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André Leon Talley MA’72 speaks on racism in fashion industry

Talley reflects on his southern roots, religion and experiences related to industry response to Black Lives Matter at F@B event

Updated 5:35 P.M., September 15, 2020 

Fashion@Brown welcomed influential alum André Leon Talley MA’72 for a Sunday afternoon webinar and conversation on his many years of experience as a Black man in the fashion industry and his hopes for its future.

Talley has worked with a number of influential figures throughout his career including Andy Warhol, Michelle Obama, Karl Lagerfeld, Ralph Lauren and Oscar de la Renta, with a long tenure as creative director at Vogue Magazine alongside Anna Wintour. “I was lucky to have come onto the scene at the time when I did … Fashion was a much smaller world then,” Talley said. “It wasn’t the way I looked, and yet it was, but behind those looks, I was smart. I had knowledge … and I was original,” he added.

“We are incredibly honored to have André as our first speaker this year,” said Sasha Pinto ’21, president of Fashion@Brown and co-organizer of the webinar. He “is one of the most remarkable cultural figures of twentieth-century America… as the first, and for a very long time, the only black man in the upper echelons of the fashion industry,” she later wrote in an email to the Herald.

“The fashion industry can be brutal … (Talley’s) stratospheric ascent serves as inspiration … to young BIPOC creatives,” added Sydney Taub ’22, a member of Fashion@Brown and moderator of the event.

Talley’s talk “fired everyone’s imaginations with stories of his remarkable ascent into the world of fashion. He credits hard work, grit, and intelligence with overcoming racial barriers he faced," Pinto wrote. "All of us at Fashion@Brown couldn’t have imagined a more wonderful way to open our year." 

Talley went on to discuss the beginning of his career, including his early influences growing up in the American South. “When I was a teenager, it was just the beginning of the civil rights movement … I remember going to my grandma’s house where we watched the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy on the little black-and-white TV,” he said. “The extremely tragic deaths of men of peace” were formative events for Talley.

Talley was also heavily influenced by his family’s devotion to church. “Churchgoing was the ritual of our lives,” he recalled, “and we always dressed up.” His grandmother, having worked 50 years as a maid at Duke University, along with the rest of Talley’s family, “saved and scrimped to find the best they could afford.” He described a memory he had of his grandmother at Easter services, dressed in a blue, silk Dior-inspired cloak. “These things may sound superficial now, but to us, these things mattered,” he said.

Talley’s fascination with fashion further developed when he discovered an issue of Vogue in his local library. “After that, I had a wall in my room papered with pictures from magazines … it was all so sacred,” he said. These magazines also cultivated  his affinity for French culture, as he eventually pursued a master’s degree in French literature at Brown.

His first trip to Paris was as a student during spring break, but many would follow. He described being struck by the acceptance of Blackness — of “négritude” — that seemed so widespread there. “That was France with racism, racial profiling … They understood way before America how to treat Blacks with equality,” he said. “Take it to the modern moment, Black models are often advised to go to Paris — to Europe — (and) be an apprentice … and you can come back and be a big star in New York.”

Recently, the fashion industry has been making efforts to appoint more Black creatives, Talley added. “These powerful new appointments will determine the future of fashion,” he said. He also talk about Edward Enninful’s recent appointment as editor-in-chief of British Vogue. “Time magazine said he is the most important man in fashion globally,” he said, and went on to discuss Enninful’s “enlightened, exposed, confident” work. Talley recalled his excitement when he heard the news of Enninful’s new position, and his greater gratification when he received a response to his congratulatory email saying, “Thank you, André. You paved the way for me.”

Of his former employer, Condé Nast (the parent company of Vogue), Talley said he has been pleased by recent coverage that highlights Black voices, including Vanity Fair cover stories on Breonna Taylor and Viola Davis and a Glamour issue on celebrating Black hair. “Suddenly there is negritude all over Condé Nast,” he said. But, he admitted that he does not read Vogue anymore. “I don’t think anything I could do will influence them in the future.”

In his recent book, “The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir,” Talley described his career and inspirations, including his long and complicated relationship with Wintour. “Everything in the book is about love … I didn’t want it to be a (vengeful), salacious, tell-all, nasty, bitchy, queenie book,” he said. He explained that he had some negative experiences, but none of them were regrettable. “I have had a great break with Wintour,” he said. “I haven’t heard from her, nor do I intend to hear from her.” Talley had allowed Wintour to view his book before publishing it in case she took issue with anything he had written about her, and he removed what she asked. “I thought she would be supportive after that, but I never heard from her again.”

Of Wintour’s recent apology regarding racism and related biases at Vogue, “I just hope she lives up to it,” Talley said. “As I’ve said — as I’ve been quoted — she is a white woman of privilege, and she will never let anything get in the way of her white privilege.” But Talley believes that the industry is due for “a big reckoning in the world because of … George Floyd’s death, where we actually saw a technical, live lynching by knees on the neck of a man.” He named other Black “martyrs” such as Taylor and Trayvon Martin as he described the Black Lives Matter movement as a crucial moment in America’s history. “As James Baldwin says, ‘We’ve got a bill to pay… Change has got to come.’”


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