When André Leon Talley went to practice tennis, he did not, as he said in The September Issue (2009), do so in any old pair of shorts and tennis shirt, but in Damon Dash trousers and a Ralph Lauren shirt, with his wrist adorned by a vintage diamond Piaget watch from the 1960s.
Slung around his neck was a Louis Vuitton scarf-meets-towel, along with a Vuitton-branded suite of hand luggage. By recommending that he exercise three years previously, Vogue’s editor in chief Anna Wintour, or “Miss Wintour” as Talley called his then-boss, had “inaugurated” him into health, and had saved his life by doing so. “So naturally what Miss Wintour says, goes.”
The relationship between the two soured considerably, of course. The former creative director and later editor at large of Vogue destroyed his former boss in print in his own memoir, The Chiffon Trenches (2020) before, months later, defending Wintour when she was accused of racism. Last year, he said they were still friends.
There was still an ongoing legal dispute over his habitation of a friend’s property, again played out in the tabloids. But whatever his late-in-life travails, resplendent in his colorful capes and caftans Talley still assumed the pose of an imperious fashion monarch who rightly expected to be treated as such. He was a celebrity, an icon, beloved because of his intoxicating mix of hauteur, wit, and passion—and his engaging sense of style and fun.
As TMZ first reported late Tuesday, Talley has died, aged 73, at a hospital in White Plains, New York—the cause of death unknown at the time of writing. As news of Talley's death spread, tributes from fashion figures began to be paid on social media, including from Diane von Furstenberg, Bob Mackie, and Carson Kressley.
Oh, the stories! Watch or read any interview with Talley, the anecdotes tumbling forth, such as at the Oxford Union in 2013: Bianca Jagger, the Rolling Stones, Andy Warhol, the Pierre, gun suitcases in the wardrobe, Valentino couture, Bianca ironing her own jumpsuit, Studio 54, Truman Capote, Diana Ross, Talley and Diana Vreeland discussing the perfect espadrille for four hours, Iman threatening to retire... Just try and insert a full stop, just try and ask a question. Good luck with that.
His fashion was “part of who I am… I have to get up and approach life with my own aesthetics about style,” Talley said. And away from the tennis court, in the front row or on television, he held forth in luxuriantly over-the-top outfits, which were always perfect wrapping for his body and personality.
“Wearing clothes should be a personal narrative of emotion. I always respond to fashion in an emotional way,” Talley said, and it was those emotions that grew to define his entire professional career. He was commanding, funny, and utterly in thrall to the world of fashion, a fashion star born of a time when fashion was renowned for its exotic divas, with huge expense accounts, cars here, there, and everywhere, and extravagance and deference not just expected but to be properly executed, or prepare to die by eye roll.
In a deleted scene from The September Issue, he said he could not be expected to sit in a cubicle, as there was “not enough air or ventilation for two people.” Thank God there was Purell, he said—years before the pandemic, naturally! “Basically, I make the world my office. You can’t sit in a matchbox, and be greeted.”
He took the camera crew to Paris, and to a fitting at shirtmakers Charvet. In his youth, he said, he had had his underwear made there, embroidered with his initials, but that was “cost-prohibitive” now. Now, it was just his shirts made, to ensure he had enough outfit changes for a day at Karl Lagerfeld’s place in St. Tropez.
“It’s not a nightshirt,” he exclaimed, lest we mere mortals mistook the shirt for such a thing, although this reminded him of one of the first things his grandmother—his beloved Binnie Francis Davis, who raised him and offered him unconditional love—had bought him in a store in Durham, North Carolina: a pair of yellow paisley Christian Dior flannel pajamas.
She also bought him his first beautiful suit and shoes. She cleaned the men’s dorms at Duke University, Talley said, and always went to Saks Fifth Avenue to buy her hats. “It must have cost a fortune, but it was worth it because it’s part of the world you live in.”
“It was hard to be an original and be confident and go forth in the world. Somehow I did it.”
