André Leon Talley: Fashion Pioneer and Icon
Photo Credit: Squire Fox/August
André Leon Talley, a fashion icon and legend, was an American fashion writer, stylist, creative director, and editor-at-large of Vogue magazine. From 1983 to 1987, he was the magazine's fashion news director, then its first African American male creative director from 1988 to 1995, and finally its editor-at-large from 1998 to 2013. Talley also served on the America's Next Top Model judging panel. He was well known for his promotion and support of emerging designers and his advocacy for diversity in the fashion industry. And the capes, kaftans, and robes he often wore became his signature look.
Photo Credit: Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SCAD
André grew from a poor beginning in the segregated South to become an expert of high fashion and one of the few African Americans in the fashion world's major publications and on the red carpets. He was born on October 16, 1948, in Washington, D.C., but spent his childhood in Durham, N.C., the heart of the Jim Crow South. Bennie Francis Davis, his grandmother, worked as a cleaner at Duke University's West Campus men's dorms. Talley spent his adolescence surrounded by great flare and style, absorbing all he could, whether it was the subtle blue wash in his grandmother's silver hair or the vibrant Sunday finest of his church members. He thanked his grandmother for providing him with a "knowledge of luxury." His grandmother fostered his early interest in fashion, which he expanded upon when he discovered Vogue magazine at a local library at about age nine. It had even become a habit for him to trek over to the magazine stand on Duke's East Campus — unquestionably the white side of town — twice a month to buy his favorite fashion publications. Talley never seemed to notice that his walk to the magazine stand took him to an area where young Black males like himself were not wanted, noting in an interview that he had "tunnel vision" for Vogue, and Vogue only, until one day when a group of Duke students driving by threw rocks at him. For Talley, the world he discovered in these fashion magazines, in the material on every single page, was an escape from the racist, segregated neighborhood in which he was raised.
Talley attended Hillside High School, where he graduated in 1966, and North Carolina Central, a historically Black University (HBCU), where he earned a bachelor's degree in French literature in 1970. He received a scholarship to Brown University, where he got a master's degree in French literature in 1972. His original plan was to teach French at Brown after writing a thesis on the influence of black women on Charles Baudelaire, but that all changed when connections led him to apprentice for Diana Vreeland, then former editor-in-chief at Vogue and Special Consultant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1974. Following that, Talley worked for Andy Warhol before becoming the Paris editorial head of Women's Wear Daily, writing for W magazine and the New York Times before landing at Vogue as the magazine's first African American male creative director.
Mr. Talley was, as he once put it, "the only black man among a sea of white titans of style" for much of his career. He was always the standout in the front row at numerous runway shows and high fashion events not only due to his physical presence as a Black man – standing 6' 6" in a mainly white-dominated sector but also for his distinctive expensive capes and tailored kaftans. “Fashion is a cruel world,” Mr. Talley told The Washington Post. “The clothes I put on are very deliberate.” Talley's legacy is deeply based in his efforts to encourage all racial minorities in the fashion business. His support for more diversity and representation began with fashion shows — in which he frequently advocated for more Black runway models, particularly during major Fashion Weeks — but quickly spread to other sectors of the fashion business in which he was involved. He fought to advance the careers of POC designers in whatever manner he could. Thanks to Talley's guidance and encouragement, LaQuan Smith, a Black designer who specializes in luxury womenswear, has created multiple red carpet ensembles for tennis star Serena Williams. Talley introduced Michelle Obama to Taiwanese-Canadian designer Jason Wu, who created her gown for the 2009 inauguration as well as many other outfits throughout the years. He was also a close mentor to supermodel Naomi Campbell and photographer Dario Calmese, who was the first African American to shoot the Vanity Fair cover.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Squire Fox for Garden & Gun.
Among his many other accomplishments and awards are the publication of two autobiographies, A.L.T.: A Memoir in 2003 and The New York Times Best Seller The Chiffon Trenches in 2020, as well as receiving the Council of Fashion Designers of America's 2003 Eugenia Sheppard Award and the prestigious Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France.
Our Black Origins remembers Andre Leon Talley as the Durham native who permanently transformed Vogue and the fashion industry at large. Talley inspired everyone he came across through all areas of art, fashion, and means of creative expression. And with that, he has influenced numerous individuals throughout many decades — and will continue to encourage future generations — by being brave and vulnerable in his art and in sharing his own story.
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Rajaa Sultanah is a sneaker and fashion enthusiast from Philadelphia, Pa with a Major in Sports & Entertainment and Minor in TV & Film from Howard University. She enjoys working as a creative, entrepreneur, and influencer. She is always looking for her next creative opportunity. You can follow her on Instagram @Rajaa.Sultanah