André Leon Talley, the larger-than-life fashion editor who shattered his industry’s glass ceiling when he went from the Jim Crow South to the front rows of Paris couture, parlaying his encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history and his quick wit into roles as author, public speaker, television personality and curator, died on Tuesday in White Plains, New York. He was 73.
His death, in a hospital after a series of health struggles, was confirmed by his friend Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation.
“André Leon Talley was a singular force in an industry that he had to fight to be recognized in,” Walker said, calling him a “creative genius” and noting his ability to craft a persona for himself out of “a deep academic understanding of fashion and design.”
Called “The Only One” by The New Yorker by virtue of his being the rare Black editor at the top of a field that was notoriously white and notoriously elitist, Talley — who stood 6 feet 6 inches tall — was an unmistakable figure everywhere he went. Given to drama in his personal style (he favored capes, gloves and regal headpieces), his pronouncements (“My eyes are starving for beauty”) and the work he adored, he cultivated an air of hauteur, though his friends knew him for his subcutaneous sentimentality.
He was, said the actress and talk show host Whoopi Goldberg in the 2018 documentary “The Gospel According to André,” “so many things he was not supposed to be.”
He was the receptionist at Interview magazine under Andy Warhol; the Paris bureau chief of Women’s Wear Daily under John Fairchild; the creative director and editor at large of Vogue under Anna Wintour. He helped dress Michelle Obama when she was first lady, was an adviser and a friend to designer Oscar de la Renta, and became a mentor to supermodel Naomi Campbell. He cast Campbell as Scarlett O’Hara in a shoot for Vanity Fair that reimagined “Gone With the Wind” with Black protagonists long before fashion woke up to its own racism.
He was latterly a judge on the TV reality show “America’s Next Top Model,” artistic director of the online retailer Zappos, an adviser to musician will.i.am’s tech startup and deeply involved with the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Talley was a fixture at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where, according to the church’s pastor, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, he arrived with celebrities such as Mariah Carey and Tamron Hall but was known for his serious faith.
“With all his celebrity and globe-trotting he came in the best of times and he showed up in the worst of times,” Butts said. “He showed up to worship. He supported the church, he gave generously, and his friends loved him.”
Talley, who was gay, lived alone and had little semblance of a romantic life, had no immediate survivors.
Kate Novack, the director of the 2018 documentary, said he was “a classic American success story, but noted that his success “has come at a cost.”
The designer Tom Ford, in that documentary, said, “André is 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.” He added, “André tosses out all these different words and he’s so big and so grand, a lot of people think, ‘This guy is crazy,’ but it’s a fabulous insanity.”
André Leon Talley was born on Oct. 16, 1948, in Washington, D.C., to Alma and William Carroll Talley. From the time he was 2 months old, he was raised by his grandmother Bennie Frances Davis in Durham, North Carolina, where she worked as a maid at the men’s campus of Duke University.
He grew up schooled in the Southern church and good manners, idolizing the Kennedys and obsessed with France and the escape it seemed to offer from a town where college students sometimes stoned him when he crossed campus to buy Vogue and where, he said, he was sexually abused as a child.
He majored in French studies at North Carolina Central University and received a master’s from Brown University, where he wrote his thesis on the influence of Black women in the writing of Baudelaire and Flaubert and in the paintings of Delacroix.
A chance meeting with the editor Carrie Donovan, then working at Vogue, convinced him that he had to move to New York, and in 1974 he volunteered to help Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.
It was through Vreeland, he wrote in his memoir, “The Chiffon Trenches,” released in 2020 by Random House, that “I learned to speak the language of style, fantasy, and literature.” It was also through Vreeland that he entered the magazine world, and through Interview that he met Warhol.
“He was constantly trying to grab my crotch,” Talley later told The New York Times. “It was not a Harvey Weinstein moment. Andy was a charming person because he saw the world through the kaleidoscope of a child. Everything was ‘gee golly wow.’”
At Interview, he also met Karl Lagerfeld, the Fendi designer whose omnivorous cultural tastes and intellect became his lodestar, especially once he joined Women’s Wear Daily and moved to Paris. There, he enjoyed glamorous evenings with Yves Saint Laurent and his acolytes, moving from the châteaus of aristocrats to nouveau nightclubs.
Through it all, Talley wrote in his memoir, he navigated in his “armor” — specifically, “Banana cable knee socks and elegant moccasins” and “Turnbull & Asser shirts.”
For him, fashion was both inspiration and disguise, camouflage against the racist barbs he experienced, such as being referred to as “Queen Kong.”
It was only in hindsight, Talley wrote, that he realized “the blinders I had to keep on in order to survive.”
In the late 1980s, his flamboyant tastes and deep fashion knowledge caught the eye of Wintour, for whom Talley became adviser, friend and foil, a link to an older, more romantic, less corporate and less bottom-line-oriented age. He even advised Wintour on her Met Gala outfits.
“What I recall is that I was not so much his protector,” Wintour said in the documentary. “My fashion history is not so great, and his is impeccable, so I think I learned a lot from him.”
As fashion monstres sacrés like Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen gave way to more technocratic 9-to-5 designers, Talley found himself on the outside.
There were “many in that industry who really did love André for his talent,” Butts said. It was also the case that “there were others who exploited his talent and used it to their advantage,” who “never really gave him respect as a man and were condescending.”
After his memoir was published, Talley fell out with Wintour, whom he accused of abandoning him. (In “The Chiffon Trenches,” Talley suggested she played a somewhat parasitic role in his life, feeding off this energy.)
He had struggled with his weight since his grandmother’s death in 1989, and in recent years was largely isolated in the house in White Plains, New York, where he lived, sleeping in a bed de la Renta had given him. The home became the subject of a lawsuit last year, when the actual owner, his former friend George Malkemus, attempted to evict him (Talley had a history of bad financial decisions).
Yet, for all his complaints and disillusionment, Talley continued to believe in the power of the well-placed seam and the perfectly polished shoe, the way the shallowest of objects can transform our deepest aspirations into reality.
“To my 12-year-old self, raised in the segregated South, the idea of a Black man playing any kind of role in this world seemed an impossibility,” he wrote in his memoir. “To think of where I’ve come from, where we’ve come from, in my lifetime, and where we are today, is amazing. And, yet, of course, we still have so far to go.”