Image Courtesy of NBC News.
When we talk about history, there are certain names that are known all around the world. Even if we are not history experts, we have a general idea of who these people were. We know about Albert Einstein and his great accomplishments in Science. We are familiar with Napoleon Bonaparte’s military strategies, and we have heard about a certain John F. Kennedy being the President of the United States at some point in history.
But there are certain names that are not so well known in history. It is not that we don’t have enough information about them. It’s just that books and historians often under look these stories.
The whole concept of Black history and African-American history is still a matter of debate in our political spectrum. Just this last January, Florida’s Department of Education rejected a course on African American studies, claiming it indoctrinates students to a specific political agenda. But in political fashion, we believe that history cannot be erased with a political mandate. We believe that outstanding people of color in any field are as relevant as the rest of the outstanding people featured in history books. We believe that in order to have a political agenda and a true understanding of history and the people around us, we must be familiar with different versions of history, with those characters who may not be on the cover of History books, but are most definitely a very important part of history.
Today we are going to talk about a relevant figure in fashion. Someone whose name and face are not as well recognized as they should. Someone who had to swim against the tide in order to start a career in fashion, and make political fashion statements along the way. And even after decades of outstanding success didn’t get enough credit for his work due to racial biases. His name is André Leon Talley.
Talley was the editor at large of both magazine. Some of his accomplishments include breaking the racial gap in the fashion industry.
Andre Leon Talley’s early years
André Leon Talley had a great talent for networking.
His taste in fashion and his great eye when looking for talent and emerging designers are some of the qualities that made Leon Talley such a remarkable figure in Vogue.
At a very young age, Talley was taken to Durham, North Carolina, and his grandmother raised him. He grew up in a very conservative environment, but still, one where he was loved.
Talley’s grandmother became the most important person in his life. They went to church every Sunday, and as he recalls, the church was a place in which African American culture was celebrated and appreciated. It was also a place where fashion played an interesting role. People took out their daily work uniforms to wear their Sunday’s Best clothing. Headpieces, handbags, jewelry suits, and glasses were all seen every Sunday.
His grandmother owned several hats. She had velvet hats, winter hats, summer hats, formal hats, and informal hats. There was a very interesting thought process of putting together an outfit and choosing the right hat for it. All this fascinated the little boy. At a very young age, Talley understood that fashion and glamour don’t have wealth as a requirement.
In most of the photos of André Leon Talley at the peak of his success, we see him wearing a cape. He owned several capes in different colors, textures, prints, lengths, and proportions. For Talley, capes represented a special occasion. Royalty in special ceremonies, heroes, wealth, and fashion icons. It was around the time that Barbra Streisand released her song Second Hand Rose, which made the fashionista consider thrift shopping as a way to get closer to fashion. So in New York City, he bought his first cape. It was less than five dollars, but it represented his very first interaction with what would later become his signature cape.
At a very young age, Talley discovered Vogue magazine in a public library. Talley recalls being fascinated by the world this magazine portrayed. A world where women looked beautiful and self-confident. The glamour, the extravagance, the colors, and the stories behind each fashion editorial captivated him so much that he kept getting more and more familiar with fashion.
His connections while he was a student and his creativity got him an unpaid apprenticeship with Diane Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. After that, he got a job to work at Andy Warhol’s factory and Interview Magazine. It was only a matter of time before Talley kept climbing the ladder until he began creating those stories on fashion editorials that he used to fantasize about when he was very young.
Talley was very good at storytelling and developing strong concepts that could be easily told through the pages of magazines. His styling, and familiarization with history and fashion history, got him to become the editor-at-large of Vogue magazine.
André Leon Talley breaking barriers in fashion
André Leon Talley broke many barriers of race in fashion. During many fashion weeks in Paris, Milan, New York, and other fashion capitals, he was the only black person sitting in the front row. He was able to have a seat at these tables, although he knew he was constantly being stereotyped and his goals were diminished by his coworkers, many of whom he respected and considered friends.
