris and would get an Yves Saint Laurent show, as they would always cast them. There was racism as, of course, negritude is a French term from French literature. But there were people like Josephine Baker who came to Paris in order to exile. James Baldwin moved to Paris, and even Nina Simone did so because they couldn’t take it anymore in America.
Still, how would you say that you personally pushed through all of that racism?
I internalised it, I kept it bottled up inside of me. I kept quiet and focused on doing my work. I held my head high as I had confidence. But I just kept everything to myself – and that isn’t healthy.
“Racism is everywhere, it happens all the time in America. It’s a shadow that walks behind you no matter what. You can be Toni Morrison with a Nobel literature prize and there’s still a shadow of racism. If you are black, racism prevails in your life on a daily level.”
That’s a bit toxic, in a way.
Yes! I finally opened it all up in the film, but I didn’t even write about it in my memoir.
You also state in the documentary that you have to connect with your past in order to move on and create a path for yourself in the future, and so you’ve said that you are incredibly connected with your roots, but especially your ancestors. But, in which ways do you do that?
Through faith: the sense that comes from church as well as traditional values. I don’t get to see my ancestors anymore (my great grandmother, aunts and uncles) but they were role models for me growing up. I had an uncle who taught me how to tie my necktie; do you know how important that was? He was the one that taught me how to do a Windsor knot. I watched them as examples. They struggled, they were very modest people, they were not poor – but they were not rich; we were lower-middle class.
I’ve watched my great grandmother go out and kill a chicken to cook, and that’s a very strong thing for a woman to do. But that’s what pioneer women did! And I watched her wash clothes in a boiling pot – a big, witch’s pot – where the water was so hot you couldn’t actually put your hand in it. But she’d take a stick from a tree and would stir the clothes until they became white. She’d put them in a line to air and it was so fresh, it was so incredible when they would dry in the air. I was lucky enough to be brought up in a church environment. It was a family church where all of my relatives would go, so I was very much always surrounded by love.
We can also see in the documentary that you appreciate brands that give nods to historical moments, as well as ones that have literature and art references – as you are very knowledgeable in these aspects and respect others that are like that too. But nowadays, maybe especially with the rise of streetwear, there aren’t as many brands that do that. Is this for the worse, in your opinion?
I think that these brands have to find their way, as they are not being supported by big houses. If they have something to say, it will come to the forefront. There is always someone who spots people who have talent. You may not be aware of it at the time, but it will happen, one way or another this always happens. I also think that what’s happening today in fashion is good. It’s good that Virgil Abloh is in Louis Vuitton and that Edward Enninful is at British Vogue. It’s good that Balenciaga has this disruptive designer, Demna Gvasalia, who also does Vêtements. Also, Raf Simons went from Paris to New York to work for Calvin Klein. I think that he is really big in the city – he’s actually huge, although he was already huge in Paris working at Dior Couture and even on his own. Everything will come into its own, eventually.
You also appreciate brands that do homages to other past designers, but what do you think of those that profit off of other less known designers, that are inspired by them but do not explicitly say so. An example of this would be your friend Dapper Dan, who was really well-known by regular people in the ‘80s and ‘90s in Harlem but wasn’t appreciated by big designers. What do you think of big designers exploiting his career? As he didn’t get recognition until now.
Until now because Gucci realised that and gave him a partnership. Dapper Dan is the unsung hero of American fashion. A black man in American fashion. He had a store for ten years and it was closed because he was prosecuted for doing knock-offs of logos of big fashion houses. When he closed, he went underground but he would still design clothes for people like Jay Z. And he’s an amazing designer! Instinctive, self-taught, self-made, visionary.
I just met him this year for the very first time and he’s an incredible human being. He’s successful, has two children who are making a movie about his life, and are also writing a book about him – all because of the Gucci partnership. Because they realised that there are so many looks inspired by Dapper Dan and so they gave him the credit. Someone had the right idea and supported that brand; the way Louis Vuitton has supported Virgil, by having him do the menswear line. So, slowly, the blacks are coming up to the forefront. Slowly… It’s a meal that’s taking a slow time to cook.
Related to this, we’re slowly seeing more diversity in fashion (runways, campaigns, editorials etc.). However, behind the scenes, it’s a different story. Black men like Virgil Abloh, Edward Enninful, and women of colour like Vanity Fair’s Radhika Jones give us hope that it is changing, although slowly...
It’s a slow burn.
“I’ve watched my great grandmother go out and kill a chicken to cook, and that’s a very strong thing for a woman to do. But that’s what pioneer women did!”
But what will it take to see even more diversity?
Perhaps another generation! You never know because of the way the world is going. Look at America: we had made progress with Obama but now we’re going backwards again, so people don’t embrace diversity anymore. This administration is against Muslims and anything that does not look white. Therefore, white people – who are running the world anyway – are not going to embrace that diversity. I think it’s embraced by Hollywood and fashion – to a degree. There’s diversity in trans models and in people like Ashley Graham, but it’s a slow process. It’s disturbing, but it’s the way it is!
And there’s only a handful of diverse models. For example, there aren’t even many disabled models.
It’s very disturbing and sad.
Let’s hope it will change…
You can only hope! You can only sit on hope – it’s a tightrope, but that’s all you can do.
In terms of current events, something recently caught my attention, and I would like your opinion on this. Melania Trump, who you once accompanied to go wedding dress shopping for a Vogue cover story – although you no longer have a relationship with –, wore a Zara jacket with a message that read: “I really don’t care, do you?”, a few days ago. Her team says that the jacket’s message is completely unrelated to the fact that, while wearing it, she visited immigrant child detention centres. What do you make of it?
I really don’t care, do you? (Laughs). Listen, perhaps it was not the appropriate thing to put on for where she was going but, for example, she went to visit the victims of the hurricane in Texas while wearing stilettos. So that’s who she is. She wears stilettos everywhere, even in the grass, you wonder how her feet don’t sink. She has some DNA in her feet as she wears them everywhere, there’s something about it.
And just to finish, for those wanting to work on this industry or already involved in fashion: what’s your best advice to survive this cut-throat, hectic industry/world?
Never give up your dream whatever your dream is. And do your homework for whatever you’re working in. If you’re a shoe designer, read all about the great shoe designers, all of the moods and trends from the 18th century forward, or 16th century backwards. Just have the knowledge, knowledge is power. Do your homework and research, you have to know what came before you in whatever sphere you are in. If you’re in makeup, know that Pat McGrath is the queen of makeup; if you’re a hairstylist, know about the hairstylists; if you want to design furs, you have to know about Fendi.
It’s all there for you, homework will give you confidence and power. You don’t just walk in unprepared. If you want to work for a designer that dresses a lot of musicians, go do the homework on Versace – they dress all the girls for the red carpet, now more than ever, and the brand has a legacy and a look. So I say, never give up your dream and do your homework.