NEW YORK, United States — In late February, about three months before the release of “The Gospel According to André,” the documentary about his life, André Leon Talley, former Vogue creative director and “America’s Next Top Model” judge, protégé of Diana Vreeland and Andy Warhol, child of the segregated American South, went to the designer Daniel Day’s atelier in Harlem to have a caftan made.
Mr Talley, who is 6-foot-6 (he says, though some reports put him at 6-foot-7), started wearing caftans about 10 years ago, when he could no longer fit into the bespoke suits he favoured.
He had been on a trip to Morocco and had gone to the souk in Marrakesh, to the same place where Yves Saint Laurent had his trims done in the early years of Rive Gauche, and bought eight undershirts in burgundy and eight in black and a few overshirts. From then on, he declared, the flowing African robes would be his uniform, though the word he uses, whenever he speaks of his own relationship to clothes, is “armour.”
He has a lot of caftans at his home in White Plains, but he wanted something special for the film premiere. He could have asked Tom Ford, who has made all of his capes for the Met Gala in recent years, or Diane von Furstenberg, who is one of his oldest fashion friends.
Instead he decided to go with Mr Day, more widely known as Dapper Dan. Mr Day shot to fame in Harlem during the 1980s and was known for his subversive “homages” to luxury brands, and is having something of a moment himself, thanks to a new collaboration with Gucci.
Mr Talley chose the fabric, a reversible Gucci gold and crimson Chinese brocade covered in leaping tigers. It took three fittings to get the final robe right. When he puts it on, which he has for all of his film-related appearances — a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival; a cocktail party in his honor at the Montclair Film Festival; a screening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; an appearance on “Late Night With Seth Meyers”; his portrait for this story — he looks like a gilded Spanish galleon parting the waves, with some gray storm clouds dusting the top of his head.
I live alone. I’ll die alone, I climbed up alone, and I’ll go down alone.
“I wanted people to know how proud I was of a black man who finally got his proper due and respect from the vicious, cruel beast of fashion,” Mr Talley said about why he chose Mr Day.
But if you watch the documentary, which traces Mr Talley’s journey from the black enclave of Durham, N.C., where he was raised by his grandmother, to the seclusion of his own garden by way of the Met Gala, Vogue and Paris, it’s hard not to think that he was also talking about himself. And that this movie is one way of demanding his due.
“I’m almost 70,” he said just before the film’s premiere. “If not now, when?”
‘He was so many things he was not supposed to be.’
For a few decades, Mr Talley was one of the most famous people in the fashion world, known for his capes, his hats, his gloves; his italicised, oratorical way of speaking; and his sweeping gestures. But “Gospel” isn’t really a fashion film, though some early reviews treated it that way.
“In many ways, this is a classic American success story,” said Kate Novack, the film’s director. “André is an important African-American cultural figure. But it has come at a cost.”
The movie, filled with commentary from fashion figures including Valentino Garavani, Marc Jacobs and Anna Wintour, is dripping with paillettes and brocade. But it is rooted in the frame home where Mr Talley grew up, the black church where he was baptised and the Duke University students who once stoned him when he crossed campus on Sundays to buy Vogue.
“He was so many things he was not supposed to be,” Whoopi Goldberg, an old friend, says in the film.
As a young man in the South, he was not supposed to dream of being a fashion editor. He was not supposed to go to Brown University for his master’s degree and write a thesis on the influence of black women in Baudelaire and Flaubert and in the paintings of Delacroix. He was not supposed to get an internship with Ms.Vreeland at the Costume Institute, or a job at Andy Warhol’s Interview, or go to Paris and be the only black man in the front row of couture shows, or become creative director of Vogue.
“It took a lot of courage to be him,” said Diane von Furstenberg, who became friends with him in his Interview days and accompanied him to the Obama inauguration in 2009.
He was a fashion editor in what the writer Harold Brodkey would have termed “an almost classical mode”: an editor whose persona was modelled on a time when fashion editors made proclamations and had signature looks and signature environments and beautybeautybeauty was what mattered.
“André is from another time,” Mr Ford said. “A time when editors really did create a dream. A time when fashion was a much more elegant business and a time when style really did matter.” Recently, the model has become more budgetsbudgetsbudgets, and the transition has been hard for Mr Talley.
It led in part, he said, to his departure from Vogue, when contracts were cut — he says his was slashed by $50,000 — and he began to feel “I had hit my glass ceiling.” (He is currently on the masthead as a contributing editor.)
