The Gospel According to André

July 13, 2018
André Leon Talley - a long way from Durham, North Carolina

Those who watched The September Issue – the 2009 documentary that sparked a wave of fashion movies, will remember André Leon Talley as a larger-than-life presence in Vogue magazine’s inner circle. Loud, camp and flamboyant, Talley is the big black guy who seems to hang around the office doing nothing in particular. If Vogue’s uptight editor, Anna Wintour, were a queen, Talley would be the court jester. If she were a sorceress he would be her familiar.

Now that Talley has his own documentary we can see more clearly the source of his appeal. Talley is a walking encyclopaedia of fashion history, on first-name terms with all the great couturiers, but it’s not just his knowledge that Wintour appreciates. His extrovert personality allows her to indulge her own favourite option of remaining locked up like a clam. When they represent Vogue at a fashion show Wintour can hide behind her over-sized shades while Talley turns on the razzle-dazzle.

In The Gospel According to André, we get to examine this exotic creature in some detail. It’s not an easy task for filmmaker, Kate Novack, because Talley is always performing. His conversation is a stream of reminiscences and fashion tips, punctuated by those high-pitched trills that used to signify gayness in Hollywood movies in days when real gay actors such as Rock Hudson, Cary Grant or Montgomery Clift, had to appear as heterosexual heart-throbs, both on-screen and off.

Talley was always a towering figure but in his late sixties he has grown a girth to match his height. Rather than squeeze himself into trousers and jackets that emphasise his bulk he dresses in brightly-coloured robes and kaftans which make him look like an African potentate or the high priest of some voodoo cult. When he moves he resembles a float from the Gay Mardi Gras.

It’s only when Novack takes us back in time, to Talley’s childhood in Durham, North Carolina, that we begin to understand the foundations of this outlandish self-invention. In the segregated south the black community knew their sole hope of advancement (or escape) was to be smarter and more dignified than the whites who posed as their superiors. Talley’s people dressed sharp, went to Church on Sundays and nervously watched the growth of the Civil Rights movement.

Talley, who was brought up by his grandmother, was a model student with a passion for the French language. He would secure a scholarship to study French at Brown University, where he wrote a thesis on Baudelaire. His contacts with students of art and design stimulated an interest in fashion that would rapidly become a full-time preoccupation.

By 1974 Talley had insinuated himself into the Andy Warhol circle in New York, hanging out at the Factory and writing for Interview magazine. His big break came when he volunteered to work for Diana Vreeland at the Costume Insitute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vreeland recognised the young man’s talent and dedication, and made him her personal assistant. That was Talley’s entrée into the world of haute couture, and he never looked back. He would go on to write for Vogue and eventually become a fashion correspondent in Paris, where his fluent French and striking appearance made him a celebrity.

If Talley is now considered an institution within the fashion industry we can see that he didn’t achieve this status merely by camping it up at parties. He worked incredibly hard, being driven by his obsessions and by the knowledge that he was going places no black man from Durham, N.C. had ever gone before. Among the lavish decorations in his home in upstate New York, there sits a small, framed photograph of Martin Luther King.

Only towards the end of the film does Talley begin to let down his guard. He talks about the casual racism he has always encountered, about how some believed the only way a black man could reach such heights was by sleeping with influential people. In fact he seems to have had the love life of a nun. Even when Talley would spend every night dancing at Studio 54, he steered clear of the sex and drugs that would consume and destroy figures such as Robert Mapplethorpe.

While the documentary is being filmed the 2016 Presidential Campaign is underway, and Talley – who had been an enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama, and a fashion advisor to the First Lady – is counting on a Hillary Clinton victory. Perhaps the most poignant moment in the film is when it becomes clear that Donald Trump has triumphed. The look of undisguised misery on Talley’s face as he sits watching the results on TV suggests that the Trump ascendency is a mortal blow to everything he has fought to achieve; to all his fondest hopes for a country in which people are not persecuted for their race or sexual preferences.

Talley’s expression speaks more eloquently about what Donald Trump means to America than a thousand damning editorials. Yet by the day of the inaugration he has picked himself up and is commenting favourably on Melania Trump’s fashion sense on a radio program. One realises that beneath the capes and the kaftans, the furs and coloured silks, there is a tough, pragmatic operator. Talley knows his friends won’t approve of anything good he says about Melania, but given the life we have just seen unfold, how could he ever be expected to put prejudice ahead of style?

The Gospel According to André
Written & directed by Kate Novack
Starring André Leon Talley, Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Anna Wintour, Fran Lebowitz, Whoopi Goldberg
USA, rated PG, 93 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 14 July, 2018