But it was during the last years of his life that Leon Talley opened up about the challenges he faced in the fashion industry. He particularly shared what it meant to be an openly gay Black person in the fashion industry. The stereotypes that associate black people with anger and sassiness made many people in the fashion industry not take Leon Talley’s work seriously. He recalls being called “Queen Kong”, as a nickname that makes fun of his race, his body, and his sexual orientation altogether. He knew that he didn’t look like the people in fashion working around him. He understood that white privilege is real, is prevalent, and it is present in many industries, including creative industries.
The racial diversity that we see in creative jobs in the fashion industry is in many ways thanks to Talley’s prevalence and tough skin as one of the first people with this background in a position of power in the fashion world.
His eye for emerging talent
In the 2000’s, Talley was walking by a window display when he saw the work of a young and talented Rick Owens. Leon Talley called Owens and told him he saw his work, and he thought he should meet with Anna Wintour. We now know how big of a talent Rick Owens is. His Californian background, his edginess and boldness in working with leather makes him a recognizable designer with a distinctive aesthetic. There are dozens of these examples that impacted fashion. It wasn’t just the life of Owens that was touched after being seen by Talley. It was also the reputation of Vogue. The fashion magazine is often referred to as the Fashion Bible, a title that carries a lot of weight and creates a lot of expectations. The editor-at-large at Vogue, was able to fulfill these expectations and take them to a whole new level.
During the 90’s, the supermodel era bloomed. Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss, and Helena Christensen were on the cover of magazines. Fashion celebrities and celebrities from the entertainment industry were two different worlds.
It was until the 2000s that Anna Wintour started to mix pop culture with fashion. She began brainstorming fashion covers with singers, actresses, and businesswomen. These blends of worlds helped Vogue reach customers it hadn’t reach before. And the way fashion is understood and perceived became a ubiquitous conversation in music, film, theater, and politics.
As mentioned earlier, Talley had great networking skills. These skills helped him recruit diverse fashion talent and develop stories for his work in fashion editorials.
This particular editorial is very meaningful as it carries Political Fashion.
In a very political fashion editorial, Andrew Leon Talley developed a story on Vanity Fair pages. An editorial named Scarlett in the Hood, was a spoof on Gone with the Wind. Black people were the aristocrats, and white people were the servants. Naomi Campbell stares at the fashion editorial as Scarlett O’Hara in a glamorous Chanel dress. Fashion designer John Galliano was photographed as a servant of the house, and Manolo Blahnik as the gardener.
Talley was very good at putting fashion in a cultural context, developing narratives that are not only visually attractive but that carry a lot of meaning and weight. It was through these pages that he was able to tell a story about black lives being demeaned historically.
Andre Leon Talley & Rihanna
It was during the 2015 Met Gala that Rihanna arrived at the Met Steps wearing what is now one of the most representative attires of the Met Gala. A long yellow Guo Pei gown with astonishing craftsmanship and very dramatic optics in contrast with the red carpet.
Leon Talley described the moment at the Met Steps “I love a girl from humble beginnings who becomes a big star.”
Talley and Rihanna were friends. Two people of color who represent an underrepresented group in mainstream entertainment industry.
Their friendship was such that when Rihanna performed at the Super Bowl Halftime show to millions of people around the world, she paid a tribute to her friend. For her closing performance singing Diamonds, Rihanna wore a red oversized jacket that replicates the silhouette of André Leon Talley’s signature look. She sang “we are beautiful like diamonds in the sky”, looking at the stars and thinking of her friend.
And his legacy?
Many fashion critics suggest that André Leon Talley didn’t get enough credit for his work in the fashion industry. A very easy way to notice this is simply by acknowledging that his name is not as well known as Anna Wintour’s. A big portion of Vogue’s reputation, legacy, and history is because of André Leon Talley’s vision and great fashion eye. But a lot of the recognitions he received talked a lot about his race and his sexual orientation and very little about his intelligence and experience navigating the fashion world.
André Leon Talley passed away in January 2022. His friends and fashionistas miss him and remember him as a one-of-a-kind individual who was very smart, charismatic, and full of energy, creativity, and persistence to dedicate a lifetime to the fashion world. This industry is completely different from when he started back in the 70’s. And it’s fulfilling to know that he was able to see in the last years of his career some of the results of his legacy.