André Leon Talley was the last great editor of a lost era.
Credit…Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times
There is a scene early in “The September Issue,” the 2009 documentary about the making of the year’s door-stopper Vogue magazine, that features a meeting between the designer Vera Wang, dressed down in a striped shirt and no makeup, and, like a character from an entirely different movie set, the editor André Leon Talley: very tall, very imposing, in dark glasses, silk tie and bespoke suit, swathed in a mink shawl. They are discussing the state of New York fashion.
“It is a famine of beauty,” Mr. Talley enunciates with an air of great tragedy. In case she didn’t understand the weight of his words, he repeated them: “A famine of beauty.” And again, “A famine of beauty, honey.”
Then, finally: “My eyes are starving for beauty!”
Beauty mattered to Mr. Talley, who for decades was one of Vogue’s — and the industry’s — power players. Since his death on Jan. 18 at the age of 73, that “famine of beauty” line has been quoted again and again in obituaries and in the hundreds of social media posts memorializing his life. In part that is because it is so representative: grandiloquent and absurd at the same time; the words of a diva, uttered at a time when divas were going out of style. But also because it is a reminder of just how much succor can be found in the gorgeously conceived dress, object, apartment, sentence.
It’s a perennial truth. Mr. Talley simply was part of a tradition in which you declaimed it, with exclamation points, from the rooftops.
Since his death, he has often been called “the only one,” the title of a 1994 profile of him in The New Yorker. Though it referred to the fact that at the time Mr. Talley was often the only Black editor in any given setting, it could just as easily apply to the part he played, both in fashion and in representing fashion to the world.
He was the last of the great pontificating editorial personages, those characters who saw personal style as a kind of religion, the dictats of chic as a catechism, and considered it essential to practice what they preached. Who believed categorically in the virtues of dressing up, rather than down.
It was an archetype rooted in the early days of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and embodied by such characters as Carmel Snow and Diana Vreeland, Mr. Talley’s earliest mentor, not to mention the designers he idolized such as Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. In their wake he arrayed himself in bespoke finery and erudition (he had a master's degree from Brown and was a voracious reader, often quoting Truman Capote, whom he saw as a kindred spirit) and dared the glossy gatekeepers to bar the skinny kid from Durham, N.C., from the door.
His costumes served to dazzle and distract from just how anomalous he was. But no matter how exaggerated the regalia appeared, it was always rooted in substance: in the idea you could not understand the present without understanding the past and that it was crucial to always do your homework. He knew more about designers’ references than the designers. Knew that the gilt on the top of the Invalides where Napoleon was buried was real gold leaf and the name of Marie Antoinette’s hairdresser. (Marie Antoinette, he once said, was the first fashion victim.)
He bought Charvet boxer shorts, the better to build his character from the inside out; played tennis with a Louis Vuitton towel around his neck, a Louis Vuitton racket cover and a diamond Piaget watch; had special shirts made solely for his holiday visits to Karl Lagerfeld’s villa in St. Tropez so he wouldn’t offend the eyes of the mercurial designer by wearing the same thing for an entire day.
He would sweep into the front row of fashion shows with his capes and his caftans and sometimes a towering fur or fedora hat, unapologetic about blocking the views of those behind (he rarely, if ever, looked back), holding court from his seat. Fling his stoles over his shoulders and trill his words with abandon.
“Drink the moment,” he told Rihanna as she entered the Met Gala in 2015 in flowing gold satin robes by the Chinese designer Guo Pei. (He was wearing acres of cardinal crimson.) “Drink it! You are going to inspire people in this dress.”
He was a proponent of the grand gesture, made not only publicly but also privately. In matters both personal and professional, he could be prickly, prone to take offense, unreasonably demanding, but also unreasonably generous. For every story of him falling out with a former friend, there is a story of him sticking by a designer in whose work he believed when the rest of fashion had turned their backs.
He played a pivotal role in John Galliano’s career, arranging for him to hold his comeback show in São Schlumberger’s 17th-century Paris hôtel particulier in 1994, when Mr. Galliano’s backers had pulled out and the designer was considering closing his line. He spoke to Ralph Rucci, who called him an “oracle,” every day, and used Manolo Blahnik shoes in almost every fashion shoot he ever did. He was a snob, but a snob about talent and culture more than pedigree.
That model of a modern major editor has now disappeared from the landscape, swept away on a tide of streetwear, digital democratization, shrinking budgets and a value system that elevates the functional over the fantastical. At the moment when fashion finally came face to face with its own history of racism and the doors Mr. Talley did so much to crack open at last gave way, he had lost his position of power: a victim of his own expectations and spending habits. (He had a challenged relationship with taxes, and with expense accounts.)
He was criticized for not having done enough to speak up for young people of color (for focusing on his career, rather than theirs); for catering to the prevailing power structure, instead of calling it out; for allowing himself to be seduced by the superficial lure of a Goyard bag and a Fabergé brooch. Objects that he loved, which could never love him back.
But it took a lot of effort to be him. Just how much was detailed in his 2020 memoir, “The Chiffon Trenches,” in which he finally grappled with the racism he had faced in his career and what it meant to be the lone Black person in so many rooms: to always be seen as setting an example, for both those who may have thought he did not belong and those who came after him.
“You don’t get up and say, ‘Look, I’m Black and I’m proud,’” he said in “The Gospel According to André,” the 2018 documentary about his life. “You just do it. And somehow it impacts the culture.”
When he was not onstage, which for him meant any public setting, he would retreat to a house in White Plains, N.Y., where visitors were rarely allowed inside. There he would tend to his garden, nurse his grievances and recharge before venturing out again to perform his role with aplomb, even as it was often relegated to the status of style sideshow.
It’s no coincidence that after he left Vogue, one of his jobs was as a judge on “America’s Next Top Model,” to which he introduced the word “drekitude,” a combination of “dreck,” as in “wreck,” and “attitude” meaning a “hot, hot, mess.” He would issue the term with great rhetorical flourishes and hand waving.
He continued to dream large, even as the magazines around him got small. As over the top as his language and his look could seem, they embodied the way fashion can function as a tool of self-actualization and self-respect, and the joy it can bring. That is his legacy, along with the barriers he broke and the designers whose work he championed.
He understood it takes the extreme to redefine the norm. Through sheer force of will and fashion, Mr. Talley, like the editors he had revered, was all that. Who will take up the mantle — who even owns such mantles any more — now that he is gone?