In discussing fashion editor Andre Leon Talley, it is both reasonable and instructive to begin with his appearance, because it is in large part his grand public persona -- coats with gold trim and evening slippers with red bows -- that has transformed him into an enduring emblem of the fashion industry.
Talley has been associated with Vogue magazine since 1983, and currently writes a monthly column as editor at large. Yet even those without a fashion magazine subscription probably have noticed Talley on cable television, where he is regularly explaining, pontificating or enthusing about fashion. As designers in New York put their fall 2003 collections on the runway over the next week, Talley will be one of the industry's most prominent champions.
In a world where the essence of the famous can be boiled down to a single name -- Madonna, Bowie -- Talley requires three to fully capture his presence. His entrances at fashion shows, which often involve his arriving draped in some species of fur, cause the obsequious in the industry to genuflect and even the most laissez-faire to take notice as he settles into a seat of honor.
"It was not a conscious decision to be grand or flamboyant," Talley says. "I make conscious decisions about clothes, which may be over the top. But I did not wake up one day and say, 'I'm going to change myself and be Andre Leon Talley.' "
The accidental Talley is a black man of medium complexion who measures 6 feet 7 inches tall. He has broad shoulders, closely trimmed salt-and-pepper hair and generously drawn features. Thanks to his connections, he wears bespoke English suits and custom-made shoes from Manolo Blahnik. When he speaks in his booming baritone, his vowels have the poshness of someone to the manner born -- although he was not. And in his speech as well as his columns, he regularly makes smooth transitions from bling-bling to Balzac.
In April, Talley's memoir, "A.L.T.," will be published, an event that is significant because of Talley's history in fashion -- he was taken under the wing of the esteemed editor Diana Vreeland, because he is an insider's insider, because he is a vivid fashion character and because he is black.
At age 54, Talley, who has a master's degree in French studies from Brown University, has no peer. That is, there are no other black editors with his connections or industry stature. This fact will be evident during Fashion Week, when teams of editors and retailers take their seats beside the runway. At the center of fashion's concentric circles, Talley is the first and he is the only.
Talley wrote his memoir in the casual, roaming style of his columns. He tells tales of his encounters with boldface names and expresses affection for and gratitude to Vreeland. But the memoir reserves the greatest warmth for the story of his family, particularly Bennie Frances Davis, his maternal grandmother, who raised him in Durham, N.C. (At the time of her death in 1989, Talley was in New York offering pithy video commentary on Vogue's first Madonna cover. He later rushed south to plan her funeral. But he still regrets not having been at her side when she died.)
Talley said he wanted the memoir "to be a hugely personal narrative, rather than some little fashion fodder on how to get to the front row," he says.
In tender memories, Davis is a God-fearing woman who called her only grandchild Ray and who possessed great skill in the kitchen. She had six children, two of whom died at birth. She was a widow and she supported herself by cleaning the men's dormitories at Duke University.
Woven throughout the book is an affectionate sense of black traditions and superstitions, of the place that churchgoing holds, of Southern black patois, of simply being black -- without swagger, anger, politics or artistic agenda.
Talley writes of how he prepared his father for burial after his death in 1993: "My first stop was at Bergdorf Goodman. I bought him a good black Italian suit of silk and mohair, a crisp white shirt and gray silk tie from Charvet, cotton lisle socks, and the best underwear and ribbed undershirt I could find. I bought him fine white Italian calfskin gloves, because he had been a Mason, and Masons must be buried with gloves on. He loved Polo cologne, so I bought him a new bottle, as well as a flacon of Van Cleef & Arpels: I thought he would like to be sent off with a fresh new scent in the side of his coffin. We blacks in the South love it fashionable."
He lovingly describes his grandmother's laundry ritual -- the washing, bleaching and ironing of the family sheets. He defines his grandmother's attention to detail and propriety -- even in her modest circumstances -- as the "simplicity of maintenance." And when he measures her tiny indulgences against fashion's grandest luxuries, he finds that they can bring equal pleasure.
Vreeland may have had a maid pack her valise, but Davis carefully slipped dime store tissue paper between the layers of clothes when she packed her own suitcase. Vreeland had a closet filled with fine linen. His grandmother, Talley says, maintained special drawers for handkerchiefs and gloves.
Race is part of the fabric of Talley's book, present throughout, but not discussed. "I didn't feel like I had to speak to that issue," he says. He began his book without an agenda, he says, and in the writing, he never found himself drawn down a path of color consciousness. "I don't think race was a big element in the making of this book for me." Yet it is there on every page, just as it is there each time Talley enters a gilded room that holds no one else who looks like him or when he walks into the sanctuary of his New York spiritual home -- Abyssinian Baptist Church -- where nearly everyone could be his kin. "There's no way I could have survived at Vogue if I hadn't had church in my life," he says.
The unruly issue of race is present each time a designer describes his muse, envisions his customers or hires a staff. How can it not be in an industry fundamentally rooted in appearance and in setting the cultural definition of beauty? How can it not be in an industry for which a black cover model is an event, lawsuits allege black workers aren't promoted because they don't fit a brand's image, and a designer can ask -- without irony -- What is it like being a black fashion editor? If it matters that there is diversity in television and film -- both in front of and behind the camera -- it should be just as important in fashion's photo studios, editorial meetings and buying offices.
Talley's singular status, coupled with his dynamic presence, makes him both a target and a trophy: criticized for not doing enough and celebrated for all he has accomplished. Among a certain "talented tenth" of the black population, the biblical passage in Luke 12:48 often is paraphrased: To whom much is given, much is required. (Talley sits on the board of the Savannah College of Art and Design and supports the community outreach of Abyssinian.) The demands on Talley have been great and, often, unfair. To encourage, to uplift, to fling open doors, to provide hope, to be a dream maker and a miracle worker, to be a race man.
Talley's personal responsibility, he says, "is to uphold and maintain this position I've been blessed to have for almost 30 years. I'm duty-bound to maintain my perch with respect and reverence for the position."
In fairness, that is all that should be required of Talley.
Yet within the fashion industry, that is not all that is needed.