For the last few years, he has bounced around between jobs: a year as editor of Russian Numéro (he said he went because he was promised $1 million, some of which he never got, and he wanted to prove he could run a magazine); a stint as artistic director of Zappos; a gig with Will.i.am’s tech start-up; a short-lived radio talk show.
He has been most involved with the Savannah College of Art and Design, and a retrospective he curated on the work of his old friend Oscar de la Renta. In none of it has he had the profile or power of his Vogue days.
“Certain friends have dropped me,” he said. “Miuccia Prada was one. We were very close. She is very shy, so now she barely speaks to me on the steps of the Met. Karl Lagerfeld is a fly-by-night person. He’s hard to reach. That’s very disappointing.”
Certain friends have dropped me. Miuccia Prada was one. We were very close.
He is still loyal to Ms Wintour, the editor of Vogue. “Most days, she treats me like family,” he said. “I know she cares for me deeply. But other days, she treats me like the proverbial black sheep, that family member who is left out, shut out, to be avoided.” He paused. “I wish fashion was an easier zone to navigate through. It’s arctic: You have to get through so many icebergs. It’s very cruel, yet it can also be very exciting.”
At the moment he is concerned about money. “I’m broke,” he said.
‘I climbed up alone, and I’ll go down alone.’
Mr Talley lives in a house in White Plains that he bought 12 years ago and that he keeps largely away from any public eyes. “It’s my sanctuary,” he said.
He said he has never really had a relationship, though he has been in love twice, once with Anne Bibby, whom he calls the best-dressed girl in his high school class. “We were very good friends,” Ms Bibby said, laughing. “But he was in love with what he was doing.”
Mr Talley admitted as much. “I gave it all to my career,” he said. “Diane von Furstenberg said, ‘He was afraid to fall in love,’ and I guess I was. I guess I was afraid, and I guess I was repressed. I grew up in a very strict household. But being in this world, moving around with all these incredible people… it was enough for me to have the friendship of Karl or the friendship of Yves Saint Laurent or the friendship of Azzedine Alaïa.”
The problem now is when Karl is no longer his friend, and Mr Saint Laurent and Mr Alaïa are dead, where does that leave Mr Talley?
“I live alone. I’ll die alone, I climbed up alone, and I’ll go down alone,” he said. “I wake up and think about it almost every day. But I don’t do online dating or stuff like that.”
Almost no one is allowed in the house, which is filled with books — “he has read everything,” said Janis A. Mayes, a Syracuse University professor and a friend from their Brown days who still talks to him once a week — and Mr Talley’s prized possessions: a four-poster mahogany bed Oscar de la Renta had custom-made for him in the Dominican Republic; a pair of 18th-century chairs bought at auction that once belonged to Annette de la Renta’s mother; a sofa once owned by Truman Capote (Mr Talley feels a kinship with the writer and said the book “A Christmas Memory” sums up his own childhood).
He doesn’t sleep much and watches TV until the early hours; he gets up with the sunrise.
A few rooms made it into Ms Novack’s film, but mostly the filming took place outside. “You don’t want people trampling around in your house,” Mr Talley said. “It is annoying. It feels invasive.” The cameras were not allowed into the kitchen or into Mr Talley’s closets.
“Who cares about a lot of old clothes?” he said, which was kind of a disingenuous statement, given his career and how much he, for one, does. His speech is often full of apparent contradictions between his public and private lives.
He said, for example, talking about why he did not allow the camera crew in the kitchen, that he is “not an entertainer.” Yet one of the criticisms sometimes leveled at him is that he spent too much time entertaining the powers that be in the fashion world and not enough time confronting them or making them recognise what Dr Mayes calls his “rare quality of mind.”
And though he speaks to Dr Mayes about once a week, she says, it is also true that, as Ms von Furstenberg said, “you have to work at being his friend. It is not always easy. Sometimes he doesn’t call for months.” He can be, according to many reports, as cutting and dismissive as he is warm and generous.
In any case, “I don’t cook, and I wasn’t going to lie,” he said. “I may go in and boil some eggs, but I’ve never cooked a whole meal.” Skinny for most of his life, his eating issues began when his grandmother died in 1989.
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.
“Food is emotion for me,” Mr Talley said. “I associate it with childhood.” At one point Ms Wintour and Mr de la Renta staged an intervention, and later he went to the Duke Diet & Fitness Center. He has now been about seven times, but each time, “you come home and start your old patterns and old addictions and old obsessions,” he said. Especially when “there’s no one at home saying stop after two cookies instead of six.”
