This transcript has been edited for length and readability.
He studied French history and literature at North Carolina Central University and at Brown University. He began his career essentially as a junior editor at Interview magazine. And he worked in Paris. He worked for Women’s Wear Daily. He served as the creative director of Vogue magazine. He has been a counselor to a host of designers and models and he is a contributing editor at Vogue and the author of a multitude of books, including A Close Look at the Little Black Dress and a look at the work of his friend, the late Oscar de la Renta. He also has a new venture that will be starting on April 14th and it’s an interview radio show for SiriusXM called Full Length. [APPLAUSE] And he will be doing the interviewing on that show. [LAUGHTER]
And he also is the author of a really touching memoir that he wrote in 2003 called A.L.T., and that’s actually where I’d like to start our conversation. Because you write in your memoir really lovingly about your family and in particular, your grandmother and you describe her as sort of washing and starching the linens and ironing her linens. And she made her own clothes and you sort of referred to her work as your sort of first introduction to couture, in a way.
Givhan: Her name was Bennie Frances Davis.
Talley: No, Bennie. Bennie.
Talley: Bennie. Bennie. B-E-N-N-I-E, Bennie.
Givhan: Am I not saying that with the proper accent?
Talley: Did you say Betty?
Talley: Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you said Betty. I’m so sorry. [LAUGHTER] I’m getting deaf. I thought you said Betty.
Givhan: I thought maybe there was a North Carolinian accent that I needed to tease.
Talley: No, no.
Givhan: So I’m really curious how your relationship with her and your observation of her sort of shaped your earliest understanding of what style was.
Talley: Well, first, let me just say I’m very proud to be here and I’m very proud to be the second guest of Robin in a new line. So it’s a great honor to be on the stage with Robin Givhan. [LAUGHTER] And when I grow up, I want to be like Robin. To be able to observe the world of fashion and become a Pulitzer Prize Winner for fashion observation. But having said all of that, thank you, Robin, for having me. My grandmother was the single most important person in my life. She passed away in 1989. She was the instrument of unconditional love and I learned simply style through my grandmother. She was a very humble woman. She was a domestic maid at Duke University for almost 50 years of her life. She was a maid cleaning up the West Campus men’s dormitories. That was hard work. She used to get up at 7:00 in the morning and be picked up by car, taken to Duke, and she would get home by 3:00 and then she would do all of her home chores, domestic chores and I have very, very vivid memories of my grandmother doing certain things, examples that you could never find people doing today.
We lived in the city but my grandmother would get up in the morning in her wrapper, in the cold, and go outside, chop the wood to put wood in the fire for the wood burning stove. When I was very, very young, we had a wood burning stove as the cook stove. I also saw my grandmother do things like skin a squirrel to cook in a pot for squirrel stew, chop the wood burning fire, and go to work and be a maid. So she was a very strong woman. Her fortitude was the strength in her face and of course, on the weekends, our lives centered around going to church and she had certain rituals that she just took as routine, the rituals of cleanliness next to godliness. Everything in our house was washed and everything was ironed. My grandmother used to iron her sheets and they were Egyptian cotton and she used to iron my underwear and she ironed the towels. [LAUGHTER]
And she loved cleanliness and everything she did and then she would on Saturday, prepare the Sunday dinner after coming home from church and then she would lay our clothes. She would lay out my clothes for Sunday morning and she wouldn’t necessarily lay out her clothes but one of the most fascinating things I remember about my grandmother and the first moment I noticed that she was unique and had style was my grandmother had silver hair but she would sit and comb her hair and when I was very young, her hair was sometimes blue, silver blue and sometimes lavender. Well, I didn’t realize that she had gone and had the hair rinsed at the hairdresser. So I thought God had blessed her with blue hair and lavender hair. [LAUGHTER]
It depended on what day it would go blue and then some days, the rinse would go lavender and then when I became interested in style, reading everything I could about style and just devouring the knowledge of fashion and style on my own, indecently, and I discovered Elsie de Wolfe, the first great American decorator who lived in Paris in Versailles and she had the blue rinse. She was one of the first women to wear blue rinse. So I found out at that moment and I thought, “Well, my grandmother is like Elsie de Wolfe. She’s great. She’s got the style.” [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: I remember reading this memoir and there was this wonder passage in it where you described preparing your father for his burial.
Talley: Yes, yes.
Givhan: And this was in 1993 and I just want to read this paragraph from your memoir. “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 mild 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 Van Cleef & Arpels. I thought he would”—
Talley: That’s cologne. [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: “I thought he would like to be sent off with a fresh new scent on the side of his coffin. We blacks in the South love it fashionable.”
Talley: We do and part of the culture of blacks is when you pass on and when you die, some people call it a victory service, a going home service, so you have to put all of your energy or the money you can afford into the burial of your loved one. And I learned—amen. Thank you. And I learned it—it’s church now. [LAUGHTER] We’re marching off to the Zion . [LAUGHTER] So I learned early on from observing and I also didn’t speak as a child. I’m not like Maya Angelou. I wasn’t like speaking. I did speak but I was taught by my elders to speak when you’re spoken to so I really didn’t talk a lot. I listened and observed everything and I used to sit and listen and observe and then when people passed away in my family, I used to watch the rituals and when I was very, very young when my great grandmother died, my grandmother’s mother. Her name was China, China Robertson and she died in ‘61 and I remember so vividly feeling so alone because I was so young that my mother, I couldn’t walk into the church with my mother. I had to be in the back of the family recession because I was a child.
