Jenny Gage + Tom Betterton
The fashion world is mourning the loss of editor and writer André Leon Talley, who died on Tuesday, Jan. 18, at the age of 73. One of the few Black people to reach the top of the fashion world, PEOPLE is honoring his legacy with a look back at a May 2020 feature which chronicled his painful childhood and pioneering career. At the time, Talley was promoting his memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, which would become a New York Times bestseller.
"Anna Wintour would never walk in and throw down her coat and handbag on a desk. No." Former Vogue creative director André Leon Talley is on a tear. The Devil Wears Prada, he wants you to know, was not a documentary. Talley refused to have anything to do with the 2006 hit, with its merciless editor in chief Miranda Priestly — played by Meryl Streep — who was inspired by Wintour. "Someone called me and said, 'Would you come and audition?' And I sad, 'No! Goodbye'" Talley, 71, recalls. "They got so many things wrong."
He would know. Talley spent more than 30 years at the storied fashion bible — most of that time as Wintour's right hand — and appeared in several films about Vogue (including 2009's The September Issue and The Gospel According to André in 2018). Now he's telling his own story in a memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, using "a voice as big as my body," he says. "My story is one Black man's experience in an insulated world."
Talley grew up in Durham, N.C., where his mother left him with his grandmother when he was very young. "She wanted what was best for me," he explains, but the two would have a distant relationship; she died in 2014. His grandmother worked as a maid in the men's dormitories at nearby Duke University for 50 years, and Talley's childhood was filled with the reliable rhythm of church events and his grandmother's baking. "A pan of her biscuits for me alone," he remembers fondly of weekends.
But he has much darker memories too. Starting at age 9, he was sexually abused. "It was not one man, it was many — teenagers and men throughout the neighborhood," he says. "It was painful. It was serial. And it took place in dark places, like the woodshed. I was afraid to tell anyone. At that time, we didn't have hotlines for sexual abuse or suicide. It has lived with me until I wrote this book."But he did find an escape. "I would walk across the railroad tracks to the Duke campus, and I would buy Vogue and Harper's Bazaar," he says. "I would devour them, hanging the pages on the wall — Naomi Sims, Pat Cleveland, the great African-American models. I made my own world."
'I found a way to alleviate the pain: through the escapism of fashion and fantasy in Vogue'
—André Leon Talley
Talley left his abusers behind when he moved to North Carolina Central University, then landed a scholarship to Brown University, where he got a Master of Arts degree in French literature. Determined to create images like the ones on his bedroom walls, he moved to New York City, volunteered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and got himself hired as an assistant to Andy Warhol at Interview magazine. There he interviewed designer Karl Lagerfeld, who became "a surrogate brother" and later helped him land a job at Women's Wear Daily in New York City and later Paris.
RELATED: André Leon Talley's Life in Photos
Attending his first couture show in 1978, he felt he was home. "Viewing the Yves Saint Laurent Porgy and Bess inspired collection, it was so similar to my childhood," he remembers. "A master of fashion was inspired by black Southern American culture — it gave me confidence to go on."
Talley first started at Vogue in New York in 1983. At the time, Wintour was the magazine's creative director, and he initially thought their first meeting was forgettable. "I said hello politely," he recalls. "I took the subway home two stops and under my door, on engraved stationary, was a note from Anna Wintour: 'Welcome to Vogue.' She is that extraordinary."
Rose Hartman/Getty Andre Leon Talley, Anna Wintour
The pair soon became "very close." When she was appointed editor-in-chief in 1988, Wintour named Talley creative director. "I was the first African-American man at that position," he says. "I thought, 'Here I am at the top!' I had my nose to the grindstone but loved it." He says Wintour was his greatest supporter. He became her rudder, weather-vane, personal shopper — and, at times, even her purse holder. (At one event Wintour left her handbag with him — and accused him of losing her cell phone, he says. It was back at her hotel room; she later apologized via a handwritten note.)
The relentlessness of the work soon caught up with him. In his mid-40s, Talley began to gain weight. "I associated food with love," he says. "And I never exercised." Wintour took notice. One day she phoned him, he remembers, and announced: "You've got to go to the gym." He lost some weight, "and then I'd wear my beautiful suits, and I could tell she was very proud," but the pounds came back.
In 2004, Wintour staged an intervention. Talley would have three extended stays at Duke University's Diet and Fitness Center and his battle with binge eating continues today. "I cannot control this addiction," he says. "I am obese." Talley left the magazine in 2013 but continued as a contributor. He says he was unceremoniously shown the door when he wasn't invited to the star-studded Met Gala in 2018, where he had emceed arrivals for years.
Larry Busacca/Getty Images
"I had suddenly become too old, overweight and uncool for Anna Wintour," he says. "I don't think she understands what she does to people." He adds that he has "huge emotional and psychic scars" from their relationship. A source close to Wintour responds, "Anna considered André a friend for over 30 years and naturally was saddened by the way he chose to portray many aspects of their friendship. But he is of course entitled to tell it as he remembers it."
Today, Talley lives alone in upstate New York and fills his time with prayer and weekly church services. Although he caught the bouquet at Wintour's wedding, he has never found a partner: "I don't have intimacy with men or women. I am afraid to be touched." Prayer, he says, helps with the scars of abuse and abandonment. He knows people are fascinated by Wintour and will dissect every word he's written. He hopes she sees his book as "a love letter." It's also, perhaps, the start of a love letter to himself. "I am not happy with who I am, but I am grateful for my life," Talley says. "I want to continue to try and be kind and not cruel."