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André Leon Talley, fashion journalist, 1948-2022

As a young boy growing up in the segregated American South, André Leon Talley dreamt of living a glamorous life like the ones illustrated in the pages of Vogue.

Talley, the witty, ardently stylish, larger-than-life editor, who has died at the age of 73, did that and far more, becoming the first and only black creative director of US Vogue, from 1988 to 1995, the author of two memoirs and a fixture at fashion shows, Studio 54 and the Met Gala. He counted among his close friends Karl Lagerfeld, Diana Vreeland, Anna Wintour, Paloma Picasso and Lee Radziwill. His commitment to his faith and the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem kept him grounded, he often said.

“No one saw the world in a more elegant and glamorous way than you did,” the designer Diane von Furstenberg wrote in a tribute on Instagram. “No one was more soulful and grander . . . I will miss your loud screams and your loyal friendship.”

In fashion, Talley was celebrated for his encyclopedic knowledge of runway collections, his outlandish pronouncements (“It is a famine of beauty!”) and his love of dressing up. Standing at 6ft 6” and often clothed in a sweeping cape with matching bespoke boots by Manolo Blahnik, he was impossible to miss at parties and shows, frequently stationing himself by the front door. He had a booming voice and a joyous, infectious laugh; one often heard Talley before seeing him.

“André is one of the last of those great editors who knows what they are looking at, knows what they are seeing, knows where it came from,” the American designer Tom Ford remarked in the 2018 documentary about Talley.

André Leon Talley and Anna Wintour watch Chanel’s fashion show at the Grand Palais, Paris © Michel Dufour/WireImage/Getty

He remained romantically unattached throughout his adult life. “Sex was not on my radar,” he said in his memoir. “Success was.” 

Talley was raised by his grandmother, Bennie Frances Davis, who worked as a maid on the Duke University campus. He developed an early passion for French culture and the world he saw chronicled in fashion magazines. “To my 12-year-old self, raised in the segregated South, the idea of a black man playing any kind of role in this world seemed an impossibility,” he recalled in his 2020 memoir, The Chiffon Trenches.

He won a scholarship to Brown University, where he acquired a masters degree in French studies and an introduction to the legendary 1960s Vogue editor Vreeland, who hired Talley as an intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and became a close mentor and friend until her death in 1989. Through Vreeland, Talley landed a job with Andy Warhol at Interview magazine, spending his evenings dressed up to the nines and rubbing shoulders with Diana Ross and Princess Caroline of Monaco at Studio 54 before retreating to his modest accommodation at the 23rd Street YMCA.

It was while on assignment for Interview that Talley met Lagerfeld, who was so dazzled by the young editor’s knowledge of 18th-century France that he began dressing him in his cast-off Hilditch & Key shirts and sending him handwritten notes almost daily.

Alongside Vreeland and Wintour, it was the most important friendship of Talley’s life, opening doors for him socially but also professionally. In his book, Talley partly credits his relationship with Lagerfeld for his promotion to Paris bureau chief at Women’s Wear Daily, and later to his appointment as creative director of Vogue under Wintour. (The rest he credited to his style, impeccable French and clean copy.)

A photo of André Leon Talley and Karl LagerfeldAndré Leon Talley partly credits his relationship with Karl Lagerfeld for his promotion to Paris bureau chief at Women’s Wear Daily, and later to his appointment as creative director of Vogue © Jemal Countess/WireImage/Getty

Talley said he “barely noticed” racism in the fashion or media circles in which he travelled, and it was only when writing his memoir that he began to reckon with it. He recalled the Yves Saint Laurent publicist who called him “Queen Kong” behind his back and the socialite who had him investigated before allowing her daughter to intern for him.

It was a fairytale story with a sad ending. By the 2010s, Talley had been sidelined at Vogue and was battling a binge-eating disorder. Lagerfeld terminated the friendship, after being asked to help back an exhibition Talley was organising. Last year, he was served an eviction order from the house he rented in White Plains, New York, from former Manolo Blahnik executive George Malkemus and his partner Tony Yurgaitis, who claimed Talley owed them more than $500,000 in rent.

Despite his many disappointments, Talley never lost his love of fashion or the people who brought it to life. He was proud of what he had achieved, and the path he paved for other black creatives, among them British Vogue editor Edward Enninful.

“RIP dearest Andre,” Enninful wrote on Instagram. “Without you, there would be no me. Thank you for paving the way.”


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