André Leon Talley, a longtime larger-than-life presence on the New York fashion scene, gets his own documentary here. But it leaves you wishing you knew a little more about this complex, elegant gentleman and his lifelong love affair with style.
In an early scene in “The Gospel According to André,” fashion luminary André Leon Talley emerges from a subway station in 1990 New York. He’s wearing a natty double-breasted taupe suit with a pocket square, sunglasses, a bright raspberry-colored scarf tossed insouciantly around his neck and a pair of enormous mustard-colored gloves that he’s adjusting. The colors and accessories separate him from those around him; he looks carefully curated and a little whimsical, like he got dressed that morning with an eye for pleasure.
Talley, a former creative director for Vogue magazine, is a longtime larger-than-life presence on the New York fashion scene (literally; he’s 6-foot-6, and cuts a mountainous figure in the caftans he currently favors). Often a witty background figure in other fashion documentaries (“Fresh Dressed,” “The First Monday in May,” “The September Issue”), here he takes center stage. If you like films in which people admit that they only eat caviar “when I go to Valentino’s house” (come to think of it, this may be a first), you’ll be in happy territory here, but there’s something deeper beneath the glam.
Talley grew up black in segregated Durham, North Carolina, where he read Vogue at the public library, avidly watched the fashion parade at church every Sunday and noted that the local hat shop required black women, but not white women, to wear veils when trying on hats. We hear of some of his influences — Julia Child (who inspired him to learn French), British socialite Lady Ottoline Morel, Martin Luther King Jr. (and his “impeccable white shirts”) and Talley’s high-school teacher, who wore skirts inspired by late-1940s Dior. His perfect designer dinner party, we learn, would include Madame Grès, Chanel, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent. And a parade of stylish folk offer praise: He is, notes musician Will.i.am., “the Nelson Mandela of couture, the Kofi Annan of what you got on.”
Though famously funny, Talley here is in a more meditative mood; the film often pauses to watch him quietly contemplating. Though many friends speak, Talley emerges as a solitary figure, living alone in a stately house in White Plains, New York (he’s never had time, he says, for a love life), and reminiscing wistfully about the beloved grandmother who raised him. He speaks a bit about racism in the fashion industry — his nickname from one fashion house, he says, was “Queen Kong” — and about his own relationship with traditional ideas of black masculinity. But “The Gospel According to André” leaves you wishing you knew a little more about this complex, elegant gentleman and his lifelong love affair with style. “You have to hydrate yourself,” he says, “with beauty.”
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★★★ “The Gospel According to André,” a documentary directed by Kate Novack. 94 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some thematic and suggestive content. Northwest Film Forum, through July 1.