A New Documentary About André Leon Talley Traces His Southern Roots and Unimaginable Rise in High Fashion

 

A WISE AND SEASONED arbiter of style, André Leon Talley has been cutting a fabulous figure in the fashion world for more than 40 years. Before he became a fixture at Vogue, he worked at Andy Warhol’s Factory, volunteered with Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, and did stints at Women’s Wear Daily, W, and The New York Times. “The Glamour and Romance of Oscar de la Renta,” the traveling exhibition curated by Talley, is currently on view at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C.

When the likes of Rihanna, Solange, Ruth Negga, and Janelle Monae ascend the stairs at the Met Ball, which is chaired by Vogue Editor in Chief Anna Wintour, they eagerly seek the approval and imprimatur of Talley. He returns the enthusiasm, greeting the guests, discussing their gowns, and bestowing his gaze and praise. “You look fabulous, lovely,” he told Kerry Washington last year at the annual museum gala. “How beautiful is your dress. …Beautiful,” he said to Lupita Nyong’o. “The color is like a wonderful fresh melon. Delicious.”

The best stories are those in which outsized visions are made reality. “The Gospel According to André,” a new documentary about Talley explores the grandeur of his contemporary life and wrestles with his determination early on. His size (he is 6’6″), race, and sexuality engendered bullying. “White boys decided to throw rocks at me at Duke because I was walking across campus,” he says in the trailer. “He was outstanding and stood out because of his height and mannerisms,” a relative says.

“He was outstanding and stood out because of his height and mannerisms.”

Described as an intimate portrait, “The Gospel According to André” is directed by Kate Novack. The production team behind the film also made “Page One: Inside The New York Times” and “The First Monday in May” about the Met Gala.

The documentary also explores lesser known aspects of Talley’s personal life, specifically his roots in the Jim Crow South. Born in 1949 in Washington, D.C., he was raised by his grandmother in Durham, N.C. He says going to church was the most important thing in life. His affinity for fashion sprouted during the weekly ritual where the aisle between the pews was a virtual runway.

“I loved my home and my family,” Talley told Vogue recently. “I went to school and to church and I did what I was told and I didn’t talk much. But I knew life was bigger than that. I wanted to meet Diana Vreeland and Andy Warhol and Naomi Sims and Pat Cleveland and Edie Sedgwick and Loulou de la Falaise. And I did. And I never looked back.”

The production notes for the documentary include Q&As with Talley and Novack providing insights about how the project came about and the experience making the film:

    Q: There have obviously been numerous fashion documentaries and you mentioned that there have been a number of fashion documentaries that André has been in. How did you approach this film and try and carve out a little space so that it has its own identity?

    Kate Novack: I wanted the movie to always operate on two levels, both within the genre of “fashion documentary” but also as a piece of American history, because I think that André is an important figure in American cultural history. He is one of the very first African American men to have a position of visible importance within the fashion industry. We have a long history of African American performers in front of the camera, but many fewer behind the camera shaping the images we see. I love fashion documentaries, and so many of them are so moving. I think that fashion can be really moving, and I think that André’s love of fashion is very, very pure. As a boy, he fell in love with fashion, so I think that I always wanted it to be a movie that could allow viewers to experience, say, the beauty of what Yves Saint Laurent was doing on the runway in Paris in the 1970s, but also the place where André’s love for fashion came from which was the Black Church and the women in his family.

André is an important figure in American cultural history. He is one of the very first African American men to have a position of visible importance within the fashion industry. We have a long history of African American performers in front of the camera, but many fewer behind the camera shaping the images we see. — Kate Novack


André Leon Talley and Anna Wintour backstage at Carolina Herrera during Spring 2015 Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. | Photo by Michael Loccisano, Getty Images; May 2, 2011: André Leon Talley attends the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty Costume Institute Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. | Photo by Randy Brook, Film Magic-Getty Images

 

    Q: There’s something about the optics of that, of just seeing a non-white person in these spaces, that’s obviously had a ton of impact on the culture at large.

    Kate Novack: One of the things that I remember most clearly about those Q&As for The First Monday in May happened at the Paris Theater in New York City. A young African American man stood up and he said to André, “I moved to New York to study fashion. My parents don’t believe that what I do is real, and you are the only reason that I know that this is possible, and that I can do this.” Andre had done a conversation with the painter Kehinde Wiley in which they talked about this idea of radical presence, in which just being present represents a form of radicalism. I think this is so true for Andre. Tamron Hall doesn’t work in fashion, but we see her in the film being fitted by André and she explains what it meant for her as a young woman of color growing up in Texas to just see him.

    Q: Did you have any idea of what to expect from the experience?

    André Leon Talley: No. I did not have any idea about what to expect from the experience, and it was a rough going at first. It’s very intrusive, it’s like you are exposed, like chest surgery. It’s like you open the cavity of your chest and you expose yourself on a surgical table. I had no idea what it was going to be. I just trusted Kate enough and became very trusting of her, and her trajectory, her sophisticated research, and respect of my story, of my life. She delved into the past enough to impress me to continue to go through with it.

    Q: You’re someone who has spent a great deal of time on camera, but being in a documentary is not the same thing.

    André Leon Talley: It’s not the same. I’ve opened my heart and my soul and my life. And I am a very private and shy person, although I come off as a very flamboyant person. I use clothes as armor, clothes are my security blanket and my clothes and outfits are my armor against the world of the chiffon trenches. So the documentary has been a very enriching experience. I think it’s a very sensitive and extraordinary and yet elegant story of my life, as told by Kate, but it was very, very brutal for me to continue to go through all the machinations and all the sit-down talks and everything. It’s totally different from being on a talk-show or panel or being interviewed by Charlie Rose on PBS with Karl Lagerfeld. It’s all very different and it’s very, very challenging and overwhelming, but I think that it’s a document that she wanted to do, a story she wanted to tell and I’m glad that I did it.

“I am a very private and shy person, although I come off as a very flamboyant person. I use clothes as armor, clothes are my security blanket and my clothes and outfits are my armor against the world of the chiffon trenches. So the documentary has been a very enriching experience.”
— André Leon Talley

An unlikely style icon, Talley has risen to the pinnacle of the fashion universe where his presence and personality literally and figuratively tower over the industry’s most powerful players.

“You can be an aristocrat without having been born into an aristocratic family,” Talley says. Will.i.am declares, “He’s the Nelson Mandela of couture, the Kofi Annan of what you got on.” CT

 

“The Gospel According to André” opens in New York and Los Angeles May 25, with additional theaters added June 1, June 8 and the following weeks. In advance of the film’s debut, Talley is participating in special screenings and discussions:

 

TOP IMAGE: André Leon Talley in “The Gospel According to André”, a Magnolia Pictures release. | Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

 

BOOKSHELF
Two early books capture the life of André Leon Talley. In “A.L.T.: A Memoir,” Talley writes, “My grandmother and Mrs. Vreeland had similar ways of appreciating luxury.” Described as a monograph, “A.L.T. 365+” offers a slice of one year in the life of the fashion force.

 

 

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