I was a great-grandchild but I remember so vividly the ritual of my grandmother and her sisters preparing for this burial, preparing the black coats, the black dresses, wearing black, the processional, the ritualistic moments of calling the names, the first in line, the last in line going and they went to pick out the casket. I was not there for that. But it was all very much a part of my mind and I think that part of my fascination with French culture is that in the courts of the kings and queens, they also gave great attention to details about the burial services and I’m very proud to say that I am very, very fortunate that I have lived a great life so I wanted to put my father in the best suit he could possibly be put in to bury him in, the best coffin and casket or whatever you call it, the best vault, and he had a Masonic service, which I just let them go and do. It was all up to the masons and I just sat there at the grave. He was eulogized in church, in his family’s church in Roxboro and these rituals were all very important to me. They’re very important to me even as of today.
I think death is a very important thing and I don’t want to be morbid but you have to think about it. You’re not going to be here forever and you’ve got to prepare yourself so you should be writing your notes about what you want. Now, let me just tell you a funny note about when my father passed away. So we lived in Durham and my father was from Roxboro so we had to get two cars from the undertaker to take my immediate family to the burial of my father and everything went well and we were sitting at the gravesite and the service is over and the masons are over and they presented the flag that I gave to an aunt who wanted the flag. I had been told to give it to my aunt because she really wanted it because she loved my father. I gave my aunt the flag and I see them lowering the casket into the ground and then they put a sheet of plastic over the inside of the coffin.
And I screamed, “My father is not going to dry cleaners. What are you doing with the plastic?” [LAUGHTER] And I didn’t understand why they were putting the plastic over the vault for. It was a joke. I said, “Get that plastic. He’s not going to the dry cleaners.” [LAUGHTER] They were just like–
Givhan: You talked also in your memoir about sort of going to sort of the white part of town in Durham and reading Vogue magazine.
Talley: Yes, yes.
Givhan: And did you see a distinction between the ways that sort of people presented themselves on the white side of town versus where you were living?
Talley: I didn’t even notice it was the white side of town. I didn’t even think about it until one day, the students at Duke threw rocks out of the car at me one Sunday afternoon. I used to always go on Sunday to the East Campus of Duke University because they had a magazine stand and I was so naïve, I just loved the process of walking across the railroad tracks to that side of town to get the Vogue magazine. In those days, it came out twice a month. January 1, January 15th so that was a process that I loved. I would also buy The New York Times and any other magazine that had fashion and so I didn’t really think that I was walking in the white part of town. I didn’t even notice the people in that part of town. I had a vision. I had single tunnel vision, I was going to that magazine store to get the Vogue and I was reading Vogue at an early age and Vogue was the escape moment for me.
Vogue, I read every caption, I read every—you can talk about Vogue in the ‘60s and I can tell you what they were writing or the captions and I read the captions about men in Vogue. Camille Day was the editor. I read all of the boutique pages. I read everything and I loved the Vogue. It was my escape world into another world that was beyond my world at home. I loved the Vogue. [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: Did it start to shape how you dressed yourself?
Talley: Oh, absolutely. It shaped everything. I mean, I was the only child and I grew up at my grandmother’s house and she gave me free rein of the house. So she had an extra room. It was a very modest house. Sometimes we almost froze in the winter because we didn’t have central heating and I remember we just had five blankets on the bed and my grandmother loved the cold bedroom but I did not. [LAUGHTER] But I remember she gave this room and she had it painted pink and I realized it was a scabrella pink when I got very sophisticated and started reading things, like Elsie de Wolfe. But she had the room painted pink. It could have been her sewing room but she gave it over to me. She bought me a sofa and a desk and my father bought me a typewriter and I made that room my own and I used to read everything.
So, of course, I was reading esoteric books and things from the library. I was reading John Fairchild, the late John Fairchild, from Women’s Wear Daily. He wrote a great book called The Fashionable Savages and that was my bible in high school. I was running around in junior—I was in 11th grade, screaming and running around, “C. Z. Guest, C. Z. Guest.” [LAUGHTER] “Gloria Vanderbilt, Gloria Vanderbilt.”
Givhan: And did anyone know what you were you talking about?
Talley: I explained who these people were. [LAUGHTER] The person that was the most moment of perfection was Ann Bibby, who was the homecoming queen and her mother dressed her beautifully to be the homecoming queen and a beautiful Boucle tweed coat and matching dress. Very, very, very chic and very elegant. And I used to always talk to her about C.Z. Guest and I just recently met her last year after 50 years and we had lunch and she said, “Do you remember you used to go around talking about C.Z. Guest and Boucle suits in high school?” I said, “What?” [LAUGHTER] And it did absolutely motivate me, Vogue, but then I remember reading in Vogue somewhere, I may have seen a picture of Lady Ottoline Morrell. Ottoline Morrell was a very high English aristocrat and an eccentric.
And I just say, Ottoline Morrell, Cecil Beaton, the English eccentrics all inspired me. Everything that I read, the literature, Lesley Blanch, The Wilder Shores of Love. So all of this was totally giving me inspiration and I just went wild with my moments of—this is who I am. I remember when I went off to college; I was wearing purple rouge on my cheeks. [LAUGHTER] Because Naomi Sims was in Vogue wearing purple rouge. I was wearing curtain tassels and I hadn’t even seen Gone with the Wind by Scarlet O’Hara. [LAUGHTER] But I was wearing silk curtain tassels, which the idea came from the Vogue, the boutique pages, the Men in Vogue, and I had beautiful tuxedo shirts, beautiful pleat-fronted tuxedo shirts that I saved my money and I bought in Chapel Hill at a very chic store.
And then I would wear these black silk rope tassels and I’d go to class and the professors would just look and me and they’d say, “Well, what is this?” I said, “It’s just my look for today.” [LAUGHTER] And I’d wear capes to the floor. I had a beautiful black rubberized policeman’s cape that I bought in some junk shop and I used to read Vogue and then it would inspire me to decorate my room and then I would actually, believe it or not—I’m very good with my hands and I would actually upholster my chairs inspired by things I’d read in Vogue. Angelo Donghia and his striped tints. He would have beautiful rooms and it would be tints of fabric and I would take the gold upholstered chairs and upholster my chair. It was one of my favorite chairs. I had so much fun upholstering it. And I used to upholster my benches.
