André Leon Talley on Blackness, Religion, and Why There’s Always Room for Divas in Fashion

The author of The Chiffon Trenches talks about attending virtual church services, combating racism in fashion, and why he never keeps a diary.

Caitlin Cronenberg

André Leon Talley is a figure so extravagant in the world of high fashion that it is impossible to define him in just a few words. In his 70 years, Talley has been an academic, a fashion editor, a creative director (the first and only Black man to hold that title at Vogue), a front row fixture, and a bon vivant who prides himself on his collection of caftans and lifelong attachment to dressing sharp no matter the occasion.

He wasn’t born into fashion royalty, but he certainly ascended its ranks. Talley’s just-released memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, is a detailed account of how he got there, and the people he became close to (and subsequently fell out with) along the way. He also contemplates his current position in the pantheon of Black individuals who opened space for others in the culture just by being the first—a position that often invites retroactive criticism.

Before the memoir was released, there was talk that the book would be a tell-all, shining a light on the sordid behaviors of the fashion world’s most esteemed arbiters of taste. A first wave of reviews also critiqued the book for failing to examine his own behavior as well as his experiences with racism in the industry. But Talley claims that these characterizations are simply not true—he prefers to call his book an “epistle,” or a love letter, to those who have had a major impact on his life and career, whether or not they have fallen out of favor with one another over the years.

Talley called W from his home in White Plains, where he has been riding out the pandemic stay-at-home order, surrounded by photographs of his number one mentor, the late Diana Vreeland, reading Blake Gopnik’s 976-page tome on Andy Warhol, Anne Glenconner’s autobiography, and The Life and Times of Little Richard from his deluge of books “piled up on the floor, on banquettes, on ottomans,” listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and various gospel albums, and attending virtual church services. When he does go out, he wears a white t-shirt fashioned into a face mask, an idea he got from his friend Sandra Bernhard. Here, he aims to set the record straight, once again, in his own words.

Your memoir is so detailed—how did you remember everything, down to the exact outfits you wore even on mundane occasions? Did you keep a diary this whole time?

I’ve never had a diary in my life. I’ve never written in a diary. Everything is in my head. I’ve never taken a note on a front row of a fashion show in my entire career. I’ve always maintained a wonderful memory, and I can remember things that happened to me long ago. Not specific dates, but I certainly have them vividly in my mind. Things impressed me, and therefore I have retained them. I can remember a certain time or ensemble someone wore to a dinner or party or event, or [what] Betty Catroux [wore]. People that I adore, I can remember everything and every experience that I’ve had with them. I’m lucky. I don’t know if other people have that gift, but I do have the gift of memory.

What about the people you don’t adore?

I remember details about them as well, too. [Laughs.] I remember, I remember! When I go to sit down to review a collection, which I did, I sat down and I just went from memory. I analyze things as I see them. I learned from Mr. Fairchild [the late publisher and editor-in-chief-of WWD, and founding editor of W], who was a great boss. I learned from Diana Vreeland. Two great people. I learned from Mr. Fairchild how to analyze the personality behind the clothes, and I learned from Diana Vreeland how to appreciate the clothes, how the most important thing about a beautiful dress was how it was constructed on the inside. From these mentors, I learned how to analyze a rare world of style and fashion.

You write about your many friends, and people who have turned into frenemies or your relationships evolved. You recently said in New York magazine that your book is “not a vengeful, bitchy tell-all,” and that you will not criticize Anna Wintour for dropping you without explanation. What do you make, then, of Anna or the drama with her becoming the center of many of the press write ups for your memoir?

Well, if you read the reviews, The New York Times book review by Rebecca Carroll, she headlines her review with, “André Leon Talley is the star of his memoir, not Wintour.” This book was written not as a vendetta, not to particularly peel back the onions on my relationship to Anna Wintour. It was a book that was written as an epistle of love to people who have mattered in my life. Both Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld mattered. Tom Ford has mattered, Marc Jacobs has mattered. These are the people that have really impacted my life. Diana Vreeland—at all times—is uppermost in my life as a great mentor. As I reflect on Anna Wintour, she is indeed a woman of power, a woman of influence. She’s given great contributions to fashion, and she’s the longest living editor at Vogue. She deserves all of her accolades.

You write often about your spirituality and faith. You wrote, “Through the sanctuary of the church, I gird myself in spiritual armor… To reject the routine of formal churchgoing causes peril to my emotional stability.” Now that we’re all quarantined, are you attending virtual church services right now?

[Laughs.] Oh, yes! Abyssinian Baptist Church, we have a live stream every Sunday. We have weekly Bible studies online. For the live stream, I sit at my computer, in my beautiful chair at my desk in my bedroom next to two windows, and I watch the sermon livestream. I take from those weekly services something strong to carry me to the next Sunday. We always live streamed before the pandemic, but I always loved going to church. I love the ritual of getting up, mentally preparing oneself for church, preparing oneself to greet the congregates, the communication between other worshippers, and to embed myself within a deep, deep service, which gives me strength to go on. It’s part of who I am, it’s part of who I became from my childhood.

