But when I met him in September 2018, I wanted to inquire about office politics. For the first time in his 125 years of history, fashion had just published a cover shot by a black photographer, Tyler Mitchell, who had been personally requested by Beyoncé. This was the fourth cover of fashion of the singer, and for years before black models had already appeared in the pages of the magazine. How was it possible that no black person had photographed a cover for fashion?
What I learned from Talley that day was a brief but unpleasant lesson in how one of the greatest connoisseurs of elegance and one of fashion’s most notorious personalities had been sidelined by the industry he loved so much. As much as Talley was a luminary and an inspiration, he was also a warning about what it means to be black, gay, and talented in the world of white, elite fashion: no amount of awards, couture, and influential friends could save him from never was really accepted.
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Although he was said to have become somewhat sullen in his later years, Talley generously agreed to be interviewed at his home in Westchester, New York. He came out to greet me on the porch in one of his signature caftans, which looked like an African wax print. I was wearing thrift store pants and cheap jewelry. “I like your outfit, honey,” he told me. I walked into his house as he accepted her offer of a bottle of water. As Talley had once told my colleague from Washington Post, robin givanGrowing up gay in the Deep South had taught him the power of impeccable manners.
I asked Talley directly about whether he had used his position as the most visible black man to climb the ladder of fashion to lobby and choose a black photographer for the cover. “I never pushed for anything,” he replied immediately. “fashion It is not a place where you can be bossy. I always nuanced my views, carefully and with the understanding that I had to navigate a world that was essentially predominantly white in power. You don’t go in there pushing and saying things like ‘we have to have a cover made by a black person.’”
Talley picked up a copy of the September issue that I had brought. “Let me see,” he said. “There are so many ads, too many ads,” he said, as he flipped the magazine forward and then back. “Does my name come out here?” At the time, Talley was editor at large from fashion, but his name didn’t appear on the credits pages, an omission I was surprised to find he hadn’t yet noticed. Talley put the magazine aside. It was a sad and awkward moment, one that I remember vividly to this day.
Talley allowed me to use the bathroom, no doubt a bold request, as I’d read that she didn’t like letting people into her home much. The house turned out to be filled with a lifetime’s accumulation of luxury items. I saw clothes, shoes, decorations from Chanel, Tom Ford, Manolo Blahnik. But somehow, the cumulative visual effect was almost messy. At the end of the day, no matter how expensive they were, things were… just things.
We went on to talk about other topics. He spoke with great enthusiasm of Diana Vreeland, the legendary fashion editor with whom he had apprenticed. He talked about Anna Wintour, who named him the first black creative director, and how he taught her a lot about fashion —as she has already recognized—, but still stated that “she is a colonial woman”. She blurted out some names of famous designers: she said that Tom Ford and Manolo Blahnik were her friends. However, he also complained about being abandoned by many. Living alone, he said that he had never found love. He seemed to be in a state of melancholy reflection on his life and career.
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“I should have tried harder to build my own brand, maybe have a clothing line, do other projects,” she said wistfully. It was known that for all her brilliance and her styling for the biggest fashion stars, she received far less money than her counterparts. I later found out that even the house in which he received me was not his, but had been rented since 2004 to the executive director of Manolo Blahnik, George Malkemus, who in 2020 tried to evict him after claiming he owed her more than $350,000.
The fashion world remained cruel to Talley to the end, highlighting the dire need for greater fairness in the industry. His death should prompt a reckoning and a reflection on the part of those who used it and then marginalized it. And, for all of us, of the dangers of trying to fit at all costs into institutions that refuse to see our worth.
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Opinion | How the brilliant André Leon Talley was sidelined
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