Fashion flags were flying at half-mast Tuesday after style insiders around the world learned of the death of legendary Vogue editor and fashion influencer André Leon Talley, who died January 18 at his home in White Plains, N.Y. He was 73.
Talley was so entrenched in the fashion world that his death was confirmed by the Met Gala’s Twitter feed: “Fashion lost another giant today. Talley, thank you for your groundbreaking work that has inspired so many of us. Your legacy will live on forever. RIP.” He was a regular and rather imposing figure at many a Met Ball, the fashion equivalent of the Oscars, hosted for years by his then-boss at Vogue, Anna Wintour. Standing at 6’7” and over 300 pounds, he donned dramatic oversized capes designed for him by designer pals Yohji Yamamoto and the late Karl Lagerfeld.
Celebrities started weighing in immediately after his death was announced. Viola Davis posted a photo of herself embracing Talley, writing “Rest well King.” Playwright Harvey Fierstein called Talley “a truly original heart, spirit, and mind.” Iconic designer Bob Mackie posted: “Thank you for your knowledge and passion for fashion and glamour.” And Diane von Furstenburg wrote: “Goodbye darling André.” No one saw the world in a more glamourous way than you did. No one was grander and more soulful than you.” Octavia Spencer, Billy Porter, and Tyra Banks also paid their respects.
Talley, born in 1949, was one of the few African American editors in an industry that was overwhelmingly white. But after starting at Vogue several decades ago he steadily climbed the fashion media ladder to become one of the most celebrated editors in the industry. He became infamous to the rest of the world as an acid-tongued judge on America’s Next Top Model and in Vogue’s documentary The September Issue. He later turned up in other docs: The First Monday in May and a biopic about Manolo Blahnik. In 2017 he starred in a wry documentary called The Gospel According to André. Over the years he won dozens of awards and tributes: In 2007 Out Magazine named him one of the 50 Most Powerful Gay Men and Women in America. Essence honored him as Man of The Year two years later. In 2020, the French named him Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Last year Talley won the North Carolina Governor’s award for literature.
Aside from a long journalism career that included long stints at WWD, Vanity Fair, and Vogue, Talley also authored three books. A.L.T.: A Memoir, published in 2003, was an ode to the two most important women in his life: his grandmother Bennie Davis and his fashion mentor Diana Vreeland, the legendary Vogue editor who gave him his first assignments. In 2013, Talley wrote Little Black Dress, a compendium to a Savannah College of Art and Design exhibit. But it was his bestselling memoir The Chiffon Trenches, a gossipy attention-grabbing read that celebrated the glamor of the New York in the ‘70s – Studio 54, Halston, Andy Warhol, Paloma Picasso —and decried racism in the fashion industry. The book detailed Talley’s complicated and fraught relationship with a longtime boss and friend, Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who fired him from the magazine in 2016. Soon after, Wintour’s one-time acolyte became her sworn enemy. He accused her in the book of being “ruthless” and “not capable of human kindness.” He also fell out with another friend, the designer Karl Lagerfeld, who was not too thrilled that Talley exposed Lagerfeld’s abusive childhood.
Raised in relative poverty by his grandmother in Durham, North Carolina, Talley always envisioned a more glamorous future for himself. He started reading Vogue when he was ten. Later he went on to earn a Master’s degree in French literature at Brown. He had a gift for meeting the right people: Shortly after arriving in New York, he managed to snag an apprenticeship to Vreeland, the legendary Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue editor who went on to helm the Metropolitan Museum’s Met Ball. It was Vreeland who sent Talley down fashion’s Yellow Brick Road, recommending him for a job at Andy Warhol’s Interview after which he went on to fashion trade bible Women’s Wear Daily. After landing the coveted role of WWD Paris bureau chief (1975 to 1980), Talley did a stint at The New York Times before Vogue named him news director in 1983. He returned to Vogue as columnist and editor-at-large from 1998 till 2013. While the fashion flock adored him and his over-the-top glam lifestyle, the accountants at Conde Nast did not: his oversized expense budgets were as legendary as his wardrobe.
In his role at Vogue, Talley advised Renee Zellweger, Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Hudson, and dozens of other stars on their sartorial choices; he even introduced Michelle Obama to Jason Wu, the young designer who went on to create the First Lady’s 2009 inaugural gown.
The garrulous fashion star was also known for his pithy quotes. Among them: “It’s a moral code to dress well,” “My clothes are like ceremonial seventeenth-century Italian armor,” and “Style transcends race, class, and time.”
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