FASHION

André Leon Talley’s Definition of Luxury is the Only One That Mattered

Andre Leon Talley on stage in an extravagant white cape.
Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SCAD

Shortly after the news of fashion editor André Leon Talley’s passing spread across Twitter, a clip went viral of Talley witnessing Rihanna’s now legendary arrival at the 2015 Met Gala in that iconic Guo Pei-designed yellow dress with the train that swallowed up half the red carpet. “Ah! I love a girl from humble beginnings who becomes a big star,” Talley says in the video. “It’s like the American dream. That’s how you do it.” Talley, an Ivy League-educated editor with more than four decades in the industry, certainly knew the importance of the right fabric choice or the specific cut of a bodice, but he also knew that the power of fashion and luxury could be found within the people who made it, wore it, and those who were inspired by it. This was not simply a great dress on a red carpet, but a captivating image of a self-made Black women from Barbados transforming into an icon before his—and the world’s eyes—through the power of fashion.

He saw clothes and luxury not as means to their own end, but instead, as punctuations of beauty in the pursuit of a life well-lived.

Given his polished presentation (notably, a predilection for extravagant capes in the last few decades of his life) and a gifted tendency toward bon mots, it is perhaps easy for some to imagine Talley as a shallow stock fashion character ready for an appearance in an imagined The Devil Wears Prada sequel or cut from the early draft of an Ugly Betty episode. The reality is that Talley was an incredibly educated, knowledgeable editor who possessed a unique and refined point of view. His outlook gave no power to the ugly sides of fashion and beauty (greed, status anxiety, bodily insecurity) but rather to its purer goods (fantasy, inspiration, a celebration of human creativity and expression). Here was not an editor necessarily obsessed with chasing seasonal trends or changing dictates—he was always in the pursuit of something higher.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the many times Talley attempted to define luxury over the course of his life. It was not a definition based in the idea of flexing obscene wealth, bur rather one that was almost spiritual, worth perusing—and it was actually obtainable, regardless of the status of your bank account.

“Luxury and beauty are the same thing to me,” he told podcast host Dario Calmese in 2020 during an episode of The Institute of the Black Imagination.

“Luxury is not necessarily that you’ve arrived with your Vuitton luggage with beautiful couture clothes—although that can be beautiful with the right clothes and you are the right person with the suitcase—but I learned early on, because I made my own universe, that beauty is everywhere around you.” Talley then went on to rhapsodize on the beauty of trees, the cardinals that flew about his yard, and a single cut rose in a glass. “The most beautiful thing can be an impeccable white sheet that’s been pressed and put on the bed,” he continued. “Beauty is in the gestures of a woman putting on her lipstick.”

“Luxury: it’s not about going and buying the most extraordinary set of luggage or the most extraordinary ring or six-ply cashmere sweater—that’s luxury, too,” he once told the Yale Daily News. “But luxury can also be you having lunch with your best friend, Karl Lagerfeld."

“The greatest luxury is to be a kind, good person and to impart [upon] humanity something that will enrich their lives, to have a moment with someone that you’ve imparted richness,” he continued.

“To me, luxury is not just about a ride on the Concorde or wearing a sable-lined raincoat. That’s one kind of material luxury. It does not compare, though, to the extraordinary luxury of one’s emotional sustainability through the luxury of love, which comes through the nurturing of other people,” he said in a 2020 interview with Shondaland. “Luxury is having a home that is impeccably clean. My grandmother taught me to wax wood floors. I remember the luxury of running through lines of fresh white sheets drying outside in the open air, after they had been boiled in a big black pot. We did not have wealth or extraordinary furniture, but we had the luxury of love and cleanliness.”

“Luxury is...to be able to take control of one’s life, health, and the pursuit of happiness in a way that is joyful,” he once said.

Although he saw luxury as a sort of Zen state, that’s not to say that Talley didn’t appreciate the more material, expensive side of things (his personal collection of Vuitton luggage was said to be more than 50 pieces, all of which he polished with yacht varnish—a trick he told The Guardian he learned from Diana Vreeland). But that was only one small aspect of his experience of beauty in the world.

The origins of Talley’s outlook could be found in his own humble beginnings. He was raised by his grandmother, a professional cleaner at Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina. While he started poring over the pages of issues of Vogue found in his local library at a young age, he found equal inspiration in the way his grandmother and members of his community dressed for church each Sunday.

That origin also underlines one of the other major facets of the legacy he leaves behind: for years, he was often the only Black editor in the front row—and unlike many of his peers, from a working class background. His life serves not only as a testament to finding beauty in unexpected places, but also in finding talent and championing perspectives from outside the safe, prescriptive norms. Perhaps that’s also the only way to keep the fashion industry from eating its own tail and further devolving into a world that only cares about sales numbers, statistics, and status. Yes, those are ever-present realities, but fashion’s true power lies in the fact that it can all add up to something which can’t be quantified in a spreadsheet. It’s about moments like Rihanna in that yellow gown, in the simple pleasures of self expression, and in leaving behind the kind of work that stirs a little boy flipping through the pages of a fashion magazine to dream of something more.