One of fashion’s brightest figures has passed. André Leon Talley, bon vivant and fashion editor, passed away at the age of 73. The New Yorker described him as “the only one” for succeeding as a powerful Black editor in an overwhelmingly white field, and he says as much himself in the opening words of his memoir “The Chiffon Trenches”: “For so long I was the only person of color in the upper echelons of fashion journalism… a black man [who] survived and thrived in the chiffon trenches.”
“A black superhero,” “The Nelson Mandela of couture” are just some of the ways ALT gets described as in the documentary “The Gospel According to André.”. “He was so many things he wasn’t supposed to be,” said Whoopi Goldberg.
He taught people to aspire to be greater than themselves, to live and breathe fashion, and to break barriers. In honor of him, we’ve collected some of our favorite quotes from his memoir.
“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. To think of where I’ve come from, where we’ve come from, in my lifetime, and where we are today, is amazing. And yet, of course, we still have so far to go.”
ALT begins his memoir with an acknowledgement of his rare place in high fashion as a Black man, as well as the insidious ways racism continues to rear its ugly head. He dedicates a portion of the introduction on the joy he felt about Beyonce’s Vogue covers and her celebration of blackness.
“Never give up on your dreams, and do your homework. ‘Homework’ can mean a lot of things, but do your homework in life. Style will get you up the steps into the revolving door; substance and knowledge will allow you access to create new horizons.”
ALT had a deep knowledge of fashion, art, and culture. As the New York Times pointed out, he had a master’s in French studies and wrote a thesis on the writers Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert. Anna Wintour herself described his knowledge of fashion history as “impeccable.”
“Condé Nast is special in its ability to spit people out.”
In “Chiffon Trenches,” ALT got candid about his complicated relationship with Vogue, Condé Nast, and Wintour, who he said threw him out when he was no longer deemed cool. “I lived through the golden age of fashion journalism. Vogue gave me a great life, a great memory of richness. I saw the best in people, along with the worst, when they feel you are no longer of value,” he said.
As for Wintour, he had one wish: “My hope is that she will find a way to apologize before I die, or if I linger on incapacitated before I pass, she will show up at my bedside, with an extended hand clasped into mine, and say, ‘I love you. You have no idea how much you have meant to me.’”
“My way of approaching diversity in the world of fashion was to communicate with the power of suggestion.”
ALT describes himself finessing diversity out of the fashion industry—when designers were picking out models, he would suggest names like Naomi Campbell. “Designers would say they couldn’t find anyone of color who looked right for their show, which was just hard to believe. Pushing back in such a subversive way felt bold and daring,” he said.
“Lost in fantasy, that’s what it’s all about. I wanted people to think: What if?”
He says this about his famous “Gone with the Wind”-inspired shoot with Campbell. Scarlett O’Hara wasn’t black, and “a black woman would never have been able to play a
grandiose grande dame of the nineteenth century.” But in the realm of fantasy and fashion, it was possible.
“I intend to leave in my will that I am to be cremated in a caftan.”
Same. That’s it. “Caftans are my wellness retreat in terms of my daily, individual style. Do they hide the worst human flaws? Yes! Are they elegant? Yes!” ALT makes a great apologia for the much-maligned caftan.
“My personal style evolved over decades, and it is fundamentally the awareness that a man can dress with splendor, in full-blown over-the-topness, and be admired for it.”
ALT was getting fully glammed up and OTT long before all the current crop of fashion boys (and Billy Porter, sorry) were doing it, and at a time when doing so would have meant facing great societal pushback.
“The maid’s uniform was the little black dress for the suppressed, repressed, and oppressed.”
One of his “greatest regrets” is not putting a spotlight on the maid’s uniform for his exhibit “The Little Black Dress.” “Its inclusion would have been a symbol for all the maids who wore the uniform, fed families, and saved and scrimped and put children through fine Southern schools of higher education. And for all the maids who overcame what that little black dress symbolized.”
“A person’s words and deeds can make an indelible impression upon the soul. You can make a person feel loved through the simplest things in life. It’s not the extravagant gifts that count. It’s the thought, the gesture behind it.”