André Leon Talley Biography
Raised in Humble Yet Luxurious Home, Earned Ivy League Degree, Published Memoir, Selected writings
Long known to readers of Vogue magazine's American edition, André Leon Talley is one of the fashion industry's most influential stylesetters. Famous among fashionistas for his flamboyant, often custom-made outfits that accentuate his six-feet, seveninch frame, as well as by his booming baritone, Talley is undoubtedly the most prominent African American in the high-stakes world of designer fashion, a world which revolves around the semi-annual runway shows in New York, Paris, London, and Milan. The supremely confidant editor-at-large at Vogue has never been hesitant to chastise designers for not using enough women of color on the runway, and has also championed a number of young African-American designers over the course of his long career.
Born in the late 1940s, Talley was the grandson of a sharecropper. His father drove a taxi for a living, and he was raised by his grandmother, Bennie Frances Davis, whom he later wrote about extensively in his 2003 memoir, A.L.T. A domestic servant in the Durham, North Carolina, area, Davis was a tremendous influence on her grandson's life. Though she worked five days a week cleaning someone else's house, theirs was immaculate, too, despite their hardships. "We always had clothes to wear and food on the table," he wrote, "but we lived on limited means. Our roof leaked buckets of water when the snow melted, and if the pipes froze, my grandmother heated water on the wood-burning stove so I could take a 'bird bath' before school." His grandmother's life, he wrote, revolved around her family and her faith. "She worked hard at her job and kept a clean, welcoming home, so that those in her care … could all serve God. What this meant at a practical level was that every surface in our home glowed—not only through the application of soap, paste wax, or ammonia, but also through the underlying working of love. What it also meant was that my childhood was, by anyone's standards, a rich one."
Raised in Humble Yet Luxurious Home
Talley's grandmother took care of him and her own mother, who was called China. Both women were hard workers and did the household laundry the old-fashioned way—by hand. He recalled watching China set about on this task when he was very little, and before she grew too old to do it. His great-grandmother, he wrote in A.L.T., "boiled our laundry in a big black iron cauldron in the yard. She would set up everything under our peach trees, for shade. She would build a good fire from wood she had chopped herself." The sheets were then wrung out by hand, and hung to dry on a clothesline that was even wiped clean before the laundry went near it. Later, inside, they were ironed. "Our house was full of such simple luxuries," Talley explained in his memoir. "Until I left home, I never used a towel that hadn't been ironed—and had no idea how much I would miss them when I was out in the world."
Talley grew up in a the pre-civil rights era South, when the lives of blacks from all classes, but especially of the poorest, were restricted. Such constraints were met with silence but also a measure of pride and dignity. Talley sat down for lengthy interview with his friend, Italian designer Miuccia Prada, for the November issue of Interview in 2003, and recalled that "for a long time my grandmother would not allow white people to come into our house. That was her rule. The only white man who ever came into the house was the coroner." Talley attended all-black schools in Durham, and remembered his junior high school French teacher as another profound influence on his life and later career.
Talley gravitated toward fashion in his teens, and was a devoted reader of Vogue, which he first found in the local library. "Vogue was my hobby, and no one in my family ever had a copy of the magazine in the house until I did," he told Prada in Interview. "The big experience was on Sundays after church. I'd wash the dishes, walk to the white part of town … to the newsstand that was open on Sundays. That was my big joy." Another writer once asked Talley where he seemed to have gotten his unerring sense of style, and he credited Vogue as well as his grandmother and her world, especially Sunday services. "You couldn't open your mouth unless you were told to speak, so you just sat there and you just had to observe," he told the Houston Chronicle's Clifford Pugh. "You saw beautiful images of women, beautiful church hats and gloves. These were not people of great means and wealth, but they had the most wonderful style—especially on Sundays."
Earned Ivy League Degree
On the pages of Vogue and in other fashion-centric publications, Talley's imposing frame has often been photographed in colorful, well-made clothes, some of them custom items. He claims to have dressed somewhat eccentrically even in high school, though he did try to fit in. "When you're a teenager from a small town and you are different, you are victimized by people's criticism and the way they look at you," he told Prada in the Interview article. "That was a problem in high school, so I tried to conform a bit; but mostly I just stayed to myself." That changed when he left home for the first time and moved to Providence, Rhode Island, to attend Brown University. He had won a scholarship to the Ivy League school, and planned on a career as French teacher, just like his junior high role model. He also befriended a raft of creative types from the nearby Rhode Island School of Design, one of the most prestigious art schools in the United States.
