When André Leon Talley was fresh out of college, he went to intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It was the early 1970s and Diana Vreeland, the legendary former editor at Vogue, was consulting at the Costume Institute and put him to work. “I was very tall and skinny,” says Talley. “I had very good clothes, although very few clothes. I followed the trends, the world of Rive Gauche.” He was an anomaly in the white, upper–class world of high fashion – an African American from a poor background in Durham, North Carolina – but he had something Vreeland and later Anna Wintour would recognise: a belief amounting to fervour in his power to become “the self–made person I am through the mythology of Vogue”.
Talley, who turns 70 this year, sits in the sun room of an exclusive restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, wearing one of his trademark kaftans and breaking off every few moments to converse with the waiter in French. If he is little known beyond the fashion world, that may be about to change with the opening of a documentary next month that tells the story of Talley’s extraordinary trajectory from grandson of sharecroppers to editor-at-large at Vogue; a man who, unlike so many of the pinched and unhappy looking women who guard the gates of high fashion, seems to embody the unfulfilled promise of that world: pure joy.
The documentary, The Gospel According to André, directed by Kate Novack, is a funny and often moving account not only of the fashion industry as seen through Talley’s eyes, but of a much broader American cultural history, reaching back from his days at Vogue to the Jim Crow south in which Talley grew up, and 70s bohemian New York, where he found a home in his early 20s. While Talley’s personal style – the capes, the kaftans, the exaggerated forms of speech – redefined the boundaries of black masculinity, his overall bearing insisted on something the dominant culture denied: that he be permitted to take up more space. “You can be aristocratic without having been born into an aristocratic family,” he says to the camera at one point, and the film is a study of both the scope and limitations of this kind of self-realisation.
It was the twin interests of France and fashion that started Talley on his professional journey. “Darling, of course!” says Talley, when I ask if his early interest in French – after studying it at school, he went on to win a scholarship to read French Literature at Brown University – was partly informed by his interest in style. “Because I was living through the pages of Vogue! My escapism was Vogue and literature; Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Yves Saint Laurent, Sonia Rykiel, Givenchy. It was everything I loved.” He repeats this phrase three times, then turns to the waiter who is in the process of setting down a pistachio souffle. “C’est gentil, merci beaucoup.”
One gets the impression that Talley, grand in all senses of the word, originally modelled himself after Vreeland, a woman he describes as “never frivolous or pretentious” but with whom “every conversation you had was dramatic”. Unlike his idol, however, Talley’s right first to belong, then to progress up the ranks as an editor in fashion magazines was never assured. The appointment of Edward Enninful as the editor of British Vogue last year “was seismic in the history of high fashion,” he says. “Never has there been a man of colour at the helm of Condé Nast Vogue”, and it is hard not to regard Talley, a full generation older than Enninful, as someone whose career has been circumscribed by this lack of a precedent.
For example, “I would love to have been at Vogue in the 60s when Mrs Vreeland was there,” he says dreamily, before rather smartly coming to his senses. “But then I wouldn’t have been at Vogue in the 60s because they wouldn’t have had a black male editor at a fashion magazine the way they did in 1983. In the 60s you rarely had a black model; Naomi Sims or Pat Cleveland, although that was more the early 70s. It was still very much an elitist world, although the fashion was very exciting.”
He says all this blandly; after more than 50 years in the fashion business, from his first job at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, to four seasons as a judge on America’s Next Top Model and many decades at Vogue, Talley has had wearily to accommodate the racism around him. (The only time in the interview he shows anything stronger than measured disdain is when the subject of British Vogue prior to the arrival of Enninful comes up.) He recalls a PR director at a major label. “I was told by people that she was going around Paris calling me Queen Kong. That was the most racist thing I’d ever heard. It didn’t hurt me, I didn’t show it, but I never forgot.”
