André Leon Talley: The Last Emperor of Fashion

André Leon Talley is one of the oldest icons of American fashion. The Francophone, Francophile protégé of Diana Vreeland and friend to Karl Lagerfeld has just published his memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, looking back over his fifty-year career in fashion and the extravagance of a forgotten time.
André Leon Talley in Paris, 2007. © D.R.

A fashion show in Paris, Milan, or New York without André Leon Talley sitting in the front row? An unthinkable scenario for the last thirty years! He was easy to spot, towering at 6-foot-6, and wearing spectacular outfits, such as silk kimonos, jersey kaftans, and colorful velvet capes. What’s more, he was often the only Black person in the room. The fashion world, as Talley highlighted in his recent memoir The Chiffon Trenches, was historically very white, with the exception of a few ultra-famous models such as Naomi Campbell.

ALT (his nickname on the scene) was both a columnist for the biggest magazines – Interview, Vanity Fair, Vogue – and the friend and confidant of the biggest names, particularly Karl Lagerfeld, whom he referred to as “the Socrates of high fashion.” Talley had an uncompromising eye and a talent for spotting future talents, such as the exuberant Parisian fashion designer Claude Montana. Taking on all these roles at once, Talley was quite the diva. In his memoir, he writes about how his status enabled him to thrive in any environment and, in spite of the soul-searching and extravagant whims of celebrities, to describe a very closed world.

André Léon Talley at Regine’s, New York, 1977. © Darleen Rubin/Penske Media/Rex/Shutterstock
André Leon Talley with Anna Wintour (to his right), circa 1989. © Marina Schiano

Talley himself fell victim to the harsh milieu. In 2013, he was pushed out of Vogue by the magazine’s eternal editor in chief, Anna Wintour for being “too old, too overweight, and too uncool.” Ever courteous, Talley took his revenge with elegance, writing that Anna Wintour had never been interested in fashion, only power, money, and schmoozing advertisers. It has to be said, her timeless little dresses and their uninspiring motifs are hardly a beacon of creativity…

Unfortunately, Talley rarely speaks about himself. Born into a poor family and raised in North Carolina, he quickly developed a passion for French literature, which he studied at Brown University. He originally wanted to become a French teacher, having become so skilled that no one was able to tell if he was French or American. However, fate had other plans for him. While he was working as a receptionist at Interview magazine, he met Andy Warhol and remained his close friend until the artist died. He then met Diana Vreeland, the former high-priestess of fashion at the head of Vogue, who welcomed him into the profession. His new job led him to France, and he regularly flew there by Concorde to party with Yves Saint Laurent and Loulou de la Falaise in private mansions and châteaux, supervise photoshoots with Madonna, and have lunch with Karl Lagerfeld, whom he saw as a mentor.

Will the world described by Talley return in one form or another? Alas, there is no way of knowing. However, without the diva and without Socrates, the world will never be the same again. When reading Talley, Marcel Proust comes to mind as he recalls a bygone era, naturally idealized and most likely lost forever.

Article published in the September 2020 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.