It’s not often that a person’s name and legacy becomes synonymous with fashion, especially when they aren’t designers. But you can hardly think of that picturesque world and not think of him. He was an almost ethereal presence with his 6’7” stature and luxuriously embellished capes flowing behind him as he found his front row seat to essentially any important fashion related event around the world.
Earlier this year the fashion world lost yet another industry pioneer. André Leon Talley passed away on Jan 18, 2022 of a heart attack. Anyone that was anyone and more, couldn’t help but share their condolences and share their seemingly life changing experiences they had just from knowing him.
Talley was born on October 16, 1948 and was raised by his grandmother, Binnie Francis Davis in the Jim Crow South. His humble beginnings were that of what he described as a leaky roof during the winter and warm bath water that was heated up on their wood burning stove that he called having a “bird bath”.
Talley’s first encounter with fashion was through his grandmother’s lavish church ensembles and his stumbling upon a Vogue magazine in the local library that was located in the white part of town. It was flipping through those pages of editorial opulence that Talley unknowingly changed the trajectory of his life.
“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.”
After his somewhat timid highschool years, Talley went off to college at North Carolina University to study French literature – and he excelled, earning a scholarship to the Ivy League, Brown University to obtain his masters in French studies in hopes of becoming a French teacher. But after his educational journey, Talley packed his bags and headed to New York City.
Even in the big city and in that booming, fashionable nightlife scene, Talley was still an outsider as one of the few Black people in that crowd. But it was in this otherworldly scene he was able to meet Andy Warhol, who then introduced him to Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld.
“I went to Brown University to be a French professor, and I didn’t know what I was doing, except that I loved French. When I got to Paris, and I could speak French, I know how much it helped me to establish relationships with Karl Lagerfeld, with the late Yves Saint Laurent. French, it just helps you if you’re in fashion. The French people started style.”
No matter who he met, Talley seemed to impress everyone. In the early days of his career, he was a journalist for Women’s Wear Daily, before his mentor, French-American fashion editor, Diana Vreeland, helped him secure a job as an assistant at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine.
Talley simply had a knack for understanding and being able to articulate fashion on a level that was almost prodigal. He jumped from Interview, the New York Times, W, Ebony, and more, before finding his place at Vogue where he became the magazines first Black creative director.
As Talley climbed the ranks of the incredibly cut throat world of fashion, he never lost touch with who he was and what he stood for. He used his incredible influence at his publications to highlight Black fashion talent and urge designers to take advantage of their platform to be more representative. In an interview with designer Miuccia Prada, Talley stated…
“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!”
It wasn’t even just Black talent that Talley pioneered for. He understood the importance of equal representation on all levels. During his time at Vogue in the 90’s, Talley was responsible for including lots of Asian designers in the magazine such as Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, and Issey Miyake. In fact, it was Talley’s mere mentioning of Rei Kawakubo’s designs that led Comme des Garçons into the American mainstream. Years later it was Talley who introduced Taiwanese designer Jason Wu to Michelle Obama who wore an original design at her husband’s inauguration, helping Wu cement his place as a fashionable force in the industry.
Even designers like John Galliano and Rick Owens credit much of their success to Talley’s shere motivation to mentor and help people succeed.
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As time went on, Talley only continued to leave his mark on the industry with a career that spanned six decades. His influence and importance cannot be understated. He simply meant so much to not only the fashion world, but the world at large. He wasn’t just a pioneer for models and designers, he was a pioneer for the betterment of humanity. Fashion may be come-and-go, but Talley wasn’t. And neither is his legacy.