7 lessons that André Leon Talley taught us

From living beautifully to being a committed agent of change, this is the legacy one of fashion's true greats leaves behind.

by Mahoro Seward
19 January 2022, 2:36pm



The news of André Leon Talley’s passing marks an immeasurable loss not just for fashion, but for the world. A pop-cultural titan, the fashion critic, author, and former creative director of Vogue set precedents that have shaped what the industry looks like today. While his death certainly calls for solemn mourning, it’s also a time to appreciate the magnitude of the gifts he gave us, and the legacy he leaves behind.

Raised in the Jim Crow-era South, his story in fashion began in 1974 when he took up an internship under Diana Vreeland, the former editor of Vogue and the then-director of The Met’s Costume Institute. From there, he hopped between increasingly senior roles at Interview, WWD, W and The New York Times, before arriving at Vogue himself in 1983 as fashion news director. He became the title’s creative director in 1988, the year of Anna Wintour’s arrival, and served as editor-at-large until 2013. He was also an accomplished author, penning books including Valentino, A.L.T.: A Memoir, A.L.T. 365+, and most recently, his best-selling memoir, The Chiffon Trenches. In 2020, he was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Republic on account of his services to the country’s culture.

For all his accomplishments, what will live on more than anything is his formidable spirit. André truly relished fashion — it was his raison d’être. His passion was backed up by his encyclopaedic knowledge, which made itself strongly felt in his writings, like his monthly Vogue column, “Style Fax”. It was clear to anyone who saw him — even if just in photographs and films — that he was a man committed to living life on his own terms, filled with opulence and eccentricity, and always without shame.

While he was a figure of inspiration for many, he was a shining beacon for aspiring POC creatives in particular, singlehandedly carving a path to the industry’s highest echelons that many have since gone on to tread. Often the only Black person seen on the front row for a sizeable chunk of his career, he was living proof that opportunities that were once thought to be out of reach were anything but. As you'll probably see in numerous captions on social media today, André walked so that many of us could run.

To mark the passing of one of the fashion industry’s true titans, here, we collect some of the greatest life lessons that André Leon Talley taught us during his time on earth.

Know your stuff

In a world where information is accessible at our fingertips, André was one of the few who had all the resources they needed stored safely in their heads. He was “one of the last of those great editors who knows what they are looking at, knows what they are seeing, knows where it came from,” said Tom Ford in the 2017 documentary, The Gospel According to André, able to locate any given reference at first sight. The fact that he was such an avid fashion history buff is only fitting, given what a crucial role he went on to play in it himself.

If the sky’s the limit, then aim for outer space

The segregationist South is hardly where the stories of most fashion figureheads start, but it’s there, in Durham, North Carolina, that André Leon Talley’s began. Raised by his grandmother, a fashion lover herself, his combination of raw intellect, a thirst for knowledge and tenacity saw him win a place at North Carolina Central University in the late 60s, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in French Literature, and later a scholarship for an MA at Ivy League college, Brown. From there, his path to fashion’s headiest heights sped up when Diana Vreeland, recognising his talents while he was interning for her at the Met, set André up with a job at Andy Warhol’s Interview. Within a year, he was in Paris, heading up WWD’s French bureau, and blazing a trail as the only major Black editor seen at the shows. The almost five decades that followed is, of course, fashion history.

Live for the sake of beauty

“It's a famine of beauty, honey! My eyes are starving for beauty!” is André’s immortal exclamation in The Gospel According to André, and indeed, there are few who were quite as hungry for fashion at its most opulent and sublime than him. A latter-day Decadent, André was an aesthete in truest sense, living his life in constant pursuit of transcendent beauty, no matter its form. Whether in his penchant for ornate, billowing capes or in his close friendships with Diane von Furstenberg, Karl Lagerfeld and Manolo Blahnik, he lived his life as if it were a fairytale — and often described it as one, too. If you’re looking for proof, there’s no better place than our run-through of the fashion crown prince’s most iconic looks.

Be kind, even when the world is not

Anyone who ever knew or spoke to André will tell you about his sensitivity, kindness and generosity of spirit. Though he invariably put his best self out into the world, what he received in return was often anything but friendly. As he documents in his 2020 memoir, The Chiffon Trenches — which he described to us as a chronicle of “living life in the trenches” of the fashion industry — his career has been mired by both micro-agressions and overt instances of racism, as well us cruel comments regarding his size. In spite of the at-best mean-spirited, at-worst bigoted treatment he endured, he always remained kind to the core, consistently doing his part to change the spaces he operated in for the better.

Nurture the next generation

In an homage posted on Instagram, Pierre M’Pelé, GQ France’s Head of Editorial Content, writes: “ALT once said: ‘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.’” Indeed, that is exactly what he’ll remembered for, with talents that are icons in their own right having him to thank. A notable example is John Galliano, whose SS94 show, as TikToker @pierrahh explains, was essentially pulled together at André’s behest, pushing him along the path to the podium he later ascended to.

If you can change it, do it

While conversations around André’s status as a figurehead for Black talent have amplified in the wake of fashion’s racial reckoning, he’s been a champion for greater diversity in the industry since his earliest days. The 90s, he told us, marked a particular turning point for André: “I was very much conscious of having a voice and my responsibility to use it,” he said. “I tried to contribute in any way that I could, but I contributed quietly — I did not do it with a foghorn.” Perhaps one of the most enduring examples of his commitment to placing diversity in his work is a shoot in the May 1996 edition of Vanity Fair, a tribute to Gone With the Wind in which he cast Naomi Campbell as Scarlett O’Hara — something of an anomaly in an age where Black models were seen in lead positions far less often than today.

Have fun

Above all, one thing that always radiated from André was the aura of someone who was having fun — someone who recognised the privilege of being able to commit their life to their greatest passion, and was thankful to be able to do so. Whether dressing in it, writing about it, or just looking at it, he approached fashion with child-like fascination, ignoring conventions regarding what he should wear, or what was in vogue. When interviewing Rihanna on the red carpet at the 2015 Met Gala — the year she wore that memeified marigold Guo Pei gown — he urged her to “drink the moment”. When it came to his own life, André was one of the rare few to actually heed their own advice.

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