André Leon Talley Defined Style on His Own Terms

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André Leon Talley, who died on Tuesday at the age of 73, made the fashion world take notice of Black design genius. In the late 1990s, he regularly championed Kevan Hall, Stephen Burrows, Willi Smith, and many others in his Vogue “StyleFax” column, firmly placing these emerging designers in the mainstream. By that time, he had spent years attempting to map a new American fashion genealogy—one that now extends to superstar Black designers of today such as LaQuan Smith, Mimi Plange, Kerby Jean-Raymond, and Christopher John Rogers, whom Talley presciently called “the future” of fashion.

Talley’s name is rarely spoken without a mention of Vogue, as if even being hired by the publication, which many view as the fashion bible, was his biggest accomplishment. Talley was indeed a pioneer at Vogue at a time when powerful African Americans in the industry were rare. As the magazine’s first Black creative director, he infused its pages with models of deeper hues and with garments that referenced the African diaspora. From his hiring until he left Vogue, in 2013, Talley never forgot the Black readers who’d subscribed to Vogue because of him—and he kept on battling an institution that was often antagonistic to his changes. But Talley’s influence stretched far past Vogue. In particular, it included his vision for a more democratic fashion world.

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Talley first gained widespread notice in 1978 as the Paris bureau chief of Women’s Wear Daily. Having studied French language and literature, he found a home there, even when his European counterparts were less welcoming. In Paris, Talley continued to build the persona that would eventually win over readers and designers alike. His style foundation was rooted in the Black church of racially segregated Durham, North Carolina, where, as a child, he had marveled at the women and men who strutted in their Sunday finery. In his own outfits, Talley would mix that sacred glamour with the profane sensibilities of Studio 54, with its edgy silhouettes and hedonistic celebrity appeal. His look was a medley of floor-length robes, tailor-made caftans, Russian ushankas, mauve alligator coats, snakeskin boots—all held together by the refined demeanor Talley had honed on the campus of North Carolina Central University, an HBCU, and the Ivy League Brown University. He was a Black man, standing at 6-foot-6, the likes of which Paris had never seen.

André Leon Talley Defined Style on His Own Terms
© Provided by The Atlantic Andre Leon Talley and Marina Schiano circa 1980 in New York City (Photo by PL Gould / IMAGES / Getty)

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Talley’s blended style reflected his desire for a more heterogeneous fashion industry. Over the course of his long career, his editorials became as bold as his looks; for example, his 1996 Vanity Fair spread “Scarlett ’n the Hood” subversively starred Naomi Campbell as the Gone With the Wind protagonist. His singular voice, however, could not be confined to the page. The hint of a southern accent, affectation of old Hollywood ingénues, and touches of French made his every shout of “Saucy!” or “This is a look!” ring out with an air of familiar authority. That charm made him a fan favorite during his appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show or his brief stint as a judge on America’s Next Top Model. Talley also bore the scars of being one of one—including the time early in his career when, he says, a publicist at Yves Saint Laurent regularly referred to him using the racist, homophobic epithet “Queen Kong.”

Talley, a son of the Jim Crow South, was used to being the target of soul-crushing slurs. His stint as Ebony’s New York City–based editor in the early 1980s offered respite from the violence of the broader fashion world. Sadly, his transformative year at Ebony is one of the most overlooked periods of his career. Talley was pleased when he learned that this landmark African American lifestyle magazine was willing to pay the $22,000 salary he’d been earning at Women’s Wear Daily. Hiring Talley was a strategic move for Ebony’s co-publisher Eunice Johnson, a savvy businesswoman who had been steadily building the magazine’s global presence since the 1950s. Together, the two traveled Europe, meeting with haute-couture designers and acquiring wares. They were busting down racial barriers, those vestiges of the interwar period when the industry was even more segregated.

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Ebony, not Women’s Wear Daily, made Talley a household name in the Black community. “Finally, I had a job that would make my entire church family and all my aunts and cousins proud,” he wrote in his 2020 memoir, The Chiffon Trenches. He was free to design whimsical fashion spreads, without having to navigate the racial fault lines of mainstream publications. Talley’s remarkable work at Ebony likely caught the attention of Vogue executives, who would hire him just a couple years later.

Talley loved cultivating his own fantasy universe in magazine pages but was especially keen on building real-life community with those he respected, as was evident in the institutions he affiliated with. Largely ignored by the New York fashion schools, Talley chose to return to his roots, making his educational home in the South, outside of America’s style epicenter.

In 2000, Talley began a long and fruitful relationship with the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). After honoring Talley with the SCAD Lifetime Achievement Award in Fashion that year, they renamed the prize after him. Each subsequent year, Talley assisted in the selection of the recipient. Over the past two decades, honorees have included Oscar de la Renta, Stephen Burrows, Miuccia Prada, Vera Wang, Karl Lagerfeld, and Tom Ford. One of the beauties of the award is that these fashion giants must leave the comforts of their urban milieux to receive their award in Savannah—and most have.

SCAD gave Talley a place to formalize his vision for a more liberated fashion future. There, he curated exhibitions, served as a trustee, and mentored the next generation of designers and stylists. As a boy, Talley immersed himself in the romantic photos he saw in magazines in order to block out images of racial terror that played on television. In his last two decades, he built a fashion hub in the Deep South that his former self could have only imagined. As he wrote in his memoir, “Nothing like this had ever been offered to me in New York or Paris.”

Talley’s legacy is not just one of chronicling and directing trends; it’s also of encouraging people on the margins to invest in themselves. “I don’t live for fashion … Fashion is fleeting. Style remains,” Talley says in the opening sequence of his 2018 documentary, The Gospel According to André. Beyond his impact at Vogue, he inspired the everyday Black, brown, and queer folks who admired him to define creative freedom on their own terms—and in their fearless self-stylings, his memory remains. Throughout his storied career, Talley was often isolated in rooms with the white fashion elite, frequently finding himself indebted to them in unsettling ways. By the end of his life, his message to future generations was: Never wait for a seat at the table. Build your own table.

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