I had a bench that my grandmother sat in to comb my hair and I took fake fur and covered that bench. [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: I can’t imagine being you in the 19—what was this? The ‘60s, ‘70s?
Talley: This was 1966, ‘65. Oh, yes. I was like this is in ‘65. [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: In North Carolina?
Talley: Oh, yes, North Carolina. Oh, I was bullied.
Givhan: I mean, I was going to say, I mean, people talk even now of dressing slightly outside of the box in a small town our outside of a big city and the kind of negative attention that they get. How difficult was it for you to go just be yourself?
Talley: Well, I was very protected because I went to school and I studied. Now, when I was in high school, I wasn’t as completely—this today. I was going to high school in normal clothes, in beautiful clothes that my grandmother saved her money to buy. I had V-neck sweaters. I remember my first beautiful sweater was a V-neck yellow cashmere sweater. I had a beautiful stadium coat and plaid corduroy. Gold corduroy with a plaid lining. So at school, in high school, I really, really dressed conservatively. I had the blue suits. I had the Italian moccasins but when I got to college, that’s when I burst forth and I just let it go because I was going to college, freshman.
And when I got to Brown, I really let it go there. [LAUGHTER] When I think back on it, I was running down to classes in bell bottoms that were above the ankle that had been bought at a thrift shop, standard bellbottoms. I bought them too short so you could see the ankles and shoes with Cuban heels and then I read in Bazaar that Naomi Sims put Vaseline on her cheeks and then rouge Estee Lauder purple. I was doing all of that. I was glossing my cheeks and my fore brow with rouge running off to class. And it was difficult. I was bullied in high school but I wasn’t overly dressed in an outrageous original way but I was bullied but I coped and survived with it. It was very difficult in high school for me. It’s hard to be an original and to be confident and to go forth in the world but somehow I did it but some of my best friends—some, Bruce is still one of my best friends. He grew up on my street.
They were horrible to me. I remember one Christmas when I knew who Santa Claus wasn’t because I found the Roy Rogers cowboy suit behind the sofa. [LAUGHTER] And that was a revelation that there was no Santa Claus. They put it behind the sofa and you pick it up on Christmas morning and so I put on my Roy Rogers cowboy suit and I had everything. My father paid for everything. I had western towns. I had drums, my first set of snare drums. And so I put on my cowboy suit and Bruce Weber and the late Reginald Henson [00:18:57 ph] tricked me into going into the yard of a neighbor and they had dug a hole to put mud in it and they tricked me into going into the hole and I ran into the hole the first day I had my suit on, fell into the hole with mud and split the trousers at the knee and I threw the suit away and I remember that vividly.
I remember one day was a snow day and I went out in our yard and built a beautiful snowman with the carrots and the coal eyes, etc, etc, and Reginald Hilton came up and he knocked the snowman down. I went in the house and had Campbell’s Soup, but. [LAUGHTER] Reginald Henson was a bully. He’s dead. [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: And you went to New York?
Talley: Yes. [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: I’m going to guess that perhaps the second most important woman in your life or the third after your mother and your grandmother was Diana Vreeland.
Talley: Yes, yes. Diana Vreeland was everything to me. I just knew who Diana Vreeland was because I was in that pink room painted by—
Givhan: And for anyone who does not know who Diana Vreeland is—
Talley: Do you not know? Raise your hand. Everyone here knows who Diana Vreeland is. [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: No, don’t raise your hand. [LAUGHTER]
Talley: Everyone here knows who Diana Vreeland is. Yes. Well, she’s a—
Givhan: She was a legendary editor of Vogue.
Talley: The legendary Diana Vreeland, who was the great editor at Vogue and went to the Coste Institute and had these great exhibitions. Well, when I was young and I was reading Vogue, Diana Vreeland had been dismissed from Vogue in ‘71. So my walls were papered with all of the fabulous stories from her magazine, including a fabulous story that had been done in Life magazine by the late Sally Kirkland, who had run a beautiful profile of Mrs. Vreeland in her office and this is this thing I loved the most. I had two great moments in my childhood. I loved to read everything in Vogue edited by Diana Vreeland and I loved John Fairchild, who wrote The Fashionable Savages. Little did I know when I got to New York, I would end up meeting Diana Vreeland and I volunteered for her in 1974 on her second exhibit called Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design, and I would end up eventually working for John Fairchild at Women’s Wear Daily.
Now, I’m just a humble black man from the South. I’m supposed to go off and be in the Army, but I didn’t. I’m supposed to do something—teach in the high school or teach in some grade school and I go off to New York. I had to get out of town. I just had to. It’s like Mary Tyler Moore. [LAUGHTER] I had to get out of Durham. I had a hungering for the life I sought in Vogue and I never calculated that I am on a path, a trajectory to get to Vogue, to get to Women’s Wear Daily. It just happened to me and I’ll tell you why it happened for me.
Because knowledge is power and I did my homework and I was a very serious student and I loved French, French literature, French history. My favorite teacher was French. I had French, one, two, three, and four all through high school. Cynthia P. Smith was my favorite teacher and she was so inspiring. She’d go away in the summers. Every summer, she’d go on a trip to France by herself, come back with the slides and show them to me and she bought two dresses in Paris. She bought a red dress and she bought a black and white Hauser dress and both of the dresses were the same cut and she would wear them the day she presented the slides. It was like Jean Brodie. [LAUGHTER]
And so it was just very inspiring to meet Diana Vreeland and I can tell you—
Givhan: I’m curious because she’s so larger than life and there is so much that you could just sort of absorb from her. But were there like key lessons that you learned from her about the way that she thought about fashion?
