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‘Race does define me,’ says André Leon Talley — and now the fashion icon is ready to talk about it

André Leon Talley in “The Gospel According to André.” (Magnolia Pictures)

In an early scene from “The Gospel According to André,” the star of the documentary sits on the porch of his home in White Plains, N.Y., with a hat perched jauntily on his head as he surveys a team of tree trimmers. André Leon Talley has spent a lifetime in fashion — reporting on it, critiquing it, admiring it and wearing it. But in that moment he looks less like a fashion grandee and more like a Southern gentleman overseeing his acreage — a man just home from Sunday service who would politely nod and tip his hat at any neighbor who happened past.

Talley is a tall, stately African American man. He is a Southerner. And he’s a churchgoer. More than anything else, these are the things that have shaped the way he has moved through life. They influence the way he judges beauty and prioritizes grace. They fueled the ambition that put him so close to the summit of the fashion mountaintop — that peak from which the great editors in chief rule. And they explain why he didn’t reach it.

Talley has always cut a striking figure, draping his 6-foot-6 frame with silk caftans, crocodile coats and abundant fur. The clothes, he has always said, are armor: He used them to “navigate through these chiffon trenches,” he said in a recent interview. “Fashion is a cruel world. The clothes I put on are very deliberate.”

His decision to collaborate with filmmaker Kate Novack came after her consulting work on “The First Monday in May,” a documentary about the annual Met Costume Institute exhibition and gala, directed by her husband and frequent collaborator Andrew Rossi, which featured interviews with Talley. It was the latest in a series of film projects — “The September Issue,” “Iris,” “Bill Cunningham New York” — that have shown fashion in a more humane and realistic way. While many film studios, Rossi said, are still skeptical that “fashion is worthy of this kind of analysis,” it’s now clear that fashion documentaries, with the right marketing and support, can appeal to audiences beyond the fashion community.

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Novack was drawn to Talley because she had seen him so many times as a supporting character in these documentaries, and each time he was the most memorable personality. “André has always made it look easy,” she said — it being existing and thriving in fashion. Novack was ready to explore the fashion icon’s youth and his faith, public image and race. And finding a patient listener, Talley was ready to speak.

“I was so surprised that I’d said so many things and revealed something people didn’t know about me, which is my humanity,” Talley said. “People see the superficiality of the fashion world and maybe then see affectation. But that’s not me.” Or at least, it is not all that he is.

Every public figure has a personal history, as well as an origin story. The latter is a bit of mythology that may or may not be laced with truth. “The Gospel According to André” is more of a personal history as told in anecdotes and snippets of conversation. Viewers meet Bruce Weaver, who was Talley’s best friend growing up. “He was the exact opposite of me,” Talley says. Weaver was the boy who passed no judgment on a young Talley as he obsessed over fashion magazines, swaddled himself in a cape and generally lived as the odd duck in Durham, N.C. The audience gets to know Talley’s late grandmother through his memories and photographs. And they see snippets of the weekly fashion parade that Talley witnessed at Sunday morning church service.

The woman who offers the most insight into Talley — and serves as the only other narrative voice aside from Talley himself — is not another fashion editor or designer. It’s Eboni Marshall Turman, an assistant professor of theology and African American religion at Yale University Divinity School and a friend. She is the person who places Talley into a social context, considers how he has extended the definition of black manhood and makes plain that race matters in his life. She poses the question of what it means be so singular in fashion — to be, as a 1994 New Yorker profile put it, “The Only One.”

From 2003: How Andre Leon Talley became a fashion icon

For much of his career, Talley didn’t discuss race. He didn’t refuse to engage on the subject; he implied that he couldn’t engage because he didn’t give it all that much thought. Besides, what was there to say? In the New Yorker profile, writer Hilton Als described a lunch in Paris hosted by Talley during which a French socialite referred to him by the n-word, not surreptitiously, but frankly. “Several people laughed, loudly. None laughed louder than André Leon Talley,” Als wrote. “But it seemed to me that a couple of things happened before he started laughing: he shuttered his eyes, his grin grew larger, and his back went rigid, as he saw his belief in the durability of glamour and allure shatter before him in a million glistening bits. Talley attempted to pick those pieces up.”

Race is no longer subtext in today’s fashion conversation. It has moved into the spotlight. And in the documentary, Talley unburdens himself, not fully but emotionally. He’s in the photo archives at Vogue when he recalls the insulting way in which a French publicist referred to him behind his back: “Queen Kong.”

“That’s probably one of the most important moments in the film,” Novack said in an interview. The fancy suits and silk shirts are no protection. Neither are his fluency in French, his deep knowledge of fashion history or his work ethic.

“Race does define me,” Talley said. “It feels more relevant now to bring it to the forefront.” Talley recalls how during his early days at Vogue, Anna Wintour, the magazine’s editor in chief, would call “me in and quietly and directly ask me to look at a layout when it included people of color. She’d ask me, ‘Did I think it would offend anyone?’ ” In one case, he previewed a 1999 fashion story featuring Kate Moss and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs as a glamorous couple in Paris. She wears slinky evening gowns; he’s draped in fur. Talley gave his approval.

There’s no creativity without diversity, Talley says. The documentary highlights a 1996 fashion shoot Talley organized for Vanity Fair called “Scarlett ‘n the Hood,” in which black model Naomi Campbell plays Scarlett O’Hara and white designers are cast as servants. But one of his proudest moments, he said in an interview, is the 2009 Vogue cover story of first lady Michelle Obama.

“Anna took me to lunch in the Condé Nast boardroom. She said, ‘We’re going to meet [presidential adviser] Valerie Jarrett to convince her to let Michelle Obama be on the cover. Let me do the talking; you’ll just sit there,’ ” Talley recalls. Wintour arrived with a stack of notebooks featuring all the first ladies the magazine had photographed in the past. “I sat there and smiled. And [Wintour] said, ‘André would do the story.’ That was a very important moment in our relationship and one of the most important assignments.”

Talley is no longer “the only one,” but he has yet to become one of many. “The industry has shifted in diversity, but not necessarily in terms of black people. We have models that are Muslim, transgender. The only great moment, the important moment for us is the appointment of Edward Enninful” as editor in chief of British Vogue, Talley said.  “There have been black female editors at Condé Nast but none with the prestige of a Vogue. … This took all these years. It’s the beginning of a defining moment.”

“I’m ever hopeful,” he added. “I think the world moves slow.” But Talley has done his part to push it along.