Working With André Leon Talley Wasn’t Easy, but It Was Great

·5 min read
ESBP/Star Max
ESBP/Star Max

“When, in Paris you meet a type,” Honoré de Balzac wrote, “it is no mere man, it is a spectacle!” André Leon Talley, with his graduate degree in French from Brown University, would have understood.

I first saw André in person in the late '90s as I sat in a television production truck parked outside the tents at Bryant Park where New York Fashion Week used to be held. I was the executive producer of live, nightly coverage of the runway shows. One of the features of our show was to play tape of the day’s shows with live expert commentary. (It was like color commentary during a ballgame but with much better clothes and far more attractive participants.)

When André walked into our makeshift studio dressed down in some improbably chic sweatpants and immense dark glasses, he reversed the stool he was asked to sit on, leaned forward, spreading his endless legs on either side of the back of the chair, and proceeded to do a dozen or so minutes of dazzlingly brilliant runway analysis.

Anyone could see that this man was a star.

My priority for the next Fashion Week was simple: Get André Leon Talley!

André agreed to appear regularly if we could arrange to give his honorarium to his beloved Ebenezer Baptist Church in Harlem, which André attended regularly, owing to both his religious devotion and his fondness for the beautiful style of women’s dress on Sunday mornings. André had great respect for the deeply human impulse to look one’s best. Fashion, after all, is a social undertaking: one is presenting oneself to friends and strangers alike. So why not look good? It’s a very civilized thing to do, André might say.

André Leon Talley, May You Rest Fabulously in Your Most Glorious Caftan

Working with André was never easy. The man had strong ideas. And he had the ability to briefly terrorize me and our very tough director as he sent us scurrying around to execute one of his whims. But if you respected him and his passion, you really didn’t mind. It actually made us laugh.

When Bob Costas talks about baseball, it seems like the most important thing in the world. That’s why Costas is a great broadcaster. And when André spoke about fashion, it seemed like the most important thing in the world. And to him perhaps it was.

André could watch a fashion show in the morning, and then come into our studio and comment in detail on every outfit designed by one of his favorite designers—Oscar, Carolina, Karl, or Ralph—without consulting any notes. He seemed to instantly memorize every “look” and understand the references to earlier designers. Thus, a woman’s suit by a contemporary designer might inspire a brief footnote about a Dior or Balenciaga outfit once worn by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The man was a true scholar of fashion. (Wonderful vignettes of André in action are captured in producer Elizabeth Hummer’s Emmy-nominated half-hour television special, Vogue’s Talley.

Sometimes, after André finished one of his commentaries, he’d slowly walk off the set and ask, “What did the straight guys in the control room think?” I was always touched by this. He was an extremely sensitive man, an artist of sorts, and a vulnerable man beneath the well-fortified armor of flesh and arrogance with which he shielded himself.

Of course, he was mocked by some, and he eventually left Vogue with a certain amount of hurt feelings. But I hope André understood that, to call upon Balzac again, “In society, nobody is interested in suffering or misfortune, everything is talk.”

During one Fashion Week, the New York Post ran a photo of André seated next to Anna Wintour and her daughter in the front row of a Marc Jacobs runway show. André was wearing one of his bespoke suits, which was made by Prince Charles’ Saville Row tailor. But the buttoned fly on his pants had come undone. (Why fancy suits have button flies has always been a mystery to me, but I digress.) The Post ran the picture day after day with increasingly unpleasant captions. It was absurd and cruel, but André took it to heart. After a few days of this sordid public mockery of a great man, I found André sitting in our green room with tears in his eyes. It was the occasion of a rare heartfelt exchange with this very guarded man. His greatest fear, he told me, was that he would die alone. He asked if my wife and I regretted not having children, and I sensed that perhaps he himself would have liked to have been a father.

I thought of that conversation after I watched The Gospel According to André Leon Talley, Kate Novack’s moving documentary which, besides interviews with the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Diane Von Furstenberg, and Michelle Obama, featured a visit to André’s childhood home in North Carolina, conversations with his childhood friends, and a tribute to André’s beloved grandmother, who worked cleaning dormitories at Duke University. The audience at the Tribeca Film Festival where I watched the film was filled with André’s young, passionate admirers, many of whom had dressed up—“putting on the dog” to borrow a phrase from André. Afterward, André appeared on stage, even larger than I remembered him, and there was something heartbreaking in the way he moved with great difficulty, burdened with all that flesh.

The young acolytes expressed their love for André, who had inspired so many of them to go into careers in fashion, or simply express themselves through their clothing. These were truly his children. And that night I knew that André would never die alone because he would always be surrounded by the love of his many admirers. I hoped he somehow sensed their presence, even if they weren't in the room.

For those of us who admired André, the world feels far less delightful without him.

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