Talley: Oh, absolutely.
Givhan: Because she was so known for connecting it.
Talley: She taught me so much and when I first met her, I had a letter of introduction to the muse to go work there and volunteer. I was a volunteer. They didn’t call them interns but I was a volunteer. The romantic glimmer Hollywood design. In those days, I think we were about 12 volunteers and including Robert Turner that I went to school with. He was at RISD. And Tony Goodman who is now at Vogue. And I just discovered the list of the volunteers for that show was about 12 and today it would be about 100.
Givhan: And you were unpaid?
Talley: Unpaid, unpaid. [LAUGHTER] I didn’t even think about it. Didn’t think about it and so I realized that Mrs. Vreeland, she based everything on a narrative. She based everything on literature and one of the lessons I learned is behind every great design, behind every great collection, there is a narrative. Try to get to know the narrative of that designer. Try to get into the mindset of the designer. Ask questions. If Mr. St. Laurent, the late, great Mr. Hugh St. Laurent was inspired by a great collection in 1978 when I went to Paris, it was the epoxy of my career when I was young. It was called the Porgy and Bess collection. So it was my job as a fashion editor to ask Mr. St. Laurent, “Well, how would you be inspired by Porgy and Bess? It’s an opera written by George Gershwin of the great South.
And the simple answer was that from this great moment in Mr. St. Laurent’s world, he was listening to the music. He had never been to the South. He was listening to the music in his Volkswagen radio on his way to work one morning and it gave him the inspiration to make these very fluid gowns and very beautifully structured clothes that were very reminiscent of the way women dressed in the South, particularly on church days. So Mrs. Vreeland had a process. The first lesson I learned from her was to listen. Just sit there and listen and be in awe of her because she was bigger than life. So when I was called into her office, I was very humble and she sat at her desk and it was all red and it was all very grand and very beautiful and she took her legal pad out and she wrote and she wrote so big I could read it from that side of the desk and she wrote, “Andre, the helper.”
And then she stood up and she says, “Now, you will stay by my side for the rest of this show.” So one of the first assignments I had was Claudette Colbert’s dress, gold tissue lamé, Adrian from the 1939 black and white version. Is it Cleopatra? Yeah, Cleopatra. And so Mrs. Vreeland called me to her office and said—she stood up and she said—she did say, “I want you to do this dress in gold. I want you to have a gold mannequin. I want it to look like the son of Egypt. It’s got to be all gold because this is tissue gold. It’s the best dress made in Hollywood by Adrian, by dressmakers that came from France.” She stood up and she put her head in and she said, “Now, you know Cleopatra, she’s a queen but she’s a teenage queen and she lives in Alexandria, Egypt and she spends all day in the sun and all day she’s glorious in the sun. Now, remember, she’s a teenage queen and she loves her white peacocks and all day she loves to walk in the sun and her white peacocks behind her. Now, get quacking, Andre.”
And then I’d go, “Mrs. Vreeland.” I’d say, “Oh, oh, oh.” [LAUGHTER] But this led me to think and I had to come up with an idea for her to approve of and I kept looking at the gold tissue dress on the mannequin and it was a beautiful gold swimsuit cut dress with a train, Claudette Colbert, just a beautiful dress, well-preserved, excellent. And I kept thinking, “She’s a queen and she lives in the sun and she’s gold. It’s a golden sun and she’s got white peacocks. What do I do?
So I went to one of the technical curators at the muse and I said, “Am I allowed to paint the mannequin?” And they said, “Yes, it depends on what kind of paint you’re going to get. We’ll have to approve the paint.” So I said, “Spray-paint.” They said yes. So I said, “Give me a can of gold.” So I took the can, “Shhh”, all up and down the mannequin, two and three layers of gold and then I put the tissue gold dress on the gold mannequin. The gold was the same color as the dress and I had gotten the idea from Goldfinger. Do you remember the James Bond movie?
When a girl dies as she’s been sprayed in gold but her skin cannot breathe. But I love the idea. That’s where the idea came from, the gold on the gold. And Mrs. Vreeland walked by it and she thought it was like incredible. She said, “It’s perfection”, and she was just like, “Oh, oh, oh.” [LAUGHTER] So when she did the Russian show, she went to Russia, she would love passages from War and Peace. She would love reading. She loved literature because it came alive in her mind so these vignettes of fashion in your exhibit would be given from great moments of sharing literature or paintings.
Givhan: Two of the things that you keep coming back to, it’s knowledge and it’s listening and it reminds me of where we are now with so much emphasis on social media and Instagram stars and selfies. Do you find that that interest in sort of the history of fashion, the legacy, the traditions, do you find that it’s gone missing or do you still feel that it’s there?
Talley: I think that people are so—I don’t want to say a bad word, but fractured. [LAUGHTER] ’ll say fractured. The world is fractured and we’re off the cliff and everything is so distracting. You’re so busy and I am also on that cell phone and I love parties or weddings when you go and they collect your cell phone. You go to weddings today; they put the cell phone in a basket. You go to parties; you put that cell phone away. You’re so distracted by your social media, there’s someone in the back there now looking at his cell phone instead of listening. [LAUGHTER] There you are. Put it down. Put it down. [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: He’s Googleing Diana Vreeland. He’s Googling Diana Vreeland.