He would prefer, while lamenting the “cruelty of the fashion world”, to return with boyish enthusiasm to the roots of his interest, those heady days of his childhood in North Carolina when he would tear out the pages of Vogue and stick them to his walls. In those days, the fashion magazine came out twice monthly and each time, Talley would walk “from the black part of town where I lived in my grandmother’s house, across the tracks to Duke University and the campus where they had a newsstand that would sell Vogue. I was too naive to know that I could subscribe to it. I loved the idea of walking and bringing it back. My escape hatch was Vogue.”
The pictures he stuck to his walls – which his grandmother allowed him to paint “Schiaparelli pink; we didn’t know it was Schiaparelli pink, but that’s what it was” – included Vogue portraits of “Naomi Sims, Pat Cleveland, Marisa Berenson, Mrs Vreeland, Loulou de la Falaise photographed by [Richard] Avedon. All those people were part of the fabric of my early developing years.”
It didn’t occur to him to question whether he would belong in this crowd. “I felt like I was included, because there were people I wanted to be like – eccentric, original, people who were artists, writers: Truman Capote, I so identified with him.” At 15, Talley declared that he wanted to be a fashion editor, an announcement that in other households in the American south in 1963 might not have been received with undiluted joy. But Talley was lucky: after the divorce of his parents when he was very young, he went to live with his grandmother, his champion, Bennie Davis.
“My grandmother!” he says. “Unconditional love!” He starts to talk even more rapidly than usual. “One of my uncles came one Sunday after church and said, what do you want to be when you grow up, André? And I said a fashion editor. And he said, what is that? And I said, all I know is that it’s a person who works in fashion on a magazine. And he said, I’ve never heard about boys doing stuff like that, and my grandmother said, leave him alone, let him do whatever he wants, and he will do it well. She wasn’t cultivated, she didn’t read Vogue; she was just doing things by instinct. She loved me unconditionally, and nurtured me. And that gave me the confidence to pursue it.”
The great lessons of his upbringing were, he says, “Grace, and do your homework. Research, research; the foundation of your life is knowledge!” When it was announced, last April, that Enninful would take over from Alexandra Shulman at British Vogue, Talley was over the moon. “Edward is a very talented person, he is very quiet, and he’s so connected to everyone who is important in fashion. When it was announced, I emailed him and said, congratulations, you so deserve it, and he replied: you paved the way.”
It was while working with Vreeland at the Met that André Leon Talley discovered he had an unusual talent for making abstract fashion ideas concrete. Vreeland, then in her 70s, was a character. “She walked on her toes,” says Talley. “You never heard her heels click. She would go into her office and have her little cucumber sandwiches and a tiny thing of vodka or Scotch, and that would get her going.” It was the run-up to an exhibition of costumes from great Hollywood movies and she called Talley into her office to discuss how to stage a gold lame number worn by Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra in 1934. “She said, André: you realise that Cleopatra is the queen of all of Egypt. But she is a teenager! A teenage queen. And she spends all day in her gardens, in the sun, walking her white albino peacocks. She was giving me the thoughts to explore. She didn’t say, go put this dress on a mannequin.”
Talley took the brief and ran with it, asking a technician at the museum if he could use some gold paint, and spray-painting three coats on the mannequin to match the dress so that the effect was “gold on gold, like the sun. She loved it.”
Vreeland, Warhol and Wintour are the three mentors Talley credits with shaping his career. Warhol, he says, for whom Talley worked in the early 70s for $50 a week – answering the telephone, running to “Mrs Brown’s the organic store” to pick up Warhol’s lunch, ultimately editing at Interview magazine – was quiet, generous, perceptive. “He did not judge people; you could say or do anything. Drag queens were as important as Princess Caroline of Monaco. Grace Jones was treated like Caroline Kennedy. It was wonderful to be around him.”
Talley remained friends with Vreeland, meanwhile, until she was into her 80s. “When she retired, I would go to her apartment and read entire books aloud to her. I read her the biography of the Queen of Romania by Hannah Pakula. I read her articles, I read the memoirs of Baron Guy de Rothschild, twice. I would read until 4am. She liked to hear the spoken word. If she got you, she got you for life.”
