André Leon Talley: The Gospel of the Southern rebel

Elegance is always right at your fingertips. I learned from my mentors—Mrs. Vreeland and Mr. Fairchild—I learned the luxury of clothes from Mrs. Vreeland, the luxury from inside out.

- André Leon Tally

It was one of those New York nights when all the stars align, and you become a part of the unexpected moment which will always stay as one of the most inspiring memories in your life. Meeting André Leon Talley, listening to him talk about fashion, life, politics, and current events was a profound moment for myself, and for the entire audience who gathered to celebrate his life and achievements in a recent documentary by Kate Novac, entitled The Gospel According to André.

Right after its official release in theaters, critics described the documentary as just scratching the surface of André's astonishing life and complicated present. This is partially true. There is little investigation into his sexuality and sexual identity, but this proved largely unnecessary as Kate Novac instead chose to focus on his achievements in the fashion industry. In a certain sense the documentary genre creates the expectation of something new and investigative, but in this case it provided a straight-forward narrative of the man who gave his entire life to fashion society and now stands alone. The film is filled with commentary from fashion royalty like Valentino Garavani, Marc Jacobs, and Anna Wintour, all of whom have nothing but praise for Talley's work.

The film begins where Mr. Talley grew up, showing the black church where he was baptized. His childhood years, he spent living with his grandma and enjoying Sunday (services) and absorbing fashion looks that were served at the local church by the women who would came to praise the Lord in their Sundays best. The Duke University chapter of his life was marked by an incident of hatred, when homophobic students once threw stones at him as he crossed campus one Sunday to buy an issue of Vogue.

He was so many things he was not supposed to be,”

- Whoopi Goldberg

Being a young black man in the South, the immediate presumption was that he didn't have a right to dream big. But he did, and dreamed of being a fashion editor. He ended up going to the Brown for his Masters degree, and wrote his thesis on the influence of black women in Baudelaire and Flaubert and the paintings of Delacroix. He broke a ‘black’ barrier when he got an internship with Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute. Talley's next big breakthrough was the job for the Interview magazine side by side Andy Warhol and after that came reporting Paris Fashion week. As the only black man in the front row of couture shows he forged the path of his own success, soon making his way to become the right hand of Anna Wintour, the current creative director of Vogue.

Novac’s direction is artful but holds an emotional touch, which gives us a view of André like we have never seen before. Weaving together a wealth of archival footage from the most glamorous moments in fashion history with André’s poignant reflections on his life and career, The Gospel According to André is a cinematic monument to one of the most unique figures of twentieth century American culture.

“André is from another time,” Tom Ford said. “A time when editors did create a dream. A time when fashion was a much more elegant business, and a time when style did matter.”

When asked by one viewer what he considers the most luxurious item, his answered with a diva like gesture, saying:

“Darling, the most luxurious thing about a garment is the lining. I learned from Mr. Fairchild, a great man, a brilliant man who was my boss, how to analyze and look at clothes and quickly analyze clothes the way an art critic would analyze paintings. You have to read and read and read everything, from Balzac to Jean Cocteau to Gustave Flaubert. You have to listen to all of the great musicians—Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Duke Ellington, Mr. Coltrane, Billie Holiday. Everything is of great worth in the inspirational moment of achieving a state of grace through knowledge! Now when you combine all this, you get luxury items that have complexity and uniqueness.”

Laughing and commenting on current events, which somehow turned the film’s Q&A portion into a standup comedy routine, Talley revealed that he had not known what to expect when making a documentary and that it was rough going at first. As he explained:

“It’s very intrusive. It’s like you are exposed, like chest surgery. It’s like you open the cavity of your chest and you expose yourself on a surgical table. I had no idea what it was going to be. I just trusted Kate enough and became very trusting of her, and her trajectory, her sophisticated research, and respect for my story, of my life. She delved into the past enough to impress me to continue to go through with it.”

Kate Novac believed that André’s life story deserved to be documented. The idea about this movie came during the filming “The First Monday in May” where she actually met Andre, she recounted.

"While I was working with my husband, Andrew Rossi who directed the documentary about Met Gala and creative process behind fashion exhibition “China: Through the Looking Glass, I went to some of the Q&As for the film that Andrew and André did together. Afterward, I said to Andrew, “Why has there not been a film about this man?” André talks about a hymn that he always loved in church, which still brings him to tears, called “Precious Memories.” I listened to that song, and it was so moving. It’s about the way that memory can act as a sustaining force. That was the entry point, and the vision and that song now plays a prominent role in the film."

Judging by the buzz this movie caused both in and outside of the fashion world, it is likely that we can expect more from André soon. Even though his career in fashion publication is winding down, this work of art can serve as yet another starting point to relaunching his career. André Leon Talley is still not done with fashion regardless of the opinion of the fashion community.

Writer | Josip Majer

Photo | Magnolia Pictures

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