Talley: I think it’s very important. Robin, to give you all credit when you did the great book you did on Versailles. It just so came alive. Who would have thought that you could sit down and do a book in under two years on the history of that great moment in Versailles where the African-American model became world-class and became known globally because the American designers featured and highlighted the great African-American models, Pat Cleveland, Betsy M. Hardison, Billie Blair, Alva Chinn and all of those fabulous girls. They were great models, the white girls, Elsa Peretti, Marisa Berenson. But that is a moment when there’s history. That book is about the history and history is very important. You can only go forward if you know the past. [APPLAUSE]
That relates to everything in culture. I can only be the man I am because I’m very connected to my past, to my roots. I am very well aware of my grandmother’s struggles. She struggled. She was one of great modesty that my whole family was not an affluent family but they had faith. The church gave them the strength that kept us going throughout the generations. You have to be aware of your past and if I love French fashion, it’s because I know Marie Antoinette, almost everything. I know Madame de Pompadour, Madame du Barry. I love that and I love Russian literature and I love Russian history and I’m just so fascinated when I can just pick up a book and crack the page and learn something new and I don’t think there’s enough of that and I’m almost telling you that it’s very dangerous to modern society, this whole thing of internet and all of it and the computer.
Because you know what? I’ve almost forgotten how to write. My penmanship is cranky because I’m so busy on the computer because I’ve forgotten how to write handwritten notes and I sort of get nervous. And this morning I was thinking, “I’m almost forgetting about how to read because of Netflix. [LAUGHTER] But Netflix is good. Let me just tell you. [LAUGHTER] Get into Grace and Frankie, please. [APPLAUSE] Let me just tell you, I’ve binged on that. It started at 4:00 and I was going around the clock to 4:00. That is the best thing about getting old. I am 68-years-old and Jane Fonda is 70 in the movie and that is the best thing for us. [APPLAUSE] Also, on Netflix is the most incredible thing, The Crown, the story of Elizabeth I. [APPLAUSE] And so I need to pick up a book and read. [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: You brought up two things. You brought up models and you brought up diversity and that, of course, has been a big part of the fashion conversation and diversity, in general, has been part of the cultural conversation. Your sense of diversity in the fashion industry, there’s this wonderful profile of you that was done in, I think, 2003-ish by Hilton Als of the New Yorker. And it was called The Only One.
Givhan: And I think now, if it was done, it would probably read One of the Few.
Talley: One of the Few, the Chosen Few. I think diversity is a very important thing in fashion. Aba was asking me in the car, “Who are the upcoming editors?” And I said, “There are no Robin Givhan’s or Maureen Dowd’s today except for the young lady who was the editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue. [APPLAUSE] When you get to the point that I did—and let me just say, my career when I was young, I didn’t think of black versus white or any other ethnic group. I just went through my career and I just did it. The other day, a friend was telling me how we went to a Calvin Klein party in 1975. There were 400 people and Bernadine March wrote about all of the socializing. She wrote in this big, big column, “Well, there were 400 people at Calvin Klein’s party but everyone was talking about Andre Leon Talley in his khaki Bermuda shorts and knee socks.”
[LAUGHTER] I just thought, “Well, that’s who I am. That’s what I did. That’s what I loved.” My grandmother allowed me to do everything except I had hard chores. I had to clean up that kitchen, wash those dishes, and scrub that porch. I had to scrub that porch in the summertime. Scrub it and get it glistening. [LAUGHTER] I had to wax those floors with Johnson’s Paste Wax and dust and therefore, I have learned. I don’t dust now. I have a cleaning lady, but. [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE] You can always fall back on those things that you have learned from home and they always will be with you and I think diversity is a very important thing. I think that I must have crashed the glass ceiling and I just lived to continue to crash the glass ceiling.
Givhan: Why do you think—it does seem like diversity ebbs and flows in fashion and certainly with models but sort of in other aspects of it, whether in the magazines and retail. If you had to guess, are there any particular aspects of fashion that somehow make diversity more of a challenge in that industry?
Talley: I would think so.
Givhan: Or particularly challenging.
Talley: I think they’re challenging for the editors, like mainstream editors. I think I came along at a time when I was perhaps very unique, tall, skinny, gangly, come into New York like a thunderstorm, but quietly and I didn’t dress to make myself known. For instance, this gentleman has on his fabulous tropical Bermuda shorts. And I didn’t dress in Bermuda shorts because I thought it was going to gain attention. I didn’t have any money and people were very kind to me. I was given hand-me-down shirts by Karl Lagerfeld from Turnbull and Asser in Paris. And so I had hand-me-downs but they were from Halston [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: Which were pretty good hand-me-downs.
Talley: That’s a great hand-me-down. Also, someone gave me hand-me-downs to decorate my house, furniture, antique Chinese furniture. It was in his garage. He was very generous and very kind. I remember my first fabulous tuxedo a Halston tuxedo but I think that in 1974, when I got on the scene, there were very few people except that the models were on the scene and Billie Blair, Betsy M., Alva Chinn, and Toukie Smith were making waves. It goes in cycles. The diversity moment comes and goes in cycles. They’ve been up and down, as you know, in the last years. There have been moments when it has been very, very forlorn. The late Franca Sozzani did a whole issue of Italian Vogue with black models and that was sold out twice and so I think it just comes in the temperature and the climate. I think that hopefully, in this climate of today with the administration the way it is, there will be more diversity.
I think that people will accept and recognize and people didn’t have me here just because I was a tall skinny black boy from the South. I also had manners. I was taught great manners. Southerners went a long way with me.
Givhan: Can I just quote what a classmate of yours said?
Talley: Oh, yes.
Givhan: And I did not find this quote. This was in the Hilton Als profile. “Andre thought it was not—it was just good manners to look wonderful. It was a moral issue.”
