Out of all fields, the fashion industry is consistent with changes and uniqueness. Becoming an icon requires vision and passion unlike any other. The life and legacy of André Leon Talley are both a celebration and reminder of the beauty and struggles of fashion–and his accomplishments and impact put him on Project Bold Life’s list of 2022’s Lives Boldly Lived (and lost).
(If you missed the last installment–on fashion icon Issey Miyake–you can check it out here!)
Early Life and Education
Born in Washington on October 16, 1948, Talley was the son of taxi driver William Caroll Talley and Alma Talley. However, the couple’s low income and poor living conditions made it impossible to raise their son. The problem left two-month-old André under the care of his grandmother, Bennie Frances Davis, in Durham, North Carolina.
Raised by his grandmother since then, André grew up educated with good manners in the Southern church. As a child, he idolized the Kennedys and was obsessed with France, using it as an escape from the dull and predictable life in North Carolina. It also offered the young André solace from his terrible experience with college students who treated him exceptionally poorly.
André’s grandmother was influential in his upbringing, life, and taste in fashion, claiming that his uncommon flair came from her. Bennie Davis’s job as a maid for the men’s campus at Duke University helped her grandson better access to books and learning. In his teens, André discovered Vogue in one of his adventures in the town’s library and became an avid reader. His university years began at North Carolina Central University as a major in French Studies. Soon after, he received a scholarship grant to Brown University to finish his M.A in French studies with the initial intention of starting a career in teaching.
“I know what it is like to be brought up with unconditional love. In my life that came from my grandmother.” – André Leon Talley
Entry and Rise to Fashion
André’s door to the fashion industry opened during a chance meeting with the then-Vogue editor Caroline Donovan, convincing him to move to New York. In 1974, he volunteered and worked as an apprentice of Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Under her tutelage, André learned to speak the language of style, fantasy, and literature. Impressed with his performance during his apprenticeship, Vreeland helped André secure work at Andy Warhol’s Factory and the Interview Magazine.
During his time at the Interview, André met the designer Karl Lagerfeld, whose tastes and intellect became his guide when he started working in Paris. His time in France allowed him to form influential, long-lasting relationships after working with prominent names in fashion like Yves Saint Laurent and John Galliano.
André’s career flourished, covering fashion shows in Paris, writing articles, and styling photographs until he became the first African-American man to work in high fashion. But his success and closeness to the French fashion aristocrats caused outcry and jealousy. As his fame grew, he frequently became a target of racial barbs and was often referred to as Queen Kong.
In 1983, André started his career in Vogue as a fashion news director and later became the magazine’s creative director and editor-at-large.
“I earned my position not because I was a beautiful, skinny – you can look at the pictures – articulate black man. But because I had done my homework and my degrees. I never thought about being a man of color in my career until recently.” – André Leon Talley
Life As a Fashion Giant
André was a giant in the fashion industry, not only with his style and influence, but with his build and voice. He was well-known for dressing in flamboyant, custom-made outfits highlighting his six-foot-seven frame, like his iconic lengthy, bright-colored capes.
He had a talent for reading fashion, not only its look but its origins, how it resonates, and its other meaning. His position in the fashion industry gave him more resources and influence, and he used them to advocate more diversity and inclusion within the field. André became the voice of all African-American models and designers, pushing for their equal representation in fashion, and encouraging many designers to feature black models in their runway shows.
In addition, he lived a bold and exciting life. A member of the LGBTQ+ community, André had been open about his sexuality from the get-go. Living in the 70s and 80s as a gender-fluid African-American man was full of challenges and deadly threats, but he never let his fear stop him from showing the world his true self.
André’s fashion career spanned over six decades, and his influence as a style-setter, fashion journalist, critic, and creative director continues to be an awe-inspiring, undefeatable feat within the industry.
“I’d like to be remembered as someone who made a difference in the lives of young people — that I nurtured someone and taught them to pursue their dreams and their careers, to leave a legacy. You cannot live your life in the elitist world of fashion and not step out or you’re disconnected. You have to realize that fashion is not the endgame.” – André Leon Talley
73-year-old André Leon Talley passed away on January 18, 2022, in a hospital in White Plains, New York, after a series of health struggles.
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