André Leon Talley has an icy relationship with the fashion industry, but at a screening of his new documentary in Harlem, he felt the love.
“WE LOVE YOU, MUVA!” a voice shouted from the crowd. “I love you, child,” André Leon Talley gave back.
The former Vogue editor-at-large had just taken his seat onstage in a Dapper Dan original caftan—tigers dancing on gold brocade with crimson piping—after a screening of The Gospel According to André at the Schomburg Center in Harlem last Tuesday. But the tiny theater on 135th Street felt more like a church than an auditorium.
As the film rolled, the mostly black crowd moaned and groaned and clapped and cried and laughed along with Talley as he recounted his upbringing in the southern black church and his path to fashion superstardom—and Talley is the best of storytellers. The crowd delighted at his tales of big, elegant hats and pageantry on Sundays in Durham, North Carolina, especially that of his grandmother, who raised him. We drew into the screen as he described the scenes at Studio 54, Paris Fashion Week, and even RISD (Talley graduated from Brown University, but spent most of his time at the art school next door), and friendships with Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent, and Azzedine Alaïa.
We got fiercely protective when he revealed he had been called “Queen Kong” by a PR exec at Yves Saint Laurent; and we all shed a tear when he remarked that he wished his grandmother, a maid at Duke University whose unconditional love was his life source, could have been alive to witness Michelle Obama’s first Vogue cover, in 2009, as the First Lady of the United States (which he wrote).
After the film, Tamron Hall, dressed in a custom gold Dapper Dan bolero, moderated a conversation between Talley and the film’s director, Kate Novack.
“I articulated that story,” Talley said onstage about his experience with racism in the industry, “because I took that with me to let myself know that I had overcome all the obstacles that confronted me, and I had to do it with grace and dignity, as so many of our ancestors have done.” The crowd swayed in approval.
An interview with The New York Times, published last week, paints a portrait of Talley as the black sheep of the icey fashion industry, having lost his friendships with the likes of Muiccia Prada, Lagerfeld, and even, to some extent, Anna Wintour.
But where the fashion industry has turned a cold shoulder, the auditorium in Harlem was as warm and loving as a home-cooked meal in a familiar home.
Talley was never vocal about race during his tenure at Vogue, but he often fought for representation within the pages of the storied magazine. During the discussion, Hall hinted at how he fought to get Serena and Venus Williams in the magazine in the 90s.
“It’s not about raising your fist all the time. It’s not about screaming, ‘Black power!’ Black is powerful,” Talley said.
By the end of the film and the talk, the audience at the Schomburg had all taken responsibility for him. He was ours. Though Talley was far from his secluded house in White Plains, NY—and even farther from his roots in Durham—in that intimate theater in Harlem, he was definitely at home.
Here’s more from André Leon Talley at the Schomburg Center, on Kanye West, Tiffany Haddish, and the royal wedding. The Gospel According to André opened Thursday, May 24.
On Kanye West:
I know Kanye West. I know him very well. I went to the wedding in Florence. Kanye West, let’s pray for him. We cannot abandon him. We pray for him as a brother and human being. … I take full responsibility for him as a black man and [for] people of color in the world of fashion and style.
On Tiffany Haddish being one of the best dressed at the 2018 Met Gala:
So we’re at the Met ball, and I’m sitting there minding my own business and I see this girl come in—tall black girl—but I know she’s not that tall because I can look down and tell that she’s got 7-inch high heels on. She’s wearing trousers, and it’s Tiffany Haddish. And I see her and I get her attention. I say, “Come here, come here, come here.” She came over very meekly. She said, “Hello, how are you?” I said, “I just want to let you know that you are incredible, and you are going to go BIG. You will be big in your career because you are extraordinary.” [She said,] “Oh thank you,” and then she said, “I’m so hungry.” She said, “I lost 7 pounds to get in this outfit.” I said, “Well you’re working your outfit,” I said, “Go eat.” She said, “I’m going to eat off my partner’s plate ’cause I’m that hungry. Where he is?” And that was Tiffany Haddish. And she was, in my opinion, one of the best dressed woman at the ball.
On the royal wedding:
This was the first royal wedding where there was a black woman from America, and she had all the elegance of all those royals. Her mother, Doria, sat in that pew in a beautiful green outfit from Oscar de la Renta. She was as queenly as the queen. She made all the black mothers proud. She made all the black daughters of black mothers proud. Doria has the strength of a queen. She was there alone—she didn’t have her husband, she didn’t have her brother, her auntie, an uncle. She sat there with great dignity and nobility. And this girl [Meghan Markle], I was only a fan of her when I read and saw pictures of her, in this beautiful Givenchy dress, and this beautiful veil—simplicity. And she chose Givenchy, who made beautiful clothes for Audrey Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, this girl can be the new Audrey Hepburn. Because this girl’s career, the lady who designed the dress, Clare [Waight Keller], is made from [Meghan] picking her for the wedding dress.
The whole event represented us as a people, something so strong. The minister is from America talking about slavery, and Martin Luther King Jr. The choir and the cellist who’s 19 years old. It was so strong. It was a symbolic moment of the fusion of our culture into this society of royals—overfed, overstuffed ,overprivileged, they don’t smile. God bless the queen. I wish her good health. She was inspiring, she lived a long time and we all love the crown, but I just felt that this is a moment.