The always gracious former Vogue creative director André Leon Talley and I have chatted many times over the years about incredibly fashionable things.
Among them: the beauty in Oscar de la Renta’s classic hourglass design; Madame Grès’ contributions to sportswear; the staying power of the Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress. We’ve gushed over former first lady Michelle Obama. And back in January when Hollywood’s A-list actresses wore black gowns to the Golden Globes in solidarity with #MeToo, I asked Talley if the season’s subdued red carpet would have a lasting effect on fashion. He didn’t disappoint.
But discussing the depth of a hemline was as deep as Talley would typically go. Ask him too much about politics, or his personal life — as in André, darling, whom are you dating? — and risk the 6-foot, 6-inch cloaked style god defaulting to the salty, yet high-post, can’t-be-bothered mode. Conversation finished. Interview over. (Finger snaps here.)
This is why anyone with the tiniest of tiny curiosities about what truly makes Talley tick will enjoy director Kate Novack’s documentary The Gospel According to André, set to open Friday at the Ritz at the Bourse. The movie premiered last summer at the Toronto Film Festival.
Those who live and die by the glitz, the glam, and the flowery opinions of beautiful people will see Gospel as quite the bougie home run. Framed around the 2016 election, the film is chocked with big-name cameos such as designers Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Norma Kamali, and Philadelphia’s own Ralph Rucci. Former Today host (and Temple grad) Tamron Hall and Will.i.am lather Talley with well-deserved fashion cred as it quickly becomes apparent that, as a black man, he had to be twice as good to get where he was. Even Vogue czarina Anna Wintour admits that part of the reason she relied on Talley at Vogue was because he knew more about fashion history than she did.
Talley truly is the fashion industry’s black superhero. And in this film, he’s finally getting his due.
“I was very moved. Very, very moved,” Talley told me the day after Gospel screened at the Los Angeles County Museum. Talley talked to me in his exuberant, European air. “Well there was Tom Ford. Billy Idol came with his new girlfriend [China Chow]. Rachel Roy was there with her beautiful daughter, Ava.”
That’s how Talley talks, with so much bravado and high-fashion deflection. You get caught up in his fabulosity, deflecting you from getting to know him better. That’s where Gospel’s strength lies. Novack has the ability to lift the veil, or in Talley’s case, the billowing caftans, that have shrouded him in certain mystery. The Talley we see in Gospel is authentic and vulnerable. Still bombastic. Still larger than life. But also very real.
“I trusted Kate, the director,” said Talley, who worked with Novack’s husband, Andrew Rossi, back during the filming of the 2016 documentary about the magic of the Met Gala, The First Monday in May. “I’m very guarded about my life. But Kate and I became very good friends. She did her homework. She came with stories that I had done. The historical package was there. That’s why I opened up. She just didn’t put a camera in front of me.”
When we first see Talley, he’s sitting on the expansive porch of his White Plains home watching a crew cutting down hulking tree. His love for nature and beauty is apparent. Talley implores the viewers throughout the film to find and define beauty for themselves. We are treated to film snippets of 1980s-era Talley while he was based in Paris working for Women’s Wear Daily. But the real action starts in Durham, N.C.
Novack interviews Talley’s high school friends about his childhood. He was raised by his churchgoing grandmother, who supported Talley by cleaning Duke University dorms. Talley’s dad was a cabdriver who, Talley says, was more fond of a childhood friend, while his mother seemed to be embarrassed by his very existence. How did the flamboyant teen escape from the harsh realities of his deeply religious Jim Crow South neighborhood? Through fashion, of course.
Talley goes to Brown, where he majors in French. And while there we see through the eyes of friends how he plays dress up. He moves to New York and in between grooving at Studio 54 with models like Bethann Hardison and Pat Cleveland — there is even a picture of him dancing with Diana Ross — he endears himself to then-Vogue editor Diana Vreeland (whose sense of style, he says, influenced him as much as his mother), through whom he nails a job at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, before landing a dream job in Paris covering fashion for WWD. His first major interview: Karl Lagerfeld.
Impressively, Novack even gets Talley to talk about his dating life. He tiptoes around the topic but still left me wanting more. But honestly, that’s what being alluring is about, isn’t it? Talley admits that during his last three decades as a fashion insider, his dating life has been nonexistent, but for a quick moment he muses. It would have been nice, he says, to have found a true life partner like Ford, or perhaps, Manolo Blahnik CEO George Malkemus, both of whom are married.
And the subject is abruptly changed.
But what I found most moving is when Talley talks about racism. Talley recounts rocks thrown at him by white boys on Duke’s campus. In another story, a designer implies that Talley slept his way to the top. They basically called “me a black buck,” he said. But the tears didn’t come until he remembered a fashion editor who referred to him as “Queen Kong.” As his eyes welled, so did mine.
But at the end of the day Talley survives. Not because Talley not only believes in the immense power of the Lord — hence the almost constant gospel music in the background. But Talley believes in his own #blackmanmagic. “Blackness is indeed power and strength, and it comes from within,” Talley told me. “I have a role to play, and that role is important to the advancement of our culture.”