So would you say, for you, going to church is more about the connection with the community rather than a singular connection with god?

It’s spiritual. It’s the spiritual thought, it’s the reflectiveness of the sermon, the reflectiveness of the prayer, of the scripture. It’s the whole institution of the church—the Black church—that is a very important aspect of my life, and able to sustain my life. It’s being able to go into the church to be reverent, to listen to the sermon. The personality of the minister is important. The extraordinary personality and talents of the ministry of song, the ministry of music, the individuals, the choirs, the deacons, passages of scripture. It’s just a very great institution that I respect, revere, and continue to go to, and look forward to. I look forward to the live stream. If we’re inside until December, I’m happy to go to church on live stream on the computer.

Of course, you also write about your Blackness, and how it was perceived by people in America but also those in France, as you spent a considerable amount of your life in Paris. It’s been noted that you write somewhat fondly of Loulou de la Falaise, whom in a 1994 profile of you written by Hilton Als for the New Yorker, reportedly called you a racial slur, the n-word. The New York magazine piece cites your fond writing of de la Falaise as an inability to cease compartmentalizing your experiences with racism. But I think sometimes we have to compartmentalize those things in our memories. Do you view that sort of compartmentalization as a defense mechanism, or self preservation?

As you well know, if you’ve read my memoir, it’s not only about racism, but it’s about sexual abuse, child abuse. When you have been abused as a child, your whole innocence has been taken away from you from a young age. You learn to survive by making your own world. When people have done racist things, my faith and my Christianity says to me: It is wrong, yet they can be forgiven. They have wronged me, it is wrong what they have done, but they can be forgiven. Especially in terms of Loulou de la Falaise, who was a friend. This was taken out of context when this man wrote this piece in the New Yorker magazine. He took it out of context. He has since written a book where referred to me as a white woman [Talley is referring to Als’s 2013 book White Girls, in which Als placed people of all races who have been shaped by their relationship to white femininity into the category of “white girls.”] He has referred to me and Truman Capote as white women. I think this person has an agenda, and the agenda was to perhaps show me or portray me as something that was less than a person who was aware of Blackness. Not the color of being black, but Blackness. I am a man of Blackness. I know when a racial injustice has happened to me.

If I chose to walk away when I was told that someone called me “Queen Kong,” if I chose to forgive Loulou de la Falaise for using the term “n—r dandy,” I forgave because there were mountains of layers of complex relationships—with Loulou de la Falaise, particularly, that showed me that perhaps she was high on substances the point at which she said that at a party, a luncheon. She was a woman who depended a lot on substance abuse, alcohol and whatever else she did, she drank a lot and she lived and she partied hard, but this was, for her, a slap. She perhaps was angry with me and thought that this was the best way to hurt me, but as I laughed, and I did laugh when she said that, I was shocked at the same time. I could have stopped and said, “Listen, get out of this party. Go! How dare you?” But I was not brought up to make public scenes. I compartmentalize all the pain, as I did from my childhood, from my sacred garden, my sexual abuse. I’ve had great avenues of pain in my life.

As far as Blackness is a concern, I want to address this: my Blackness is paramount to me as a man. My Blackness is always uppermost in my life. I always have had a sense of Blackness. I think that when people try to write and analyze me, they perhaps think I’ve fallen short of being Black, as a Black man. I have not fallen short of being a Black man. I’m aware of my Blackness, I’m aware I’m a Black individual who came from enslaved people from Africa, who was a descendant of great, great generations of talent and geniuses, and people of color who are great masters in fields of science, art, literature, politics. I think, as an individual, I have indeed given a lot. I have shown my Blackness through my work, my individuality, my personality, and my quiet advocacy. I get a lot of criticism: “Well, you were the only person on the front row, you didn’t do anything to help others!” I did do things to help others, by example.

When I was hired and got to the front row, wherever I was seated on the front row, I was not hired to be an advocate of civil rights, I was hired to be a fashion editor. People forget, I was hired to work in the institutions of white supremacy. I was there in the ‘70s and there was no way I was going to bring with me “pied piper-ness” of Blackness. My Blackitude was prominent in everything I did, in my education, and in my articulation of my knowledge. I’ve always had this body of knowledge.