Talley: Yes, yes. It is a moral issue. It is a moral issue. Whatever you want to be dressed as you dress up and don’t let anyone tell you you’re dress inappropriately. You wear what you want and I did not know that. [APPLAUSE] But I did it and I did it because I grew up in an environment where I was allowed to whatever I wanted through my grandmother. And I went to church in the proper suits and the proper white shirts and the proper necktie. And when I got to Brown, I went home one Christmas and I wore a fabulous navy blue maxicoat that I had bought in a thrift shop in Providence, Rhode Island with a gold braid over the sleeves, gold buttons, it was fabulous. And my mother, God bless her, she did the best she could. We got out of the car in the churchyard—it’s a rural church and it’s a big way to walk up the yard to the church to the front door and my mother said to me as I got out of the car, “Please, please, Andre, you have to walk behind me. I can’t walk with you into the church in that Phantom of the Opera look.” [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: Oh, mother.
Talley: Oh, mother. She did the best she could. [LAUGHTER] And I realized at 27, “Wait, you’re my mother. I respect you. What did you just say to me?” [LAUGHTER] And so I said to my mother, “Just go right ahead. Just go on. Go on. I’ll wait for you to go in up through the aisle and I’ll come in later.” And that’s the moment I realized that I had to respect my mother but she did not have to rule my moment and my world. [APPLAUSE]
Givhan: Talk to me about the challenges of being the creative director and for a long time, the only editor of color at Vogue. And I know you spent a lot of time working very closely with Anna Wintour.
Givhan: What did you learn from her? What do you hope that she might have learned from you?
Talley: Well, I think she might have learned from me that I had very good visual ideas and that I had very good communication skills with people, that I could put people at ease and had a comfort zone with people with the best, the top people. St. Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, I mean, I could just go in a room and if I saw Mr. St. Laurent, I didn’t go, “Hi, how are you doing?” I went, “Hello.” I sat down. I did my homework and I learned from her about decisions must be made quickly, they must be followed through. You don’t have to marinate your ideas. You have e decision. You follow through. You do the process. You get it to the page; you resolve it and you get it printed. And I think that I learned so much from her about decision-making, about following your own instincts, whether you are educated or your eye has been trained.
My eye was trained through my inspiration and, of course, Vreeland and when I went to Vogue. So just follow your instincts. Just listen to your inner self or your inner mind and base your decisions on that and I often think about some stories I did at Vogue and I’m very proud of my work at Vogue when I was the creative director and I was—she made me the creative director there. There had never been an African-American man who had ever been the creative director of Vogue. Go figure. That’s a big moment and I was very young and I just was so excited. I just went through every day with the energy and the passion for getting the work done. I always said, “Bring home the bacon.” I always wanted to bring home the beef for Anna Wintour. [LAUGHTER]
It was a challenge but it was a challenge I could rise to because the standards are so high and we just dealt with the best and as I said, I think she learned from me that Andre makes people who are in very important positions of power very relaxed. I think she could have observed from me that I could go into the room and Karl Lagerfeld would have an open conversation and it was very comfortable or Mr. St. Laurent or any other designer. Alexander McQueen, Azzedine Alaia . Any other great designers. I don’t have a problem talking to people, as you can see. [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: At the time, fashion has always engaged in social moments and political moments but particularly now, it seems that fashion has become very directly political, whether it’s through the activism that happened on the runway this past season, Vogue’s decision to officially endorse Hillary Clinton. How do you feel about fashion being that directly political?
Talley: I think it’s great.
Givhan: Do you think that’s—yeah?
Talley: I think it’s great. I think fashion has always been very political. I think that in the ‘60s, the fashion in Vogue was geared towards a certain kind of politic. The world wasn’t what it is today. I think that politics were represented in a very elegant, esoteric way in Vogue as with the late Mrs. Jaclyn Kennedy and her official portraits at her inaugural address. By the way, who inspired all black women to go to church, let me tell you. The women in Baltimore were inspired. Everyone, everyone in my family was inspired by the late Jackie Kennedy. The pillbox hat, the gloves, everything. So I think that it’s very important that you know the political climate was very much inspired by Vogue when Mrs. Vreeland was there. Just think, Vogue, Woodstock. Vogue had about eight color pages of Woodstock. Well, they couldn’t show the nude people but they showed the people swimming in the lake with no clothes on. But they showed them neck up or whatever but those things were political then and I think it’s always been.
I think that it’s very important to establish the moment of first ladies and I was very proud to do the very first Michelle Obama cover. [APPLAUSE] With Connie Goodman and that was very political. That was the highest achievement in my Vogue life and I was so very proud of that. I must say when Anna gave me that assignment that she really thought a lot of me and I was given that assignment and I had to keep it a secret. We had meetings about it and then I came to Washington and interviewed her when she was in the Hay-Adams Hotel and then Tonne Goodman came down and did the cover shoot. She was the style editor for the cover shoot. So that’s a great, great thing to have in my rese of knowledge of memories.
Givhan: Do you think that she, Mrs. Obama changed what we expect from a first lady, style-wise?
Talley: She certainly did, she changed. I think she changed style-wise because she was her own. She did what she loved doing and she did the mix greatly. She mixed high, low. She would do black and white. She would mix an Azzedine Alaia belt with something from the Banana Republic. Is that the name of it?
F: J. Crew.
Talley: J. Crew and then she—[LAUGHTER]
Givhan: Such an informed audience.
Talley: And then she would do things like when she went to see the Queen of England, she had Tom Ford, a brilliant designer, American, make her an extraordinary state gown in Grecian white, and she had above-the-length gloves in leather made for her. And that is where she did the best thing. But she also created a very important thing as first lady by creating her own advocacies—you know, for the veterans’ families, childhood obesity, eating right, natural gardens, etc. I think that she will go down in history as one of the great first ladies, like Eleanor Roosevelt. [APPLAUSE]
Givhan: I know that many years back, you also worked with Melania Trump.
Talley: Yes, yes.
Givhan: When she was—
Talley: But that was then. [APPLAUSE]
Givhan: Before she was married. [LAUGHTER]
Talley: Are you having a good time? [APPLAUSE] I’m sorry, Robin. Ask your question.
