Fashion editor André Leon Talley achieved high status in the fashion industry where he was often the only Black man seated in the front row of runway shows. As glamorous as glamrous came, Talley trailblazed his way into a nearly all white industry that pre-existed only for European standards of beauty.
Originally from Durham, North Carolina, Talley was raised by his grandmother, a cleaning woman at Duke University during Jim Crow. He graduated from Brown University, earning his master’s degree in French literature. Model Beverly Johnson told People, “He’s a walking encyclopedia. I mean, the engineer of fashion. He could break it all the way down from the beginning and bring it all the way back — and in French!”
At a young age, Talley knew he was going to do something great, and his life was a testament to knowing your calling and going after it, “I loved my home and my family,” he told Vogue when the documentary of his life was released. “I went to school and to church and I did what I was told and I didn’t talk much. But I knew life was bigger than that. I wanted to meet Diana Vreeland and Andy Warhol and Naomi Sims and Pat Cleveland and Edie Sedgwick and Loulou de la Falaise. And I did. And I never looked back.”
Talley, now known for his extravagant capes, was also a champion for Black talent and opened the door for those behind him.
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In an interview with People, Johnson recalls calling Talley as a “token” in fashion, “Well, you were the token in your industry, the editorial industry of Vogue. And I was the token in fashion and the modeling industry,'” Johnson repeats her conversation with Talley. “He said, ‘I was never a token.’ I said, ‘Oh, you weren’t? Well, who else was up there with you?’ ‘No, I was the only Black [editor] up there.'”
As the only Black man in the room, the rules were often created for you, but Talley made a new set of rules and was respected because of his intelligence. He not only talked the talk, but he walked the walk. Talley’s career highlights include apprenticing for Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, working with Andy Warhol at Interview, becoming the Paris bureau chief of Women’s Wear Daily, and notably Vogue’s first Black male creative director. Yes, Black excellency carried Talley through, but things weren’t just black and white for him. Talley saw the world of fashion through a lens where to succeed, as far as he did, you’d also have to see yourself out of the equation and separate yourself from your identity. Talley’s identity was simply fashion. He knew what worked and what didn’t work, and behind that, he knew the origin of style and color. Think back to the 2006 film, The Devil Wears Prada, the character Nigel Kipling portrayed by Stanley Tucci is widely believed to be a depiction of Talley. Talley created a standard for those in the fashion industry – it takes one person to wear art, but it takes another type of person to recognize art.
Featured photo: Andre Leon Talley/Vogue
Her work has been published in Refinery29, Elite Daily, the Copenhagen Post, and more. She studies public relations and corporate relations at NYU. She loves reading, cheese plates, reality TV, and event planning. She lives in Williamsburg, but Miami is her second home. Follow her on Instagram @alyssa_s_ashley.