In the nearly 25 years since his indelible turn as himself in the seminal fashion documentary Unzipped, André Leon Talley has become a fabulously familiar fashion figure. He rose as one of the industry’s top arbiters in the pages of Vogue, where he spent 30 years, but it’s through his memorable appearances onscreen – from judging America’s Next Top Model to his entertaining punditry in recent fashion docs The September Issue and The First Monday in May, and again playing himself on Sex and the City and, more recently, Empire – that he became pop-culture famous.
With his informed wit and pithy commentary, Talley, 68, has always been the keen observer telling someone else’s story – and now someone is finally telling his. The new documentary The Gospel According to André shines a spotlight on Talley’s journey in “the chiffon trenches,” as he calls the fashion industry, from that first foot-in-the-door job as a receptionist for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine (“$50 a week”) to his time near the top of the Vogue masthead.
Filmmaker Kate Novack (writer and executive producer of Page One: Inside the New York Times) was fascinated by Talley in all his previous documentary appearances, though her impetus for approaching him about a project of his own came from reading his 2003 autobiography A.L.T.: A Memoir. In the book, Talley quotes his mentor, fashion journalist Diana Vreeland – “Exaggeration is the only reality” – and there is an extent to which that’s true in his own life. Even Talley’s close friend, Manolo Blahnik CEO George Malkemus, affectionately calls him a “fashion persona.”
“He has a much richer story than I think is evident in that persona,” Novack said before her movie’s world premiere at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival. “It’s one that transcends fashion, and is also a story about American cultural history and the history of race in America.”
Novack’s film covers some of the same ground as Talley’s memoir, but she fleshes it out with context through archival footage and images, plus new interviews with long-time peers, former teachers, and childhood friends. The film also offers fly-on-the-wall coverage of the politically engaged Talley’s recent adventures, including his stunned disbelief watching the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and documents his experience watching the 2017 inauguration in Washington, D.C. with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.
“I think that the intellectual side of him, and the quiet, contemplative side of him, is not part of what we think of when we think of André Leon Talley,” said Novack. Prior to entering fashion, for example, Talley earned a French degree, then a master’s degree in French literature at Brown University.
“Certainly, he’s always on,” Novack admitted. “But the flip side of that is that he is deeply private. His home is his sanctuary – we did not go into his home, you’ll notice.” Instead, the camera joins Talley on the veranda of his house in White Plains, N.Y. (where he is found directing the gardening work of an arborist, much like an editor at a fashion shoot) and only occasionally ventures as far as his leopard-carpeted parlour.
“When he’s in the archive at Condé Nast and gets emotional looking back,” Novack added in reference to another scene in the film, “he’s had to internalize a lot over the years in order to function in a world in which he succeeded and thrived.”
“They used to call me ‘Queen Kong.’ I was like an ape – a gay ape,” is how a still-incensed Talley recalls learning what a major PR director of the 1980s called him behind his back when he was Women’s Wear Daily’s Paris bureau chief. “But I had to move on.”
He smiled through the casual racism and epithets throughout his early career, beginning with formative years growing up in the segregated South, where he was raised by his grandmother Bennie in the industrial town of Durham, N.C. Talley recalls being bullied, once even pelted with rocks, as he walked across the Duke University campus (on his bi-weekly pilgrimages to pick up the precious latest copy of Vogue from the news agent on the white side of town).
As another friend from Talley’s graduate-school days remembers, “He was all presence.” So if Novack’s film sometimes veers into being celebratory, it’s because that presence paved the way for landmark moments in a subsequent generation, like fashion editor Edward Enninful being appointed the first black (and first male) editor-in-chief of British Vogue last year. Novack’s doc also exacts perspective from author Fran Lebowitz, Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, and fashion designer Marc Jacobs, who declares that Talley “is one of the last great editors who knows what he’s seeing and knows where it comes from.”
And he does. Because as A.L.T. would be the first to tell you: as a young reporter, he did his homework. Take his 1978 coverage in Women’s Wear Daily of Yves Saint Laurent’s “Broadway Suit” collection inspired by George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, which embodies a certain kind of confident black attitude typical of African-American church style.
That same sort of swagger was a formative influence on Talley’s own character and shaped modern culture, and Novack’s documentary highlights this with mid-century footage of southern black church-going women, who in turn recall turn-of-the-century images by the fashion-photography-pioneering Séeberger brothers of socialites parading their finery in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne. Few but Talley understood at the time how the two disparate peacocking rituals are related, let alone that they would become the progenitors of what we now call street style.
Novack points out how early in the film, Yale University professor Eboni Marshall Turman comments about how Talley is at once a legend in mainstream culture but he’s also “a big black man in America from the black south.”
That statement encapsulates one of the reasons why Novack felt sharing Talley’s story was important. “In many ways, that is meant to be one of the controlling ideas of the movie – exploring what the tension was between those two things, and how he navigated it all.”
The Gospel According to André opens May 25 in Toronto and Vancouver.