Givhan: You may already have answered my question. [LAUGHTER] But her style then was clearly very Rococo, the 1980s and it’s changed significantly.
Givhan: Did you see any indication that she might be willing or interested in using fashion in a similar kind of communicative representational way that—
Talley: I think that Melania is very selective and very well-chosen. She chooses her looks carefully and there’s obviously a great deal of preparation for the looks. I think that she is indeed a very, very confident person and she chooses carefully for the clothes that look great on her and it always her choice. When I helped her with her wedding trousseau, it was an assignment from Vogue and I flew to Paris with Melania, not on the Trump jet. We went to commercial. [LAUGHTER] And she went to all of the great contour houses and the great thing about Melania is her manners. She was very impressive. The two houses were very impressed that she was not the arrogant Mrs. Trump hunting down a wedding dress and then we went to a fabulous dinner at Valentino’s chateau and it was fabulous and I was sitting next to Melania and she was so impeccable in her manners, in the way she spoke to people and she was so charming.
So she eventually picked a John Galliano Dior dress. Allegedly, reportedly, it was $230,000 then. It was a beautiful dress. She stood for eight hours one day to be fitted and she didn’t faint and it was a very wonderful experience. Now, I can only say that was then and then I saw Melania a bit after she was married and I’ve lost contact her so that was then. But I do think Melania will—hopefully, let’s say she’ll be a great lady—first lady. She’s carefully chosen. I loved the inaugural suit by Mr. Ralph Lauren. That was beautiful. Let’s face it. Give her credit. She nailed it and she had the gloves and she walked down the street for two minutes in those stilettos. Let me just tell you, personally, I’ve never seen any woman except Melania Trump who can walk for hours or stand in four-and-a-half in stilettos. She wore them in her wedding all through the night. She has a DNA. Most women can’t stand in stilettos for hours. She went through her wedding in two sets for four-and-a-half in stilettos.
And I went once with her to something. Let me see, what did I go with her? She picked me up in a car. Oh, The Apprentice. [LAUGHTER] Well, I went there because she asked me to go with her to The Apprentice in New York. And the car came up the big stretch and I got in the car and the legs were crossed. I said, “Melania, how are you getting on with those stilettos?” “Oh, it’s no problem.” She went down the aisle in those stilettos. Imagine, go figure.
Talley: Were you going to ask me a question? [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: Yeah, and we’re coming perilously close to when we have to wrap up but I want to ask you—
Talley: Yes, are we going to Q&A? Yes. [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: Well, I don’t think we have a microphone, but. Oh, no. Don’t turn on me. A couple of questions. Just don’t turn on me.
Talley: [LAUGHTER] I won’t allow them to.
Givhan: You have mentioned manners and civility and etiquette and I am wondering if in any way you connect the lack of civility in the broader culture within some ways, fashion’s own lack of formalities, civility.
Talley: Absolutely, absolutely. As I said, the world is just fractured and f’d up and manners have been thrown out the window. I think that manners make such a difference. And the one thing that stays with me is that whenever I achieved anything at Women’s Wear Daily or Vogue, my manners were always in the forefront and I just remember the process of going to Europe and being thrown into Women’s Wear Daily in January of 1978, I arrived in the cold of night with 13 unmatched pieces of luggage. [LAUGHTER] And then I was immediately picked up by car and taken to a restaurant called La Coupole for a dinner with Karl Lagerfeld but then, I was completely freaked out and very insecure about so many things. I was very insecure. The Women’s Wear Daily paid for my lodging. I was put up in a hotel, paid for. Everything was paid for three months until I found an apartment and I had to get up every morning and face an assignment like you have to face a deadline.
I was told where to go. The assignments were given to me from New York and I was told that I had to go Mr. St. Laurent to review the collection in the couture house. Well, of course, I had to put on my best look. I had to research what I was going to say. Questions were prepared and I had to observe the protocol of the French couture house and there is a protocol in a French couture house. Now, you can’t just casually walk in there. You’ve got to meet with eh receptionist and say who you are and then you’ve got to go in and you’ve got to genuflect, sort of. It’s like courtly. And manners are everything. People will always remember your manners and they will remember your smile and I remember once a great lady from Philadelphia, the late Mrs. Angier Biddle Duke, who was photographed by Diane Arbus since she was the reincarnation of Marie Antoinette. She was very wealthy. She had hair like Marie Antoinette and she came to Paris twice and had her clothes made at Givongi and she said to me in a letter once in did a profile for her in Women’s Wear, she wrote me a letter and said, “You have the best manners. It will get you everywhere you go. As far as you want to go because of your manners.” [APPLAUSE]
Givhan: And the final question from me is that you once said that the fashion in Vogue seemed so kind, so opulently kind, a perfect image of things.
Givhan: Do you still believe that fashion is kind?
Talley: Yes, yes, absolutely. Fashion is kind because it gives you a sense of perfection, of the moral code of your choice for you to obtain to a kind of perfection in your own personal life. Whatever that level is, when you read Vogue, you are trying to aspire to an inspirational goal that’s perhaps higher than your regular norm and your regular life. Should you flip through a page of Vogue and you see some blouse you want or some shoe you want, you want to strive to get that shoe. And fashion is kind because fashion makes you feel better about yourself and you can approach the world with a smile.
Givhan: And I do have a question from the audience via Twitter, which I think is probably a question that everybody in here wanted to ask. Who is the favorite person you’ve dressed or styled for? And I’ll do the follow-up, which I’m sure people want to ask is which designers do you think are the most influential right now?
