The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The fashion world mourns André Leon Talley: ‘No one was more soulful and grander than you were’

André Leon Talley, a former editor at large for Vogue magazine, in 2016. (Seth Wenig/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

André Leon Talley, the towering legend who shattered expectations surrounding race in the fashion industry as the rare Black editor in a predominantly White and elitist industry, died Tuesday at the age of 73.

The death of Talley, the former editor-at-large of U.S. Vogue whose career in fashion journalism spanned six decades, was confirmed by his literary agent, David Vigliano, to The Washington Post.

“He had such an enthusiasm for life. He was a truthteller. He was a singular personality,” Vigliano said. “Public figures aren’t that genuine and compelling as André was.”

Talley’s Instagram account also confirmed his death early Wednesday.

“Mr. Talley was the larger-than-life, longtime creative director at Vogue during its rise to dominance as the world’s fashion bible,” the post reads. “Over the past five decades as an international icon 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.”

Talley had a series of health struggles, but no details surrounding the cause of death were immediately available as of early Wednesday. He died at a hospital in White Plains, N.Y., according to TMZ, the first to report his death.

Talley was best known as the first Black man to be creative director for Vogue from 1988 to 1995 and then again from 1998 to 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 recently introduced to newer generations of fans as a judge on “America’s Next Top Model.”

Vogue contributing editor André Leon Talley talks about the connection between fashion and the current political climate. He also discusses the ranges of style among first ladies, including Michelle Obama and Melania Trump. (Video: Washington Post Live)

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 designer Oscar de la Renta and supermodel Naomi Campbell.

“My fashion history is not so great, and his is impeccable, so I think I learned a lot from him,” Wintour said in the 2018 documentary “The Gospel According to André.”

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.”

Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan interviews Vogue contributing editor André Leon Talley about his life and career. (Video: Washington Post Live)

Born on Oct. 16, 1948, in Washington, Talley was raised by his maternal grandmother, Binnie Francis Davis, who was a cleaner at Duke University. Talley learned style and fashion from Davis and her friends when they would wear their finest hats and clothes every Sunday at church. When he was around 9 or 10, Talley found an issue of Vogue at his public library in Durham, N.C. Talley told The Post’s Robin Givhan in 2017 that finding the issue of Vogue “was the escape moment for me.” He said to NPR in 2018 that flipping through the magazine felt as if he was going down a “rabbit hole” into “a world of glamour.”

Vogue "was my gateway to the world outside of Durham,” he said. “It was the world of literature, what was happening in the world of art, what was happening in the world of entertainment.”

André Leon Talley says reading Vogue and other fashion literature at an early age shaped the way he thought about style and fashion. He says reading Vogue when he was young inspired his ideas both in his past and present. (Video: Washington Post Live)

After he served as a receptionist at Interview magazine under Andy Warhol and the Paris bureau chief of Women’s Wear Daily, he arrived at Vogue with a vision of what fashion could, and should, look like on people of all colors and backgrounds. The capes, caftans, suits and robes he wore became part of his signature look and gave Talley a regal presence.

“You can be aristocratic without having been born into an aristocratic family,” he said in the film.

Talk-show host Whoopi Goldberg described Talley in “The Gospel According to André” as being “so many things he was not supposed to be.”

Designer Tom Ford said in the documentary: “André is one of the last of those great editors who knows what they are looking at, knows what they are seeing, knows where it came from. André tosses out all these different words, and he’s so big and so grand, a lot of people think, ‘This guy is crazy,’ but it’s a fabulous insanity.”

Appreciation: André Leon Talley became an icon by never losing faith in the glory of fashion

Talley, who was openly gay, was a major figure in the LGBTQ community. He resigned as editor-at-large at Numéro Russia magazine in 2014 because of the anti-LGBTQ laws in the country.

He apparently had little semblance of a romantic life and publicly acknowledged he was “afraid to fall in love.”

“However, I’m not going to say it’s the worst life,” he told NPR. “It’s been a wonderful life.”

Before his death, Talley served as the artistic director of the online retailer Zappos Couture, and he had been on the board of trustees of Savannah College of Art and Design. He wrote three books, including his 2020 memoir, “The Chiffon Trenches,” which was a New York Times bestseller. Talley was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from France in 2020 and given the North Carolina Award for literature last year.

In his memoir, Talley reflected on not just how far he had come since growing up in the Jim Crow South but also 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.”

News of Talley’s death rocked people in the fashion world, who remembered him on Wednesday as an icon. Vogue mourned Talley on Twitter, honoring a man the magazine described as “one of the most recognizable faces and beloved figures in the industry, and beyond.” Bravo host Andy Cohen described his friend as “a force in fashion, a legendary storyteller.”

On Instagram, von Furstenberg said she was heartbroken over the loss of her peer.

“No one saw the world in a more elegant and glamorous way than you did. No one was more soulful and grander than you were. The world will be less joyful now,” she wrote. “I have loved you and laughed with you for 45 years … I will miss your loud screams … I love you soooo much.”

Jeremy O’Harris, the playwright for “Slave Play,” described Talley on Twitter as “a beacon of grace of aspiration” for a generation of young men.

“For a little black gay boy who reached for the stars from the south there were few people I could look up to up there amongst the stars who looked like me just more fab except for you André,” O’Harris wrote.

Many shared photos of Talley smiling, dancing and looking fabulous throughout the years.

Actress Viola Davis shared a picture of her and Talley with a simple message to the fashion giant that was echoed by other admirers worldwide: “Rest well King.”

Read more:

Carhartt said vaccination remains mandatory for employees. A conservative backlash followed.

Cracker Barrel served a cleaning agent to a customer. A jury ordered it to pay $9.3 million.

Family of Amazon driver killed in tornado sues company, alleging wrongful death