As the fashion world begins to take stock of the life and impact of André Leon Talley, the industry editor who died Tuesday evening at the age of 73, it becomes clear how its industry has become more professional. How sanitized. Watch him describe Rihanna, totally impromptu, in the 2016 Met Gala documentary, The first Monday in May“I like a girl from humble beginnings who becomes a big star,” he cries. “It’s like the American dream. That’s how we do it. His grandiose, definitive words gave a celebrity’s red carpet frivolity a sense of power — of almost moral significance, of historic significance. He always knew he was a witness to history, and he wouldn’t let anyone forget it.
His intellectual pedigree was paramount. His resume is a guide to glamor in itself: he studied French literature at North Carolina Central University, then wrote an MA thesis on Baudelaire at Brown; he was Diana Vreeland’s protege at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; he worked at Andy Warhol Interview; he helped write the history of 20th century fashion as a journalist and editor for Daily Women’s Clothing; he was the creative director of vogue, which has long made him the most powerful black man in fashion. All of these things made him a revolutionary figure. But his life’s defining journey was not toward power or career. Instead, it was a stubborn, obsessive pursuit of style, glamor and beauty. He was always happy to be a student and had an extravagant and inquisitive mind. He often spoke of his dismay at the fact that young people were not learning enough about history, luxury and literature. He seemed to take as his own mantra something Vreeland once said of court life in eighteenth-century France: “The religious pursuit of pleasure was the key to everyday life.
He knew that the ephemeral was essential, that the frivolous had value. He believed in emotional grandeur, in exaggeration; things that people think are meaningless or fluffy. He understood that fashion is essentially defined by conflicts of interest. And he never claimed fashion wasn’t about these things, but rather thought it was important because it was about these things. Her good friend Bill Cunningham said “fashion was the armor to survive the reality of everyday life”. Talley went further: he made fashion his daily life.
Talley was a polymath: an editor, a stylist, a celebrity manager, a visionary, a personality, an image maker. He was also, let’s not forget, a writer. In fact, he was a beautiful writer, one of the most poetic to ever address the subject of fashion. To read his remarks is to remember that clichés and robotic descriptions have no place in fashion criticism. When he portrayed Michelle Obama for her first vogue cover, in 2009, he said his gaze “is like hearing a chord of ‘A Love Supreme’ by John Coltrane”. Or maybe “The Lark Ascending” by Ralph Vaughan Williams: All right, fair and real. Throughout the play, he deftly placed her within the First Ladies canon with scholarly finesse, gently avoiding comparisons to Jackie Kennedy (“Pragmatism, not glamour, that’s what matters when she gets dressed”) and quickly moving through the legacies of Dolly Madison and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Writing was at the heart of Talley. In one of the most gallant moments of his second memoir, Chiffon trench coats, he describes the pride he felt after writing a review of Yves Saint Laurent’s January 1978 couture show, inspired by Porgy and Bess. He saw fashion writing as a back and forth between the intention of the designer and the emotional reaction and knowledge of the viewer, which is the raison d’etre of great criticism: a step in understanding the deeper artistic nature of the true genius of fashion. After the show, I went to the office and wrote the most brilliant review of my young career.