A pioneering force in the fashion world, the former Vogue editor taught entire generations how to break free from preconceptions by becoming the first African-American creative director of the magazine par excellence
Words by: Gilda Bruno
While designers, models, and their creative teams were busy prepping their return to the glamorous runways of Paris, the fashion community lost yet another one of its brightest stars. André Leon Talley, the legendary American fashion journalist and Vogue editor, passed away aged 73 due to a heart attack. “It is with great sadness we announce the passing of André Leon Talley on January 18, 2022 in New York,” reads a statement shared on Talley’s official Instagram account.
“Mr. Talley was the larger-than-life, longtime creative director at Vogue during its rise to dominance as the world’s fashion bible. Over the past five decades as an international icon was a close confidant of Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Paloma Picasso, Diane von Furstenberg, Bethann Hardison, Manolo Blahnik and he had a penchant for discovering, nurturing and celebrating young designers.”
Born in Washington D.C. in 1948, Talley was raised in Durham, North Carolina, where he grew up with his maternal grandmother, the person with whom he first discovered Vogue — at the age of 10 — and began cultivating his very personal understanding of luxury. “At an early age, I discovered the beauty in pictures in Vogue and Ebony magazine, and I would read The New York Times,” he shared in an interview in 2018. “I had to make my own world within my world because I was an only child.”
An African-American from the Jim Crow era, Talley had to navigate a society characterised by profound racial segregation; a world he learned to revolutionise as he entered the fashion game as an (unpaid) assistant to Vogue editor Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1974. From there, Talley’s career took off: impressed by his skills, Vreeland introduced the Vogue editor-to-be to no one else than Andy Warhol, who welcomed him in the team of Interview — the publication he co-founded with British journalist John Wilcock in 1969 — for $50 a week.
Other Talley’s by-lines include Women’s Wear Daily, for which he served as Paris bureau chief for a period of time, W, and The New York Times. He reached the apex of his career with his appointment as US Vogue’s fashion news director (1983—7) under The Devil Wears Prada-inspiring legend Anna Wintour, and as the first African-American creative director of the magazine (1988—95): a life achievement that triggered a real cultural revolution in a predominantly white universe, making space for other Black fashion journalists to follow in his footsteps in the decades to come.
Vogue’s editor-at-large between 1998 and 2013, Talley never ceased to fight against elitism in the fashion industry. Had the American fashion journalist, stylist and editor not strived to create the conditions for the inclusion of dark-skinned models, covers like the recent British Vogue‘s — though still controversial — would have remained a mirage, even in 2022. But models of colour and fellow fashion-obsessed weren’t the only ones that looked at Talley, his bubbly, flamboyant personality and his dream-come-true career as inestimable sources of inspiration.
“For a little black gay boy who reached for the stars from the south there were few people I could look up to up there amongst the stars who looked like me just more fab except for you André,” playwright Jeremy O’Harris shared in a tweet. “For a generation of boys André Leon Talley was a beacon of grace and aspiration.”
“I scorched the earth with my talent and I let my light shine.” — André Leon Talley
“He was a legendary figure in fashion and a walking encyclopedia of knowledge. […] Beyond the persona, I knew him personally as a sweet and genuinely kind human being. His final departing words to me were ‘Nothing matters in this world but family and love, and you have IT’. I hope, in the moments before he passed, he recalled how much he was loved by the extended family he had built over many decades in this industry. He will be missed.”