Written by Robin Givhan
The ground-breaking fashion editor André Leon Talley propelled himself through life with intelligence, faith, and generosity, as well as an unabashed belief in the uplifting power and grace of beauty. Mr. Talley died in New York on January 18, 2022. He passed away peacefully from complications due to covid-19. He was 73.
Mr. Talley was the long-time creative director of ‘American Vogue’, the only Black person to hold that position. He was also editor of ‘Numéro Russia’ and his byline appeared in ‘Vanity Fair’, ‘HG’, ‘Interview’, ‘Ebony’ and ‘Women’s Wear Daily’. Mr. Talley was a dominating presence in fashion at a time when the industry was a cordoned off club whose members were European aristocrats, globe-trotting socialites and the monied. He was often the lone Black person at the ball, at the show, at the decision-making table.
Over the years, Mr. Talley was a counselor and friend to veteran designers Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, Diane von Furstenberg, Manolo Blahnik, Patrick Kelly, Tom Ford and countless others. He supported young designers from New York to Paris, lending them his exuberant validation and touting their work to colleagues and competitors alike.
His taste in fashion was both catholic and precise. The foundation of his aesthetic sensibility lay in his Southern roots. He was born in Washington, DC but was raised by his maternal grandmother Bennie Frances Davis in Durham, North Carolina. A cleaning woman at Duke University, Mrs. Davis carried herself with dignity and style. Her grandson was enthralled watching her prepare for Sunday service each week. Her hats and gloves and attention to detail gave him a keen understanding of fashion’s ability to weave a narrative and define identity. He saw fashion as a rebuke to stereotypes and prejudices.
Mr. Talley received his master’s degree from Brown University where he studied French history and literature. His thesis explored the role of Blackness in the novels of Gustave Flaubert, the poetry of Charles Baudelaire and the paintings of Eugène Delacroix. Mr. Talley’s was both a literary and visual assessment. He considered not only what was said, but what was seen. The effusive and fizzy pronouncements that years later filled his stories and guided his visual compositions were a blend of Ivy League education, an encyclopedic knowledge of the entire Vogue catalogue and the good home training of the Black tradition.
Mr. Talley straddled a multitude of worlds. He was a Francophile working in fashion – someone who had apprenticed with Diana Vreeland when she was special consultant to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was a brother in faith regularly attending Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. He was a Black man. He brought his church sister to Paris for fashion week and walked her up the red carpet at the Met gala. He donated his compensation for appearances on “Full Frontal Fashion” to Abyssinian in support of its community outreach. He delighted in a church plaque acknowledging his financial efforts as much as he did in his 2003 Eugenia Sheppard Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. He held the same values from the beginning of his life until the end. Only his wardrobe became more grand.
Mr. Talley wrote books on Valentino and Oscar de la Renta and the little black dress. He chronicled his own life in ‘A.L.T.: A Memoir’ and ‘The Chiffon Trenches’. He was also the subject of the documentary ‘The Gospel According to André’.
For more than 13 years, he served on the board of trustees of Savannah College of Art and Design, which honored him in 2001 with its first lifetime achievement award in fashion– an accolade that now bears his name. SCAD held a special place in Mr. Talley’s heart. He enthusiastically supported its students, helping them secure both apprenticeships and full-time jobs in fashion and costume design. He donated a trove of his papers to the school with the hope that his past could inspire its students’ future.
Mr. Talley received an honorary doctorate from SCAD in 2008. He was presented the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Republic in 2020 and the North Carolina Governor’s award for literature in 2021.
He is survived by his dear cousin Shirley Austin and a host of other relatives. An official memorial will be announced in the spring – Mr. Talley’s favorite time of year.