Every now and then, a person comes along who completely revolutionizes their career. Their impact is so great that it reshapes the way people think about the job, and their touch is felt for years to come. André Leon Talley was just such a person. Talley had no problem breaking rules and blazing his own path – but he did so by knowing where the rules were to begin with. A fashion icon and industry legend, Talley’s death at 73 years old is a devastating blow for a fashion industry already reeling in recent months.
Talley Loved Fashion from a Young Age
With a 6’6″ frame, Talley had a presence that was impressive – but it went beyond his physical stature. Born in Washington D.C. in 1948, Talley was raised in Durham, N.C., by his grandmother – Bennie Francis Davis. Davis was herself a fashion lover who had a flair for expression, which is part of what encouraged Talley’s early love of the industry. But it would be his time spent in the Durham library that would spark a true passion – because it was there he discovered Vogue.
As a young adult, Talley attended North Carolina Central University, where he earned a BA degree in French Literature in 1970. Talley then went on to earn his Master’s degree at Brown University, after writing a “thesis about the influence of black women on the French poet Charles Baudelair.”
After graduating from Brown in the ’70’s, Talley worked at Andy Warhol’s Factory, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The New York Times before taking a job at Vogue as their Fashion News Director in 1983.
A Legendary Figure
Talley went on to become creative director of fashion at Vogue before leaving in the ’90’s. He returned to the publication later as editor-at-large and redefined the job, following his own rules and pushing the boundaries. Talley worked as a judge on America’s Next Top Model and advised the First Family on fashion when former President Barack Obama was in office.
The space Talley held in the fashion industry was enormous; his keen eye for fashion, trends, and creative expression made him America’s go-to for gauging tomorrow’s fashions. NBC News writes, “Talley’s memoir was noted for dishing on his tumultuous relationship with another Vogue fashion deity, Anna Wintour. But it also brought a new understanding of his own childhood and attraction to fashion runways — and how race in America was a key to his fabric.
His voice was more than sniping. He used it to encourage inclusion in an industry that has its racial archetypes. He was a constant voice of encouragement for the under-recognized overachievement of Black culture, particularly in the realm of style.
Rihanna. Janelle Monae. Kerry Washington. Lupita Nyong’o. When they walked at the Met Gala, what he called the Super Bowl of fashion, he cheered for them like a proud parent. ‘How beautiful is your dress,’ he told Washington.”
Vogue shares, “‘The loss of André is felt by so many of us today: the designers he enthusiastically cheered on every season, and who loved him for it; the generations he inspired to work in the industry, seeing a figure who broke boundaries while never forgetting where he started from; those who knew fashion, and Vogue, simply because of him; and, not forgetting, the multitude of colleagues over the years who were consistently buoyed by every new discovery of André’s, which he would discuss loudly, and volubly—no one could make people more excited about the most seemingly insignificant fashion details than him. Even his stream of colorful faxes and emails were a highly anticipated event, something we all looked forward to,’ said Anna Wintour. ‘Yet it’s the loss of André as my colleague and friend that I think of now; it’s immeasurable. He was magnificent and erudite and wickedly funny—mercurial, too. Like many decades-long relationships, there were complicated moments, but all I want to remember today, all I care about, is the brilliant and compassionate man who was a generous and loving friend to me and to my family for many, many years, and who we will all miss so much.’”
The same Vogue story recalled Talley as the “pharaoh of fabulosity” and a man of prodigious enthusiasm.
A Hard Year for the Fashion World
As celebrities and friends react to the stunning loss of their friend and colleague, the fashion industry is once again reeling. Late last year, visionary designer Virgil Abloh died – leaving the fashion industry bereft of another creative genius.
In some ways, the fact that two titans in the industry have passed so close together is an inspiration – now, their enormous shoes must be filled. Both Abloh and Talley were leaders in the quest for inclusion and equality. Through fashion, through art, they saw people evolving and becoming more understanding of the differences that make us vibrant.
However, even though we can call it inspiring to need to live up to their visions – it’s a heartbreaking loss to consider that Talley’s wit, wisdom, and keen eye won’t be around any longer. Our heartfelt condolences to the friends, family, and loved ones of Talley – he will remain with us every time a red carpet rolls out.