André Leon Talley: A Teacher at Heart

Talley spent over a decade fostering talent at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Here, SCAD president and founder Paula Wallace remembers her longtime friend.

by Paula Wallace

Talley in front of Magnolia Hall. Courtesy of SCAD.

On the evening of January 18th, when I got the call that André was gone, I gave up all hope for sleep and began to write, hoping to capture in words the scenes and sensations of our relationship, all the love and grief surging into one immense tide of feeling. There will never be another like André Leon Talley, fashion's truest original, heir to James Baldwin and Alice Walker, a goliath of intellect and influence with the wondrous heart of a child. Many know of his legendary, picaresque career with Warhol, Vreeland, Wintour, the New York days and Paris nights, his gift for language, his long reign as fashion's kingmaker, the columns and Vogue covers that forever altered cultural history. For me, he was much more than all that. He was a friend.

Our friendship changed me and forever shaped SCAD, where we first met more than 20 years ago. By then, I’d been reading his column for years and in 2001 invited him to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at our annual SCAD Fashion Show. Knowing André loved spectacle, we greeted him at the airport with a Southern gospel choir singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

“A choir of angels! My jaw is officially on the tarmac!” he said, laughing in that unmistakable voice, earthy and deep and supersonic all at once.

We were fast friends. In truth, André befriended everyone at SCAD, including our students, with whom he loved to hold court: before the SCAD Fashion Show, after a film screening, in the midst of exhibitions he’d curated at the SCAD Museum of Art. He shared his breadth of knowledge democratically across majors: fashion, writing, photography, graphic design, accessory design, furniture design, jewelry, art history. And he shared his love with others, too, summoning a train of luminaries to the school: Tom Ford, Miuccia Prada, Stephen Burrows, Marc Jacobs, Vera Wang, Ruben and Isabel Toledo, Manolo Blahnik, Oscar de la Renta, Vivienne Westwood, Diane von Furstenberg, they all came at André’s invitation, to share their wisdom and become rejuvenated themselves by our students’ joie de vivre.

Talley speaking with students in New York City. Courtesy of SCAD.

André, ever the ingenious creative director, always found a way to make beautiful things happen. A few years ago, as he planned an upcoming issue for a Russian magazine, the publication proved a little slow in sending him funds to shoot the features. So, he and Jonathan Becker came to Savannah and shot the whole thing on campus. They were a model short and André put my daughter Madison in a gorgeous saffron gown for a full-page spread.

“You know I'm not really a model, right?,” she said, as André zipped her up. “You are today, sister!” he said, directing her with the same magic he used with everyone from Iman to Kate Moss.

Oscar de la Renta, Paula Wallace, and André Leon Talley attending the annual SCAD student fashion show in 2001. Courtesy of SCAD.

One year during the SCAD Film Festival, on a halcyon Savannah afternoon, André, who, in his later years, found walking difficult, said how perfect it would be to ride a bike around Forsyth Park. An hour later, we'd found him an adult-sized red tricycle to ride. “Très chic!” he said, as he rang the little bell and pedaled around the park, giddy, laughing with childlike joy.

When André set foot near the runway, he was no child. He was a lion, missing nothing, his keen eye roving, taking it all in. I was fortunate to attend several shows at his invitation over the years, Marc Jacobs, Chanel, the Dior show at Versailles. In New York, he invited my husband Glenn and me to one of his “Miu Miu Musings,” a series of elegant parlor discussions right out of Bloomsbury.

My fondest moments with André took place at the university’s Magnolia Cottage, where, after long days of studio visits with students, he and I would retreat to watch films until the wee hours. I made truffle popcorn and André chose the films, movies like Tallulah Bankhead’s Lifeboat or Joan Crawford’s The Women. Those evenings together, discussing film, fashion, history, education, were magical. He was a movie date nonpareil and truly had a teacher’s heart. A couple of years ago, after a screening of The Gospel According to André at SCAD Atlanta, he held forth on stage for hours, taking selfies with at least a hundred eager students, making each one feel loved and seen.

Talley strides along Savannah’s Madison Square on his way to deliver SCAD’s 2012 commencement address. Courtesy of SCAD.

André was deeply religious. On lazy Sunday afternoons, he would reminisce about his beloved grandmother and their life in North Carolina, his memories of their family church on Mt. Sinai Road in Durham, where, as he wrote in his memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, “Every Sunday was an unofficial fashion show."“He and I often shared favorite hymns, and André would exhort me to “stay prayed up.”

He was very sensitive and felt everything deeply: wounds, loves, passions, it was all there in his writing and his life, for all to see. His letters and emails often read more like Formalist poetry, surging with telegraphed feeling. Many years ago, he was planning to leave Savannah during a heavy thunderstorm. Worried, I emailed and asked if he’d gotten out safely. He immediately wrote back.


I have not left Savannah,

I don't move in a storm.

When there was such a storm in North Carolina, this is what happened in our house.

We had no basement.

Everything shut down, TVs off, lights off, go lay on top of your bed with the curtains and window shades drawn

Without question, the phone could not be touched, or answered

One had to remain silent, not even speak from one room to the other. So my grandmother would just lay still; and so would I.

And when the storm was over, life went back full speed ahead.

My grandmother exercised the same routine, unplugging every toaster and fan. I completely understood.

I sometimes wonder why he chose SCAD as the beneficiary of his love and learning. I think he found here the outward manifestation of all the worlds that lived inside him. SCAD was André’s happy place, the marriage of Southern charm to a design sensibility, cosmopolitan taste, and the everlasting pursuit of wisdom. He rejoiced in the warmth of the Southern sun and hospitable nature of our community. We were kindred. We were family.

Manolo Blahnik, Talley, and Paula Wallace discuss footwear design at SCAD’s Gutstein Gallery in 2011. Courtesy of SCAD.

Many alumni have written to me about how much André’s presence at SCAD meant to them, including designer Bradley Bowers, who wrote of the courage he drew from experiencing “the magnificent force of nature that [André] personified.” André, he said, gave others hope, “especially young Black kids like me who needed to see someone of his stature be themselves fearlessly and unapologetically.”

One of the last things André asked of me was to help him find a photograph of Oscar de la Renta and Karl Lagerfeld dancing the samba at Karl's home. He wanted to see his friends. Right now, André must be reuniting with his beloved companions, captivating every soul around him, extolling the many gifts of life. When he arrived at the party, turning heads in his caftan and bejeweled turban, I know in my heart that choirs of angels greeted him at the gates.