André Leon Talley, who grew up with his grandmother in Durham in the era of Jim Crow and rose to the heights of the international fashion world, died Tuesday.
Talley, who was 73, had a series of health struggles, but no details surrounding the cause of death were immediately available. He died at a hospital in White Plains, N.Y., according to TMZ, the first to report his death that was later confirmed on Talley’s Instagram account.
“Mr. Talley was the larger-than-life, longtime creative director at Vogue during its rise to dominance as the world’s fashion bible,” the Instagram post on Talley’s page said. “Over the past five decades as an international icon, (he) was a close confidant of Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Paloma Picasso, Diane von Furstenberg, Bethann Hardison, Manolo Blahnik and he had a penchant for discovering, nurturing and celebrating young designers.”
Indeed, Talley was a force in the fashion industry, both for his extravagant flair and his towering frame. Reports put him at a height of at least 6 feet, 6 inches, and his voluminous caftans and capes became his signature style.
He is perhaps best known as Vogue’s creative director from 1988 to 1995 — the first Black man to have the role — and then again from 1998 to 2013. He was its editor-at-large until he left the magazine in 2013.
He was described by the New Yorker in 1994 as “The Only One,” in reference to how rare it was for a Black man to be atop the fashion industry. He was introduced to newer generations of fans as a judge on “America’s Next Top Model.”
But his influence went beyond the pages of fashion magazines and the red carpet of the Met Gala. He used his platform to push for more representation in fashion, calling for more Black models to walk the runway, according to the Museum of Durham History.
Growing up in the South
Born on Oct. 16, 1948, in Washington, D.C., Talley was raised by his maternal grandmother, Bennie Francis Davis, who was a cleaner at Duke University. He graduated from Hillside High School in 1966 and N.C. Central University in 1970, where he majored in French literature. He later earned a master’s degree from Brown University, also in French literature.
He grew up in the segregated South and encountered his share of racism in the fashion industry. He was often the only Black person in the front row of fashion shows, he told The Guardian in May 2020.
Much of his life story is explored in two memoirs, “ALT: A Memoir” in 2003 and “The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir” in 2020, as well as the 2018 documentary, “The Gospel According to André.”
“I can only write this book based on who I am and where I came from, this very humble beginning in a tobacco town of Durham, North Carolina,” he told Essence magazine when “The Chiffon Trenches” was published.
Talley learned style and fashion from Davis and her friends when they would wear their finest hats and clothes every Sunday at church.
“My mother figure to this day is my grandmother. She gave me unconditional love and her home, her values, were my arc of safety,” he told The Guardian in May 2020, when “The Chiffon Trenches” was published. Davis died in 1989, The Guardian reports.
He told The Charlotte Observer in 2018 that he picked up copies of Vogue on the way to Duke, glossy tomes that inspired his love of fashion. They also served as a retreat from the hardships he faced daily, including bullying and sexual abuse, he told The Guardian.
He kept them “piled up on the back porch in an old wooden commode that had been saved for washing or something,” he told The Observer. Talley spoke to The Observer while visiting Charlotte’s Mint Museum Randolph for the opening of a retrospective on designer, Oscar de la Renta, an exhibition that he curated about his friend.
“(Vogue) was my gateway to the world outside of Durham,” he later told NPR. “It was the world of literature, what was happening in the world of art, what was happening in the world of entertainment.”
Career at Vogue
Talley worked assorted jobs before arriving in New York in the 1970s, where he met Diana Vreeland, a fashion editor who became a major influence in his life. He served as a receptionist at Interview magazine under Andy Warhol and the Paris bureau chief of Women’s Wear Daily before arriving at Vogue with a vision of what fashion could, and should, look like on people of all colors and backgrounds.
His relationship and creative partnership with Vogue editor Anna Wintour helped bring him to new heights in a career that saw him dress Michelle Obama when she was first lady and advise the likes of de la Renta and supermodel Naomi Campbell.
In a statement to Vogue on Wednesday, Wintour said, “The loss of André is felt by so many of us today.” She praised his generational talent and infectious enthusiasm, but acknowledged the ups and downs in their relationship. Talley accused her of abandoning him following the release of his 2020 memoir.
“Yet it’s the loss of André as my colleague and friend that I think of now; it’s immeasurable,” Wintour said. “He was magnificent and erudite and wickedly funny — and 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, and who we will all miss so much.”
North Carolina ties
While his career took him all over the world, from international runways to Studio 54 with Andy Warhol to “American’s Next Top Model,” Talley’s North Carolina roots remained strong.
In 2017, he attended a fashion show and took part in a discussion on fashion at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh as part of the exhibit, “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair.”
N.C. Central University Chancellor Johnson O. Akinleye issued a statement Wednesday, remembering how the university’s distinguished alumnus returned to his hometown, always leaving “words of wisdom with us that will always be part of his distinguished legacy.”
Talley said: “Anyone can be talented, but confidence is needed to go out into the world and make a lasting impression.”
“This is certainly the way alumnus Talley lived his life and how he will be remembered forever,” Akinleye wrote in a statement.
Most recently, he was honored in November with the North Carolina Award, which recognizes “significant contributions to the state and nation in the fields of fine arts, literature, public service and science.” He was recognized for his role in literature. He was not in attendance at the black tie awards ceremony.
“André Leon Talley was a pioneer in high fashion and spent his life working to make the industry more diverse and welcoming. Our prayers are with his family, friends and loved ones today,” Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted Wednesday.
In 2018, he told The Observer that he credited his grandmother and his “best upbringing” for instilling him the values that carried him into adulthood.
“I was always confident about myself,” Talley told The Observer. “I was fiercely confident because I had unconditional love, and I was an only child, so all the attention was given over to me. Sartorially, I was always comfortable with my choices. I was always confident in presenting myself to the world.”
In his memoir, Talley reflected not just on how far he had come since growing up in the Jim Crow South but how much more he had left to give to fashion and culture.
“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. “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.”
This story was originally published January 19, 2022 12:05 AM.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Andre Leon Talley worked at Vogue until 2014. He left in 2013.
Corrected Jan 20, 2022