By Christopher Turner
André Leon Talley, the former long-time creative director for Vogue and a fashion icon in his own right, has died at age 73, according to a statement on his official Instagram account.
The cause of death has not been released.
The pioneering fashion editor, known for his high-profile friendships and larger-than-life personality, helped transform an industry that had very little diversity in its upper echelons. At 6 feet 6 inches tall with his booming baritone voice, vibrant caftans and unmistakable presence, Talley was a Black man who demanded to be seen and heard in an industry filled with notable forces and dominated by white men and women. His decades-long career in fashion included volunteering at the New York City Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute as well as stints at Interview, W, Women’s Wear Daily, The New York Times and, most notably, Vogue alongside editor-in-chief Anne Wintour. He would leave Vogue in 2013, but his influence and presence in the fashion industry continued long after his departure from the legendary style bible.
With his eye for talent, Talley was a front row fixture who spent his career in search of rising stars and championing them. He also, by his own account, dealt with racism, ageism and weight discrimination.
In celebration of the life and career of André Leon Talley, here are 15 things that you might not have known about the renowned fashion icon.
1. Talley was born on October 16, 1948, in Washington, DC, but at two months old, his parents took him to Durham, North Carolina, where he was raised by his grandmother, Bennie Francis Davis, whom he called Mama. He grew up in the Jim Crow–era South, where segregation defined social boundaries. In his 2020 memoir,The Chiffon Trenches, Talley detailed his difficulties growing up within that context, considering his large size as a Black man and his penchant for luxury fashion and lifestyle.
2. “To my 12-year-old self, raised in the segregated South, the idea of a Black man playing any kind of role in this world seemed an impossibility,” he wrote in his memoir. “To think of where I’ve come from, where we’ve come from, in my lifetime, and where we are today, is amazing. And, yet, of course, we still have so far to go.”
2. A signature moment in his youth was the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and the presence of Kennedy’s glamorous wife, Jackie Kennedy, whom Talley described as the “first influencer” of the modern world.
“I was obsessed with her pillbox hat, and her little snippet of fur at the collar, and her fur-edged boots, as well as the muff she carried to keep her hands warm during the freezing-cold January day [of the inauguration],” Talley wrote in his memoir.
3. He attended North Carolina Central University, where he graduated in 1970 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in French literature. He won a scholarship to Brown University, where he wrote a thesis on the influence of Black women in Baudelaire and Flaubert, and earned a Master of Arts degree in French literature in 1972. He initially planned to teach French; however, through connections he made as a student, Talley came to New York City in 1974 and quickly found himself at the frenzied intersection of fashion and art, working and mingling with the likes of Halston, Karl Lagerfeld and Andy Warhol.
4. He apprenticed, unpaid, for the legendaryVogue editor Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1974. Talley often referred to Vreeland as his mentor, writing that, through working with her, “I learned to speak the language of style, fantasy and literature.” It was also through Vreeland that he entered the magazine world. She was so impressed by his skills that she helped him get a job at Andy Warhol’s studio Factory and Interview magazine for $50 a week.
5. From there he worked forW and Women’s Wear Daily, further utilizing his French skills by becoming the latter publication’s Paris bureau chief and living in France from 1978 to 1980. His first big piece for the magazine, on Yves Saint Laurent, helped establish him in the often-fickle city of Paris.
6. Talley also worked forThe New York Times and other publications before finally landing at Vogue, where he worked as fashion news director from 1983 to 1987 and then as creative director from 1988 to 1995. He left Vogue and moved back to Paris in 1995 to again work for W, while serving as contributing editor at Vogue. In 1998, he returned to Vogue as the editor-at-large until his departure in 2013. Except for the period with W magazine in Paris, he remained a fixture at Vogue for nearly four decades.
7. He was the first African-American male to edit the iconic fashion magazine, and spent most of his career advocating for diversity in the fashion industry. Talley often spoke in recent years on the need for greater diversity and understanding. In a 2020 interview withWWD, Talley said, “The biggest challenge is to get up every day and to go forward and to fight the battle…a Black man must think about racism every single day.”
8. Much like his mentor Diana Vreeland, who once advised First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Talley served as a style advisor to the Obama family in 2008. He was famous for introducing Michelle Obama to Taiwanese-Canadian designer Jason Wu, from whom she bought many dresses – including her much-loved inaugural gown.
9. Talley joined the judging panel forAmerica’s Next Top Model in 2010 during Season 14 alongside host Tyra Banks, creative director Jay Manuel, runway coach J. Alexander and fellow panellist Nigel Barker. He remained with the competition series through four cycles, departing after the completion of its 17th season.
10. Talley authored several books, includingA.L.T.: André Leon Talley (2003), A.L.T. 365+ (2005), Little Black Dress (2012), Valentino: At the Emperor’s Table (2014), Oscar de la Renta, His Legendary World of Style (2015), The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir (2020); and contributed to several others.
11. AfterThe Chiffon Trenches was published, he fell out with Wintour, whom he accused of abandoning him. In his memoir, Talley suggested she played a somewhat parasitic role in his life, feeding off his energy.
Following the news that Talley has died, Wintour remembered the fashion giant in Vogue‘s obituary published on Wednesday, January 19, 2022.
“The loss of Andre is felt by so many of us today,” Wintour wrote. “Yet it’s the loss of Andre as my colleague and friend that I think of now; it’s immeasurable. He was magnificent and erudite and wickedly funny—mercurial, too. Like many decades-long relationships, there were complicated moments, but all I want to remember today, all I care about, is the brilliant and compassionate man who was a generous and loving friend to me and to my family for many, many years.”
12. He was the subject of the 2017 documentary filmThe Gospel According to André, and had a cameo appearance in the 2008 feature film Sex and the City. He also appeared in the behind-the-scenes documentaries Valentino: The Last Emperor (2009) and The September Issue (2009), where he memorably declared, “It’s a famine of beauty, honey! My eyes are starving for beauty!”
13. Talley was a fixture at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where, according to the church’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, he arrived with celebrities such as Mariah Carey and Tamron Hall but was known for his serious faith.
“With all his celebrity and globe-trotting he came in the best of times and he showed up in the worst of times,” Butts said. “He showed up to worship. He supported the church, he gave generously, and his friends loved him.”
14. Talley had struggled with his weight since his grandmother’s death in 1989, and in recent years was largely isolated in the house in White Plains, N.Y., where he lived, sleeping in a bed that Oscar de la Renta gave him. The home became the subject of a lawsuit last year, when the actual owner, his former friend George Malkemus, attempted to evict him (Talley had a history of bad financial decisions).
15. In 2021, Talley was awarded the Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres honour for arts and letters in France. This award is granted to someone who has significantly contributed to the “inheritance of French culture.” It is one of the highest French honours that can be given.
On April 22, 2021, he described the French recognition as the “best day of my life” in an Instagram post.
“To be in the august and impeccable body of Chevaliers: Diana Vreeland, Tina Turner, James Baldwin, Rudolph Nureyev and for a black man educated in public schools in Durham, North Carolina, I thank my French teacher, the late Cynthia P. Smith, who wrapped me in French: the language, the culture, style, history and literature,” he wrote.