Carte Blanche in the Couture
Carte Blanche in the Couture
By Miriam R. Kramer
On furlough because of the impact of COVID-19, I have been trying to strike a balance between paying attention to the news and maintaining balance. This spring has been a brutal time for our country and the world. The unpredictable pandemic has thrown other societal fault-lines into keen relief. Black Lives Matter protests have boiled over after filmed incidents of police brutality against Black men and women reached a tipping point with the death of George Floyd. As one who loves style, fashion, and art, when I heard that noted African-American Vogue editor André Leon Talley’s new memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, had been released, I was immediately intrigued to read it. It has proven fascinating and particularly illuminating within the context of these protests to see all that Monsieur Talley has achieved as a journalist and aesthetic tastemaker against strong societal headwinds in such a relatively short amount of time.
Talley’s tale of becoming is an inspirational story of a man with the spiritual strength and wherewithal to define himself from his childhood in the homophobic, racially segregated North Carolina of the Fifties and Sixties to his coming of age on the scene of fashion journalism in New York and Paris from the Seventies onwards. An arts lover devoted to the pages of Vogue, he grew up in Durham, NC in his grandmother’s house, reading his way through his local library and going across town as a pre-teen to buy his favorite magazine. His beloved “Mama” raised him to comport himself with dignity and self-respect within the Baptist church, which was also one of his training grounds in loving the fashion he saw modeled by his family and friends every Sunday. He started forming his own definitions of luxury from her emphasis on having high standards and discipline, such as in maintaining cracklingly clean, ironed linens for everyday use.
After majoring in French studies in college, Talley attended Brown University on scholarship to get a Master’s Degree, with plans to teach French afterwards. Meeting the legendary former Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue editor Diana Vreeland when he served as a volunteer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute in 1974 proved a turning point. A woman of warmth and great spirit, she championed the brilliant 6’6” African-American for his aesthetic tastes and abilities, helping to launch him into the world of media. Andy Warhol provided Talley’s next training ground when he hired him for the staff of Interview magazine. Warhol’s world allowed Talley to shine as a sensitive, canny observer of fashion and the arts, a flamboyant steal-the-scenester romping across New York nightlife and meeting anyone who was anyone at places like Studio 54.
Talley went from triumph to triumph when he was hired away from Interview by John Fairchild of Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) to serve as a fashion journalist in Paris, based out of the WWD offices on rue Cambon close to Coco Chanel’s legendary shop. Here he established some of his important close friendships within fashion, such as those with Yves St. Laurent, Oscar de la Renta, and in particular Karl Lagerfeld, who went on to completely revive Chanel as its creative director in the early 1980s. His long-time relationships with these and other highly influential figures helped form him as a nexus of fashion influence and an encyclopedic repository of knowledge about fashion and the arts.
I was saddened but unsurprised to hear about the hurts and jabs of prejudice, subtle and otherwise, Talley has experienced during his notable career in fashion’s “chiffon trenches.” Called “Queen Kong” in Paris behind his back, he also felt diminished by the words of a WWD staffer who falsely accused him of sleeping his way to the top in Paris. He felt that this humiliating accusation reeked of racism, positioning him as Massah’s “big black buck.” As a victim of childhood sexual abuse, Talley did not engage in sexual relationships, which made the accusations even more ludicrous.
Returning from Paris to New York in search of a healthier working atmosphere, Talley was finally hired by then–editor-in-chief Grace Mirabella of Vogue, despite their differences in personality and tastes. There he met Anna Wintour. As he reports it, she knew even before he did that their paths as colleagues and editors were to be aligned for good. When Wintour was hired as the new editor-in-chief in 1988, he became the first African-American creative director of Vogue, taking the top spot as a fashion journalist and editor for a Black man until Edward Enninful was hired thirty years later as the editor-in-chief of British Vogue in 2018. As a contributing writer and fashion editor for multiple other publications along the way, such as Vanity Fair, Talley’s influence on the world of fashion has been formidable. As one who has taught at and served as member of the board of trustees for the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), he has acted as a formal educator and curator as well.
Talley was never an éminence grise for Anna Wintour—rather an éminence rouge like his mentor Diana Vreeland. While an editor and necessarily a critic, by nature he is obviously a champion: one who highlights and trumpets the abilities of those he admires, respects, or loves. He set off Wintour’s sphinx-like demeanor, nonverbal approach and hauteur with his warmth and erudition. As the power behind Wintour’s throne—one who could put her ideas and visions into words—Talley has been a constant companion, colleague, and catalyst for the foremost force controlling fashion journalism.
After ascending to this top echelon, the back-to-back deaths of his beloved grandmother and Diana Vreeland sent Talley into an emotional tailspin, in which he began eating to assuage his loss. As a larger-than-life man with a personality and intelligence to match, he recreated his sartorial style to accommodate his increased girth, with monumental, elegant caftans, capes, and coats made for him by designer friends as an expression of his huge, exuberant personality. It is terribly difficult to be bespoke in a world that rewards convention, and harder if one is particularly marginalized by color, size, or sexual preference. Talley has had the skill and wherewithal to find a milieu that mostly rewarded him for being unique and to rise to the top of it regardless of the challenges he has faced and demons he has known.
Talley’s sadness at past and current loss tints his memoir. Along with the deaths of influences and friends such as Diana Vreeland and Princess Lee Radziwill, his current estrangement from Anna Wintour, along with other lost friendships, such as the one he shared with the eccentric, controlling Karl Lagerfeld, have taken a toll. The carefully curated cover photo of Talley on his book jacket is simultaneously colorful, stylish, and somber, properly evoking a man of seventy-plus looking back seriously over the deeply felt losses and ensuing loneliness that have accompanied his humbling achievements as a journalist, a curator, an aesthete, a champion of young and brilliant designers, and perhaps most importantly, as a loyal friend. His thirty-odd years attendance as a regular parishioner at the established Abyssinian Church in Harlem provides him with spiritual bedrock in light of these losses.
Monsieur Talley is a complicated, fascinating individual, meticulous in his descriptions of style, clothing, and beauty; exemplary in discussing the way aesthetics and creativity make life worthwhile. I kept thinking of one of my favorite writers, Truman Capote, as I was reading The Chiffon Trenches. When I was in my teens and in need of one, Capote always felt like my friend from afar. André Leon Talley feels the same way. They even briefly crossed paths in their News York lives. To me they overlapped in their Southern roots, ability to befriend people from all walks of life, sincere appreciation of the beau monde, and concurrent insider/outsider status within that world. Talley loved reading about Capote’s famous Black and White Ball of 1966, and even shared one of his society “swan” friends, Princess Lee Radziwill.
Although I tried to read his first book, A.L.T.: A Memoir, I could not find it for less than several hundred dollars online. It was not available on e-reader. I recommend the 2017 documentary The Gospel According to André, which complements Talley’s memoir, focusing on him as an African-American role model. If designer friends like Karl Lagerfeld have given André Leon Talley “carte blanche” in their wildly luxurious closets of made-to-order clothes, the “couture,” he has earned it through curating, tailoring, cataloguing, and creating this existence of his. At a time of upheaval and violence, it is very satisfying to see how much this Black life blazed trails and continues to matter.