And if you really want to go back, someone should have said to the person who wrote that in the New Yorker, “Go back and look at Nancy Cunard’s great anthology called Negro.” She published a great anthology called Negro, and this thing was a jazz term called “n—r dandy.” Now, Loulou said it out of context. She should not have said that. But she was by no means a racist. However, the other girl, the PR girl [Clara Saint], she was hurtful and cruel when she said that, calling me “Queen Kong.” She was putting me down, she was dehumanizing me. Queen Kong, King Kong—this was the most dehumanizing thing that had ever happened to me, other than having been kicked by a white sheriff on a highway as I was hijacked by a white hitchhiker from a festival in Atlanta, Georgia one year. This was a very, very hard thing to take and internalize. As I internalize, and tend to compartmentalize the racism that was thrust upon me, it made me stronger as a human being.

I think there is no denying that you exist in a pantheon of individuals, specifically Black individuals, who have opened up space for others to join. As you write in your memoir, you are the only Black person who has held the title of creative director at Vogue

That was historic, and I got there through many, many ladders. I had the rungs of the ladders and I climbed them. If I had that title, I deserved it because I was educated and very smart. As a Black man, you have to be 500 times smarter than the white person sitting next to you on the front row, because you are Black and because of the fact that you are Black, you have not had the opportunities. You have overcome all kinds of odds to get there. I had overcome the odds to get to the front row of the fashion world. I had overcome the odds of lack of opportunities. I had a scholarship, I spoke impeccable French, I could articulate, I knew who Marcel Proust was and had read Marcel Proust, I had read Gustave Flaubert. I had done my homework.

The tower of strength of my Blackness is my body of knowledge in memory and in experience, and therefore I am unique. When you speak of me, you must speak about my talents and knowledge, and that I also shared that knowledge and experiences of my education through the fashion world. I was able to associate and conflate certain moments and experiences such as [Yves Saint Laurent’s] “Porgy and Bess collection” of January 1978, which was my first big success in my career. I was allowed to write the front page review of it, and everyone thought that was beautiful and wonderful. Diana Vreeland thought so, John Fairchild thought so, Sir John Richardson, the great Picasso expert thought so. Everyone was talking about it, but they were talking about it because I was smart. I was smart. And I always was aware of my Blackness. I would be ridiculously, almost pathologically insane had I not been aware of my Blackness and what I could contribute to the world.

I set an example through all those great years of being the first Black creative director. I set that example being at Women’s Wear Daily—which I’m very proud of, those great years. I set that example with Graydon Carter and Tina Brown at Vanity Fair, when I did the spoof on Gone with the Wind that was long before there was a satire written by Alice Randall. That was one of the high moments of my life. I have it somewhere framed. Since that piece, Graydon and I have remained friends. I so admire what he’s done with Air Mail since he’s left Vanity Fair. He controls his narrative. His narrative is big, and so is mine. I have control of my narrative.

I think my Blackness was always very on the front, on the epidermis—you could see that I was Black, no one could say I was aping to be white. Although I was in a white culture, institution. Predominantly, any Black man who lives in this country and is successful is part of the white supremacy of America. President Barack Obama had to walk through lanes of whiteness to get to where he was to become the first African-American president. You have to. This world is a world of white redundancy, supremacy, and white terror. And I am all aware of the terror of the white world, which certainly I experienced when Michael Coady [former WWD CEO, Talley’s boss in the late 1970s] told me I was sleeping with every designer, male or female, in Paris. Someone asked me an interview, “Well, how is that racist?” I said, “That’s more than racist! Are you insane?” Back in those days, we did not have human resources offices. Someone said to me, “Well, why didn’t you try to save your job?” We did not have human resources in those days! I had to internalize, compartmentalize, go to the church, meditate, and decide I would resign. I did not confer with anyone. I had no one to talk to. We did not have human resource offices that we could go to and complain about these kind of things. So, I feel I am a tower of strength.

Vanessa Friedman wrote in The New York Times, “Today fashion has no more room or patience for such divas — not in magazines or modeling or designer ateliers.” Do you agree with that? Is there room for divas?

Well, it depends on who you think a diva is. Divas come in all permutations and rainbows and sizes. I think “diva” is a compliment. I think Rihanna is a diva, a wonderful diva. So is Lady Gaga, so is Beyoncé. I think the late great Nina Simone was a diva. I disagree with Vanessa, I think there is room, whether you call them divas or not. I think there’s room for divas like Mariah Carey. Divas are marvelous people. Yves Saint Laurent was a diva. Karl Lagerfeld was a diva. John Galliano maybe has evolved from being a diva to being a more humble diva. He’s a genius. I equate divas with uniqueness, inspirational personalities. Divas impact the culture and the world. Divas are Marian Anderson. Divas are Leontyne Price. Divas are Judith Jamison, the former director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She was one of the great principal dancers of the theater. Divas are great, great singers of opera. Jessye Norman. I don’t think that you want to tear down the institution of diva-ism or diva-dom, because you’re going to always have divas and divas are important to the culture.

Related: Sandra Bernhard Doesn’t Think New York Is Dead Just Yet