Still, he has a formal dining room, elaborate china, antique linen — though he has never had a dinner party. “I guess I wanted to make a special environment for me,” he said. “I think of this line from Tennessee Williams’s play ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’: ‘It was a gilded hell of my own making.’” (The actual line is “I know exactly the kind of gold-plated hell I'm going to,” but he has André-ified it to be more relevant to his story.)
He also thinks a lot about Josephine Baker, who died destitute, and Loulou de la Falaise, a Saint Laurent muse, who likewise died poor and largely abandoned by the fashion world, as a recent oral history by Christopher Petkanas makes clear. “I am very afraid of that,” Mr Talley said. “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.”
‘Where are all the black people?’
For most of his professional life, race was not a subject Mr Talley liked to discuss. He didn’t talk about it with Ms Wintour or Mr de la Renta, even though they were supposed to be his good friends. He hinted at it in his work, most notably a 1996 Vanity Fair shoot photographed by Karl Lagerfeld in which Mr Talley inverted “Gone With the Wind” and had Naomi Campbell playing Scarlett O’Hara and the white designers John Galliano and Manolo Blahnik playing her servants.
Still, Mr Talley was more apt to discuss Marie Antoinette and the shoes of Louis XIV and the books of Toni Morrison, not how difficult it was to be, as Hilton Als wrote in a 1994 profile of him in The New Yorker, “The Only One.” Making the documentary, however, has uncorked some of those feelings.
“There’ve been some very cruel and racist moments in my life in the world of fashion,” Mr Talley said. “Incidents when people were harmful and meanspirited and terrifying.”
In the film he talks about learning that the fashion set in Paris were calling him “Queen Kong.” He later told Mr Petkanas that the slur had been coined by Clara Saint, the head of public relations for Yves Saint Laurent, and he names her freely now. Recently he has been telling another story, which is also in the film.
I look around everywhere and say, ‘Where are the black people?’
“One of my bosses — I will not name him because he is still alive — one of the male bosses at Women’s Wear came to Paris and said: ‘Rumors are you’re going in and out of every designer bed in Paris. You’ve slept with every designer.’ And that simply was not true. I’ve never been to any designer’s bed. I got my success on my looks and my knowledge, not my sexual appeal. Am I supposed to be a buck, servicing sexually everybody in Paris? That was a very racist thing.”
When he tells this story in public, he often defangs it by rolling his eyes and pursing his lips, and then appending a joke about wanting to be in designers’ beds without the actual designer to see what kind of fancy sheets they had. But when he tells it in private, he doesn’t add the comic flourishes, and the muscle between his eyebrows contracts in an involuntary spasm.
For all the talk lately about the need for diversity on fashion runways, there has been much less about the fact that its executives and designers and editors in chief have been, and are still, largely white.
“Where are the black people?” Mr Talley said. “I look around everywhere and say, ‘Where are the black people?’ I think fashion tries to skirt the issue and finds convenient ways to spin it. There are examples of evolution, but they are few and far between. The biggest leap of faith was Edward Enninful becoming editor of British Vogue — that was an extraordinary thing. Virgil Abloh getting Louis Vuitton men’s wear.”
Still, as far as progress made in the more than three decades Mr Talley has been letting the insults bounce off his caftans, it doesn’t seem like very much. “As the world turns, it does not turn very fast,” he said.
He is hoping the film speeds it up. Mr Enninful, for one, thinks it will. “It will mean a lot to a new generation to see that there was this man who grew up in the South and through all obstacles made it, because it will give young black kids hope and the aspiration to be in this industry,” he said.
Mr Talley is also hoping it provides a platform to vault him to the next stage in his life.
“I could see myself being an Oscar Wilde and going on the road and sitting on stage and talking,” he said. When he said this, he was having lunch at Majorelle, a French restaurant on the Upper East Side that he loves because of its flower arrangements, its pistachio souffle and because it shares a name with Yves Saint Laurent’s garden in Marrakesh.
He was off duty, so he wasn’t wearing his gold caftan but rather a gray version in washed silk that he had just pulled out of the dryer. He has another idea for a robe he would get Dapper Dan to make for his incarnation as a public intellectual: one in “waffle lamé brocade.”
“I think it could be very inspiring,” he said.
By Vanessa Friedman. This article originally appeared in The New York Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.