Talley was a revolutionary. When he entered the fashion industry in the 1970s, the thought of a Black man working in high fashion was a foreign concept to many. While there were a few designers, like Stephen Burrows, who began cracking the glass ceiling for Black fashion industry professionals, the world of fashion magazines, minus specifically Black-focused publications like Ebony and Jet, was heavily white.
For Talley, who grew up in the Jim Crow-era South where segregation determined everything from class to social boundaries, fashion was but a foreign world to him. At the age of 9 or 10, he did discover a copy of Vogue magazine at the local library in his hometown of Durham, North Carolina.
Talley’s humble upbringing and ability to break barriers for Black editors and other fashion industry professionals was truly revolutionary. He went to high school in beautiful clothes, his grandmother ironed all the sheets and kept an “impeccable” home. He was bullied in high school. “I coped and survived with it,” he told Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan in 2017. “It was very difficult… It was hard to be an original and be confident and go forth in the world. Somehow I did it.” He had “a hungering” for the world he saw in Vogue.
Initially, he had his sights set on becoming a French professor. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in French literature from North Carolina Central University (where he “let it go”), a historically Black university in Durham. He went on to earn a Master of Arts degree in French literature from Brown University, “where I really let it go,” he told Givhan. One of his most popular pieces of advice for young people looking to go into the fashion industry was to learn French.
The game-changing moment in his life that would lead to him becoming one of the most powerful Black men in the history of fashion was in 1974 when he interned for former Vogue editor in chief Diana Vreeland, who at the time was a consultant to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vreeland would connect him with Andy Warhol, who hired him to work at Interview and his studio The Factory for $50 a week.
He went on to work at Women’s Wear Daily, becoming its Paris bureau chief, and W magazine from 1975 through 1980. In The Chiffon Trenches, Talley wrote of making his career in Paris. “I had arrived in a place where I was accepted and where I now belonged. My Blackness was not important. What was important was that I was smart… I was always seated on the front row at the couture and ready-to-wear catwalk shows, the only Black man among a sea of white titans of style.”
In a subsequent interview, Talley said that “clothes were my armor of warfare. That’s how I got through life. I had to represent. I couldn’t fail. Failure was not an option.” He said he represented “my people, my culture, my smartness, and earn my place in the world.”
He had a brief stint at The New York Times before he was eventually hired at Vogue under then editor in chief Grace Mirabella. He would rise through the ranks to become creative director in 1988, a position that arguably made him the most powerful Black man in the history of fashion editors at the time. He was appointed to this role by his former friend and colleague Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour.
Talley acknowledges that Wintour “made him the highest-ranking black man in the history of fashion journalism.” Despite that, the later years of Talley’s life and his relationship with Wintour were very rocky. The Chiffon Trenches, which detailed his career, life, and many highlights of his time at Vogue, also revealed some of the racism he faced during his meteoric rise to fashion stardom, as well as complex relationship with a woman who is easily seen as the most powerful fashion editor in the business and Vogue’s longest-reigning editor in chief.
One passage in the book reads: “I was a friend to Anna and I knew I mattered back in our earlier days together. Today, I would love for her to say something human and sincere to me. I have huge emotional and psychological scars from my relationship with this towering and influential woman, who can sit by the queen of England, on the front row of a fashion show, in her uniform of dark glasses and perfect Louise Brooks clipped coiffure framing her Mona Lisa mystery face.
“Who is she? Does she let down the proverbial dense curtain? She loves her two children, and I am sure she will be the best grandmother. But there are so many people who worked for her and have suffered huge emotional scarring. Women and men, designers, photographers, stylists; the list is endless. She has dashed so many on a frayed and tattered heap during her powerful rule.”
Talley’s relationship with Wintour took a turn in the ’90s when he left Vogue due to an unexplained falling out, and he went back to W to work as its Paris bureau chief. Wintour would hire him in 1998 as editor at large, rekindling their friendship, and giving him access to a lavish Condé Nast expense account and respectable salary.
