The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

André Leon Talley, eminence of haute couture, dies at 73

André Leon Talley arrives at a Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute benefit in 2011. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
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André Leon Talley, who rose from an impoverished childhood in the segregated South to become an eminence of haute couture and one of the few African Americans on the mastheads and red carpets of the fashion world, died Jan. 18 at a hospital in White Plains, N.Y. He was 73.

Mr. Talley had several chronic illnesses, including asthma, and contracted covid-19 several days ago, Darren Walker, a friend of Mr. Talley’s and the president of the Ford Foundation, confirmed in an email.

Mr. Talley had been an indomitable fixture of the fashion scene since the 1970s, when he embarked on a career that would take him to New York and Paris as a writer, editor and tastemaker for magazines including Women’s Wear Daily, Vogue and Vanity Fair.

His influence, however, extended far beyond his titles — among them creative director and editor at large for Vogue — or any single professional undertaking, which included writing a 2009 cover story for the magazine about Michelle Obama, accompanied by portraits of the first lady by photographer Annie Leibovitz. For much of his career, Mr. Talley was, as he once wrote, “the only black man among a sea of white titans of style.”

Mr. Talley was so rare, as an African American at the highest echelons of fashion, that the headline of a 1994 New Yorker magazine profile labeled him “The Only One.”

“He has become the last editorial custodian of unfettered glamour,” the writer, Hilton Als, observed, “and the only fashion editor who figures at all in the popular imagination. He is the fashion editor who, seemingly sparing no expense for models, clothes, props, photographers and airplane tickets to far-flung locations … pursues that which the public will perceive, without naming it, as allure.”

Mr. Talley had a distinctive style, often wrapping himself in heavy capes. He “has always cut a striking figure, draping his 6-foot-6 frame with silk caftans, crocodile coats and abundant fur,” Washington Post critic-at-large Robin Givhan wrote in 2018. “The clothes, he has always said, are armor,” donned, as he put it, to “navigate through these chiffon trenches.”

“Fashion is a cruel world,” Mr. Talley told The Post. “The clothes I put on are very deliberate.”

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

André Leon Talley was born on Oct. 16, 1948, in Washington and grew up in Durham, N.C., where he was raised from the age of 2 months by his maternal grandmother, a widow who supported herself and him cleaning dormitories at Duke University.

“Bennie Frances Davis may have looked like a typical African-American domestic worker to many who saw her on an ordinary day,” Mr. Talley wrote in his 2003 memoir “A.L.T.” “But I, who could see her soul, could also see her secret: that even while she wore a hair net and work clothes to scrub toilets and floors, she wore an invisible diadem.”

Even early in his youth, Mr. Talley was attuned to clothing and style, taking note of the Sunday best that fellow congregants wore to services at his Baptist church. As he grew up, he discovered fashion magazines and ventured to a newsstand on the White side of town to purchase the latest edition of Vogue and other publications.

Once, he recalled, Duke students threw rocks at him from a car. He endured ridicule when he began experimenting with the capes that later became his signature look. He did not speak of the matter in detail but said he was sexually abused as a child.

“Fashion in Vogue seemed so kind,” he told the New Yorker. “So opulently kind. A perfect image of things.”

Transfixed by the glamour of the Kennedy White House, Mr. Talley modeled himself on first lady Jacqueline Kennedy to become a Francophile in his teens. He received a bachelor’s degree in French literature from North Carolina Central University, a historically Black institution in Durham, in 1970 and a master’s degree in French studies from Brown University in 1973.

The father of a classmate helped Mr. Talley find his entree into New York fashion, writing a letter of introduction to Diana Vreeland, the former editor in chief of Vogue who at the time was mounting fashion exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. She and his grandmother, Mr. Talley often said, were the defining figures in his life.

Under Vreeland’s tutelage, Mr. Talley began to explore the world of fashion that he had until then known only from afar. He became a receptionist at Interview, a magazine founded by artist Andy Warhol, and later was dispatched to Paris by Women’s Wear Daily. He joined Vogue in 1983, hired by Anna Wintour. He chronicled his complicated relationship with the powerful editor and other figures in the fashion industry, among them the designer Karl Lagerfeld, in a best-selling memoir released in 2020, “The Chiffon Trenches.”

What André Leon Talley says about fashion says a lot about how fashion has changed

Mr. Talley’s experience in those trenches, he said, included persistent encounters with racism and prejudice. He was at times derided as “Queen Kong.” Once, according to the New Yorker, Mr. Talley hosted a luncheon in Paris where a guest referred to him using a cruel racial epithet.

“Several people laughed, loudly,” the profile recounted. “None laughed louder than André Leon Talley. 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.”

Mr. Talley had no immediate survivors.

He appeared frequently on television, including as a judge on the reality TV show “America’s Next Top Model.” He was the subject of a 2017 documentary, “The Gospel According to André,” directed by Kate Novack, and in recent years reflected increasingly on his legacy as an African American man in high fashion.

“You don’t make a loud noise,” Mr. Talley told NPR in 2020. “You don’t scream. You don’t get up and say, look — hey, I’m loud. I’m Black, and I’m proud. You just do it. And then it’s recognized, and somehow it impacts the culture.”