Marc Jacobs Fall 2013 Collection show, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. Photograph courtesy of Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Marc Jacobs

An “encyclopedia in the manner of a man”, the inimitable figure leaves behind a complicated legacy.

André Leon Talley, who died on January 18 at the age of 73, was a poster child for a bygone era of fashion media, where the focus was on designers and their craft, and knowledge of the fashion history was a valuable asset. “It was a one-man encyclopedia,” writes Toronto writer Shinan Govani. declared on Instagram on the occasion of the death of André Leon Talley.

André Leon Talley and Anna Wintour at the 1999 Met Gala. Photograph courtesy of Rose Hartman/Getty Images

When he roamed the runway circuit as an editor for American vogue, Talley’s assessment of a collection was often a lesson in fashion history, with references to the innovative silhouettes of Cristobal Balenciaga, or how Yves Saint Laurent revolutionized women’s dress. His observations were always delivered with enthusiasm and appreciation, rather than with the dry tone of an academic. Everything was, “Fabulous, honey!” – even the most confusing set because it unconditionally supported creativity. And his endless enthusiasm was contagious.

Death of André Léon Talley
André Leon Talley and Naomi Campbell at the 2006 Met Gala. Photograph courtesy of Rabbani and Solimene Photography/WireImage

As Talley’s stature grew in the fashion world, his mere presence at an event made him significant. He became an icon, even before wearing colorful Daniel Day caftans for cover its circumference, a result of the emotional eating that began after the death of the grandmother who raised him. Standing six-foot-six, he literally took up more space than anyone in the room. And yet, he seemed more interested in the people around him, charming socialites and encouraging young people who approached him to pursue their dreams.

Death of André Léon Talley
MADE Fashion Week Spring 2015. Photograph courtesy of Rob Kim/WireImage

The 2017 documentary The Gospel According to Andrew and the publication of his 2020 memoirs, Chiffon trench coats, sheds light on the pain behind Talley’s rise to the top. He was born in Durham, North Carolina and grew up in a time when segregation still existed. He was sexually abused as a child, tormented about being black, and stoned by Duke University students on one of his weekly walks to buy fashion magazines. His most valuable education began when he interned with Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute, and he landed at vogue in 1983 where he held various titles, ending with editor.

Through his film and his autobiography, we also learn how behind his back in Paris his name was queen kong, a term coined by Clara Saint, Yves Saint Laurent’s publicist. “There have been some very cruel and racist times in my life in the fashion world,” Talley said. “Incidents where people were harmful, mean-spirited and terrifying.”

Death of André Léon Talley
Andre Leon Talley speaks during ‘The Gospel According to Andre’ Q&A at the 21st SCAD Savannah Film Festival in 2018. Photograph courtesy Cindy Ord/Getty Images

after leaving vogue, it seemed grow up alone and bitter, calling the fashion world a “cruel and vicious beast”. He didn’t seem to understand the need for the budget cuts that were undermining the magazine industry, expressing his horror that legendary editor Grace Coddington had to queue for a taxi at Paris airport. He came across as selfish and authoritative, which is unfortunate because given his wit and intelligence, and how dedicated he was to uplifting others both at vogue and thanks to its support of the Savannah College of Art and Design, one might have hoped for a more serene retirement from center stage. He certainly deserved it.

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