After earning his master's degree in French studies, Talley moved to New York City and began moving in a heady, fashionable, and avant-garde arty scene, whose denizens included Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger. At the time, there were few African Americans in that crowd, and even fewer in fashion journalism, where he began as a reporter for Women's Wear Daily at the age of 28. Only at that first job, he conceded, did he encounter racism, "from the female staffers at WWD, who were very insecure about who I was," he told Constance C.R. White in an Essence interview years later. "I just kept going. I once overheard someone say, 'Why is [Chanel designer] Karl Lagerfeld writing to him? What common interest could they have?' I met Karl Lagerfeld through Andy Warhol in 1975. We became friends and still are."
Talley eventually became a protégé of Diana Vreeland, the legendary editor-in-chief of Vogue from 1962 to 1971. Vreeland, a famous tastemaker and style icon whom Talley also writes of extensively in A.L.T., hired him to serve as her assistant in her role as director of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for which she staged lavish, trendsetting exhibitions. Talley went on to work for Interview, the New York Times, and other publications before finally landing at Vogue himself as its fashion news director in 1983. Five years later, he was named its creative director, and wielded tremendous power in the fashion world with that title. He managed to use his position to champion the work of up-and-coming African-American designers, including Stephen Burrows and Patrick Robinson, and also reminded designers that they could stand to add more black models in their runway shows and advertising campaigns. As he told Prada in the Interview piece, "sometimes when I sit and watch a fashion show I get totally wrapped up in what is in front of me, in the fantasy of it and what it might mean to the person who will be wearing the clothes. Then the show's over, and I realize there has not been one person of color on the runway!"
Talley left Vogue in 1995 for W, a competitor, to serve as its Paris fashion editor and then bureau chief in the city. He returned to Vogue in 1998 with the title of editor-at-large, and began writing a well-received column called "Stylefax," which was eventually replaced by the "Life with André" monthly feature. He had been working on his memoir for some time by then, after the deaths of both his grandmother and Vreeland in 1989. A.L.T. was published by Villard Books in 2003, and earned good reviews for its candor. "Talley is the African American fashion authority; no one rise has risen to his ranks," declared Suzanne Rust in Black Issues Book Review. "The pleasant discovery here is of Talley the man."
Two years later, Talley followed with A.L.T. 365+, a lavishly illustrated tome that chronicled one year in his life in images taken with humble disposable cameras, which he carried around and also gave out to his friends. The snapshots of his glamorous life make up the bulk of the book, but its roots run far deeper. After snapping a photo of Prada heading toward her corporate jet, he realized "I could do a book based on everything I learned from my father," Talley told CNN's Larry King on his weeknight interview program, "who was the son of a sharecropper and he was a taxi driver all of his life. And the only thing he [had] that was luxury was cameras and pictures. He took pictures of everyone. Everyone in our family. He took pictures of his customers. He took pictures of all the family occasions, the reunions, the funerals, the weddings, the parties and so this book is basically dedicated to my father, who is deceased."
In 2003, Talley was honored with the Eugenia Sheppard Award for outstanding fashion journalism from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. "Personally, I think they could've given me this award earlier in my career," Talley admitted in the Interview chat with Prada. "But if you say that, then people say, 'Oh, he carries a chip on his shoulder.' But as a black person, you are aware of your position if you're the only black person in the front row of a fashion show for so long."
A.L.T.: A Memoir, Villard Books, 2003.
A.L.T. 365+, PowerHouse Books, 2005.
Talley, André Leon, A.L.T.: A Memoir, Villard Books, 2003.
Black Issues Book Review, November-December 2003, p. 68.
Essence, June 2003, p. 140.
Houston Chronicle, October 30, 2003, p. 01.
Interview, November 2003, p. 108.
Vanity Fair, April 2005, p. 116.
Vogue, July 2005, p. 32.
WWD, September 23, 2002, p. 7.
Interview with Larry King, Larry King Live, CNN, July 2, 2005.
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