Arts & Culture, News, University News

Vogue legend dazzles audience

André Leon Talley MA ’72 reminisces on Brown, RISD influences, talks early life in NYC

By
Science and Research Editor
Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Talley (right), who has been interested in fashion since a young age, draws inspiration from his grandmother and going to his local church on Sundays.

In 1974, André Leon Talley MA ’72 packed an overnight bag and left Providence for New York City, leaving behind unfinished doctoral work at the University for a life in the fashion industry.

He left a trunk of his belongings in Providence and did not return to the University until last Monday night, where the former Vogue editor-at-large spoke alongside Director Kate Novack at a screening of “The Gospel According to André” at the opening of this year’s Ivy Film Festival. The film, which premiered in 2018, chronicles Talley’s life from his childhood in Durham, North Carolina, through his time as a graduate student at the University, and finally his years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Interview Magazine, Women’s Wear Daily and Vogue, among other publications.

Talley’s love for fashion started at a young age: “I was reading Vogue when I was 10 years old. … I never thought I’d be at Vogue one day,” he said. In the film, he cites his journey out of the Jim Crow South and to the University on a scholarship as key to the beginning that shaped his rise to editor-at-large of the magazine.

The film explores how Talley’s upbringing, specifically influenced by his grandmother, drove his ascension in the industry. Interviews with Eboni Marshall-Turman, assistant professor of theology and African American religion at Yale, showcased how going to black church every Sunday shaped his views of fashion. “When they went to church, they pulled out all the stops,” Talley said.

The film’s consideration of Talley’s upbringing and his participation in black church left an impression on event attendees, such as Valentine Amari ’21. “I appreciated the attention given to André’s appreciation for fashion stemming from the opulence and celebration of African American livelihood in the church,” she wrote in an email to The Herald.

The film discusses other aspects of race and his identity as well, including his experience of prejudice and cruelty from some in the fashion industry.

“Clothes are my armor, and they always were,” he said.

“The Gospel According to André” is set against the backdrop of the 2016 election — interviews with Talley were filmed both weeks before President Donald Trump won the election and immediately after, as well as during his inauguration. When Novack asked him about the significance of the film’s timing, Talley said the election was “kind of depressing because I think we are in a downward spiral.” Though Talley is frustrated with the direction of the Trump White House, his years-long friendship with Melania Trump continues, as the two grew close when he helped her select her wedding dress. He also revered the Obamas and in the film, he grows emotional when imagining how his grandmother would have felt seeing Michelle Obama on Vogue’s cover.

After the screening, Talley, dressed in his signature black caftan, entered the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts to applause from the audience. He began his talk by regaling the audience with tales from his time at the University. As a master’s student, he wrote his thesis on the influence of French poets on 19th century paintings and representation of North African women in these works. Novack won Talley’s respect when she approached him with his thesis before they began filming. “She did her research. … She had a copy of (my) master’s thesis in her pocketbook. … She made arrangements to get it from Brown,” Talley said.

“I had two lives when I was here at Brown. … I had my Brown life, and then I had my RISD life.” One was “formalistic and serious” — the other not so much, Talley said. “My RISD life was the life.”

He fell in with an affluent crowd at RISD. “I had never seen young people like that,” he said, recalling the luxurious lives of his new friends.  They showed off their wealth with Chippendale furniture in a top-floor apartment on Benefit Street, new cars and even a skunk coat a friend brought to school after Christmas. “We were living for skunk,” he said.

Many of his stories found ties to the University and Providence. Talley wrote a column for the RISD newspaper, which introduced him to the world of social and fashion journalism that would come to define his career. In his University mailbox, he received a response to a letter he had sent to Vogue from an editor who later served as a crucial connection. And, during one spring break, he traveled to Paris for the first time, a city he often cites as a crucial inspiration.

Talley never returned to Providence to finish his doctoral degree because New York had too much to offer. Soon after arriving in the city, he was introduced to Diana Vreeland, former editor-in-chief of Vogue and consultant at the Met’s Costume Institute. After he volunteered for her at a Met show, she helped him find a job as a receptionist under Andy Warhol at Interview Magazine. Around Christmas 1974, Talley recalled Vreeland telling him, “‘Do not go home, it will happen for you.’” Shortly after, he got the job at Interview, which catalyzed his career in fashion reporting.

In addition to stories about Brown and his early life, Talley described his writing process. “My memory tells me which dress is the most important in the collection,” he said. “I don’t take notes. They are mental impressions.” He often wrote quickly and immediately after a show, employing a Telex machine in the early days to send his writing from Paris to New York. For his first big interview with the late Karl Lagerfeld, he researched every aspect of the designer’s life. Working with Lagerfeld on the story fostered a friendship with the man, and the designer sent him home with custom-made silk shirts, his first wardrobe from Paris.

Talley also had advice for students. “You want to be exposed to everything, you want to be curious about everything. … You want to know about aeronautic space exploration, (but) a little bit, not much.”

Talley also interacted directly with the audience. After only a few minutes on stage, he picked Amari out of the crowd and asked her to come onstage and even invited her as his guest to a Vogue ball. “The only thing in my mind in that moment was how many seats I need to vault to get over there,” Amari wrote. “The event definitely breathed a second wind into me during a time when I needed it a lot.”

“His character and his grandeur is matched in the way he interacts with people on any level,” Jack Nelson ’21 said after the event. “He stopped his interview multiple times to ask people what their concentration was or what they were interested in, what they were wearing,” Nelson said.

“Fashion is a serious, serious thing. It is emotional, it is objective, it is not a science. Fashion today is everything. … It is freedom, liberation and it gives you confidence,” Talley said.

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