His weight became a struggle for him after the death of his beloved grandmother who raised him, and he did several stints at Duke’s weight loss clinic, the first time under the intervention of Wintour.
The larger-than-life fashion editor (clocking in at an NBA-worthy 6-foot-6) was famous for his colorful caftans, which became a signature of his in the latter half of his career. Many of them were designed by his designer friends including Valentino, Ralph Rucci, Karl Lagerfeld, and Tom Ford. He also heavily favored Tom Ford suits, wearing one to the Met Gala for many years.
He was also known to have a penchant for Roger Vivier and Manolo Blahnik shoes, and his collection of Louis Vuitton luggage clocked in at 50 pieces. His favorite coat—he revealed in an October Interview conversation with Demna Gvasalia, creative director of Balenciaga—was a red Norma Kamali puffer coat. “I wear it every day when it’s cold, to church, everywhere.”
“I’m fluid in my sexuality, darling!”
For years, Talley was one of the few Black people in the front row of New York Fashion Week. The two other Black fashion journalists who were ever seen in the front row with him were The Washington Post’s Givhan and Vanity Fair’s fashion and style director Michael Roberts.
Talley’s Ivy League graduate degree and his work with some of the biggest names in fashion and entertainment, from Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel to legendary supermodel Naomi Campbell and world-famous superstar Madonna (whose Vogue cover Talley oversaw as creative director), was a constant reminder that in the predominantly white and insular world of fashion, the level of talent Black people were expected to have to get to the front row had to be exemplary.
In his personal life, Talley told Wendy Williams in 2018 that he had “never” had a great love but had had “a few dalliances with the best and hottest.” “I’m fluid in my sexuality, darling!” The rumors he had slept with designers were rooted in racism, he said, as was the moniker a PR chief had given him: “Queen Kong.”
Wintour, he wrote in The Chiffon Trenches, “is not capable of human kindness” and was “immune” to anyone other than the most powerful.
After the wider societal fallout from George Floyd’s death, when Wintour wrote that she took “full responsibility” for Vogue’s failings when it came to diversity, Talley told Tamron Hall last year that the pair had resumed communication by email for “birthdays and holidays.”
Although he said in the book he would never again attend the Met Gala, he told Hall that if Wintour invited him he would go; this despite Talley also revealing that he had discovered he was being paid $300,000 a year when white equal-level colleagues were being paid $900,000.
After breaking the barrier for many Black fashion industry professionals (British Vogue editor in chief Edward Enninful, the first openly gay Black man to ever be the publication’s editor in chief, thanked Talley for paving the way), Talley’s later years were very tough. His relationship with Vogue and Wintour had gone south. The podcast he used to host where he interviewed designers, socialites, and celebrities was abruptly canceled with no explanation. The contract that had him as the red-carpet interviewer for Vogue at the annual Met Gala was also canceled with no explanation, and he was replaced by YouTuber Liza Koshy.
“We are friendly and we care about each other,” Talley insisted of his relationship with Wintour to Hall last year, adding their friendship of over four decades had benefited from a “year of reflection.” He thought about Wintour a lot, said Talley, had dreams about her, “not nightmares.” It was Wintour, he said, who had sent him to work in Paris as Vogue’s editor in 1989, the same year that his grandmother and one-time mentor Vreeland had died. Wintour had his back, he said.
Theirs was a “passive aggressive friendship,” Talley said. “We sail by each other’s port of call. Sometimes we miss each other’s ports of call, but somehow we navigate back around. I look forward to when Anna Wintour calls me and says, ‘Come to my house in Bellport [Long Island] for the weekend.”
As for the rumors a movie might be made of his life, Talley said he wanted an actor who was “important, intelligent, and extraordinary,” revealing he and Leslie Odom Jr. were in touch about the role. “He is interested,” Talley teased.
Talley also told Hall that recently being awarded France’s highest cultural honor, the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, was the “happiest day of my life.” He also said he would like it inscribed on his tombstone.