Talley: Which designers do you think are the most influential? Well, I think that any designer with his weight in gold who has been influenced by the great designer, Yves St. Laurent is worth his medal and Marc Jacobs would be one of the greatest. [APPLAUSE] Marc Jacobs. It’s like church. I love your response. [LAUGHTER] I also think the American designer Tom Ford in London is one of the great, great designers. [APPLAUSE] And also, I do think that one of the great designers is Mr. Prada. I love the Prada moment. Prada is accessible to almost everyone but then again, I have always gone back to one of the greatest designers arguably in my time was Yves St. Laurent. I did not know Balenciaga. I did not know Coco Chanel but I knew Yves St. Laurent. And Oscar de la Renta and Yves St. Laurent were two of my favorite designers. Because they gave you a world in a dress.
That gave you universe in a dress. When you to the boutique Gauche and bought that look, you had a universe on your back. Part of the brand, it gave you confidence because it was St. Laurent already. I remember my first St. Laurent because I still have it in my closet at home. It was a navy blue coat inspired by Austrian top coats. It was navy blue. It was the best coat. I just had the most confidence when I wore that coat. Then I had Rive Gauche velvet trousers and I had the most confidence on with that and my Rive Gauche shirts and it just gave me confidence when I was young to go through these moments. Everything is a moment in fashion and what was the first part of your question? [LAUGHTER]
Givhan: Yes, the first question was—
Talley: Can we take questions from the audience later?
Givhan: Who is your favorite person that you’ve dressed and styled? And I’ll give you a handful. I’ll give you a handful.
Talley: [LAUGHTER] Nicole Kidman. [APPLAUSE]
Givhan: And why do you say, Nicole Kidman?
Talley: Because Nicole Kidman and I, she has such a great sense of hor. By the way, please, you should tune into HBO and Big Little Lies. [APPLAUSE] You all are on my page. That was a stunning ensemble cast and she became the heroine in that. That was brilliant. That was one of her best performances. It was almost Oscar worthy. She should have gotten an award for that. So Nicole Kidman, when I met her at my first Vogue shoot. My first Vogue shoot, Nicole Kidman was married to Tom Cruise and we met on the shoot. It was in California and she was brilliant because it was in a private home and we had to close in a trailer and we went into the private home to do the home to do the photograph on the staircase and she is Australian and she got on the banister and she slid down the banister in a Versace dress. [LAUGHTER]
That just broke the ice. And then it was a three-day shoot and then she used to be on the phone with Tom Cruise and we were out on the beach one day and it was a big trailer and I was sitting on the side, on the ground, and she came to me and she said, “You can’t sit on the ground.” I said, “Why? It’s clean here.” She said, “You can’t sit on the concrete. Get up off that concrete.” I said, “Why?” She said, “It gives you hemorrhoids.” [LAUGHTER] And I loved her then and then when I got to Paris, Nicole Kidman was in town looking for a dress to wear to the Oscar’s and John Galliano had done this extraordinary collection and she chose, I recommended an absinthe . She wanted a kind of a dress and she chose that. It was about 1995 or something and this beautiful slim column with fringe and it was beautiful and she chose that. Now, she came to the Met Ball last year in the most extraordinary Alexander McQueen cape and knit gown. She is always a moment of perfection and fashion is good to her.
Givhan: Another question from the audience is who should we know that we don’t?
Talley: Who should you know that you don’t know? I think you should know—who should you know that you don’t know? I’m trying to think who has really inspired me recently? I think that you should get to know someone like Bethann Hardison who is a great, great lady in fashion and she’s done so much for diversity and she’s done so much for that moment of keeping people aware of diversity, as you well know. And I think that she was a great model and is a great role model. She once had a modeling agency and I think one should get to know her. And do you want to know who you should know living or dead or both?
Givhan: I think alive.
Givhan: And I’m thinking that they also might mean design-wise.
Talley: Oh, design-wise.
Givhan: I’m just inferring that.
Talley: Okay, design-wise. I think you should know the great, great, great, great, great, shoe designer, Manolo Blahnik. Manolo Blahnik is the king of shoes. He is also very much in the school of Diana Vreeland. Everything is a narrative with him because his shoes come from his head. He sketches, it’s like [SOUND]. It just comes out, out, thousands of sketches and he was five-years-old when he used to dress his pet monkey, make shoes for his pet monkey, Noginksi. So that has stayed with him in his childhood. He grew up in the Canary Islands. He had a very privileged lifestyle and he was [SOUND] and it’s just gone all up right up to today. And he’s just brilliant. Every shoe, everything, I am always impressed. He’s like my surrogate brother missing at birth? We are alike in everything.
He so inspired me. He inspired me centrally. When I first met him, he was wearing toe-on-toe Rive Gauche clothes, pink linen trousers, pink shirt, and pink linen Oxford’s with pink socks. But you know, when I first met him, I was introduced to him and we had to meet up in a place and the place was Fire Island. [LAUGHTER] And then he came down from Montauk. He had been at Andy Warhol’s house with Bianca Jagger and I was on Fire Island and so he came and I’ll never forget. He arrived on a Sunday afternoon and he had the most extraordinary blue-toned luggage and he gave me these outfits, every outfit was tone-on-tone and that was very inspiring. And he’s also a great cook too. [LAUGHTER] Something you should know for the literary quality, he has read everything and he knows every single film. He can know every single film that’s ever been made. He has a great knowledge of film.
Givhan: I think that, honestly, is all that we have time for.
Talley: [INDISCERNIBLE] questions. You can’t deprive me of the questions.
Givhan: I know. I’m so sorry.
Talley: Is there another event in this room?
Givhan: I’m so sorry.
Givhan: I’m getting the hook.
Talley: We’re getting hook; we have to go.
Givhan: So sorry. [APPLAUSE] We so appreciate you’re being here, and bravo to Andre.
Talley: Thank you so much. Thank you, Robin.