It is Talley’s friendship with Wintour, however, that is by far the longest and most defining of these working relationships. Famously, she is said to have staged an intervention in 2005 to get Talley to address his obesity and it did actually happen, he says. “She intervened because she was alarmed and cared, and she had the minister from my church there, and the De la Rentas [Oscar and his wife]. I was called into this boardroom in Vogue, and I was flabbergasted.”
Being encouraged to lose weight by Oscar de la Renta and co feels like something we have all been discreetly subjected to all our lives, but anyway, in the first instance, Talley was angry and defensive and refused to take up their offer of a place at Duke University Diet and Fitness Center. “I had to get over the shock.” A year later, however, it sank in that his health was at stake and he set about changing his lifestyle. Of Wintour, he says, “She’s loyal, a loyal friend. One sees the glacial sunglasses and impeccable dresses. But she cares.”
Until recently, American Vogue’s record for promoting models of colour was almost as parlous as that of its British sister title, although Talley, a loyal friend too, focuses on improvements made in the last five years and insists that “under Anna Wintour it’s become very diverse”. I ask if he agreed with Naomi Campbell’s assessment last year that under Shulman, British Vogue was racist.
“I don’t know,” he says thinly, “because I didn’t look at it under Alexandra Shulman.” You didn’t read British Vogue? “I never looked at it. No. I looked at Italian Vogue under Franca Sozzani.”
Why didn’t he look at British Vogue? “I just didn’t. It didn’t amuse me to look at British Vogue. I looked at Franca Sozzani’s Italian Vogue because it took the pulse of the way the world changed; she did an all black issue and it sold out. They reprinted it.” This is a not-very-oblique reference to Shulman’s defence that black models are not famous enough to sell on the cover. “The late Franca Sozzani was a disrupter. So her Vogue was very influential.”
In 2005, Talley flew to Mar-a-Lago to help dress Melania Knauss before her wedding to Donald Trump. As a first lady, he says, she has a certain “robotic elegance”, but back then he found her “very intelligent and well-spoken; she speaks several languages. I emailed to tell her I thought she looked great at the inaugural, in Ralph Lauren blue.”
If she called him now for style help, would he oblige? “First of all, she wouldn’t call me because she would know that I would probably be reluctant to go. I would perhaps consider it; but I know that I would be crucified if I went to help Melania Trump. It would be really detrimental to me. Although I do think she’s wonderful, a wonderful mother, and she has beautiful manners. She is not a snob. She was polite and gracious and had great patience.”
Talley reserves his harshest words for those in the fashion industry who have, as he says, “dropped him” since he left Vogue in 2013. “It’s very backstabbing, viperish, cruel,” he says, and “people have dropped me because I’m no longer viable on the front row. I will survive, and go through the chiffon trenches as I always have.” But, he says, “I feel sort of lonely.”
He has never lived with anyone or had what he considers to be a significant romantic relationship. “I regret that,” he says, but “I was too busy with my career.” And after decades of living high on the illusory wealth of a Condé Nast expense account, he is finding this current period financially chilly. “Money’s tight,” he says.
We are not in a golden age of fashion right now, says Talley. “The Oscars red carpet does not inspire me any more, and then the next morning you get up and can have the dress at Zara. It’s the strapless dress and a train. No one goes with something unique the way Sharon Stone wore a turtle neck and a skirt from Armani and a coat, or Barbra Streisand in pussycat bellbottoms.”
He prefers to look to the past; to the costume exhibitions he curates at centres of design around the country and beyond that to the woman to whom he owes it all. “She still adored me,” he says of his grandmother, who died in 1989, having lived to see him well into his period of success at Vogue. “When I went home I wore maxi coats to the floor, with gold braid and buttons I bought in New York. She didn’t blink an eye.” He smiles at the memory of a woman whose vision was, perhaps, even more startlingly free of the times than his own. “I could do no wrong.”
• The Gospel According to André will be released in the US on 25 May and in the UK in the autumn
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010