“Red carpet kills fashion,” says André Leon Talley, sitting in a finely furbished room at the Old Parsonage Restaurant. Dressed in a Black Panther coat designed especially for him by Karl Lagerfeld, and personalised UGG boots with a bright red ALT logo emblazoned on the front, this six-foot-seven former Vogue Editor-at-large certainly captures the attention of the three old ladies sitting at the next table, gracefully sipping their afternoon tea. “Fashion is too rushed, too instant. It’s the modern times. People no longer have time to dress, not to mention travel in style. Not so long ago women would go to a beauty salon to get their hair done before setting off to the train station. They would stroll elegantly down the platform with a little dog on a leash while their private porter would take care of the freshly waxed leather suitcases. Everyone travelled in style, not only the privileged ladies. I still remember my grandma’s trips to the North; she used to separate the neatly folded heaps of clothes with layers and layers of tissue paper.”
He pauses, takes a sip of his ginger-lemon drink and looks nostalgically at the waiters hectically cleaning the table at the far end of the room. “The times of Studio 54, these were the days of glory. Andy Warhol, Diana Ross, — oh, and of course Bianca Jagger arriving on a white horse at her 30th birthday party. We would dance till dawn to the best music you could imagine. And the tonnes of glitter everywhere around us – weeks after those fabulous nights you would still find glitter in the hems of your clothes.” He puts his black crocodile Prada gloves aside and picks up his phone.
Talley was raised in a deeply religious community in North Carolina by his grandmother Benny Davies, whom he describes as, “the first women who showed me the true meaning of style.” Having graduated from North Carolina Central University and obtaining his master’s degree in French literature at Brown University, he was finally discovered at the Metropolitan Art Museum by the legendary Vogue Editor Diana Vreeland. “I had an hour to design a swimsuit out of a pile of metal disks to impress Miss Vreeland.”
Evidently, one hour was enough to turn his world around and grant him a new fabulous life: from working at Andy Warhol’s Factory for $50 a week, through earning the position of Paris Fashion Editor for Women’s Wear Daily in 1977, and becoming Fashion Editor of Ebony magazine in 1982. Talley finally arrived at Vogue in 1983, where 15 years later he was to be promoted to the position of Editor-at-large.
Even as a young boy, Talley would make seven hour trips to New York to pick up his own copy of Vogue. He would spend hours going through the same photos over and over again and eventually sticking his favourite pages up on the wall above his bed. Those 250 pages of colourful print were his source of inspiration, just as today many young people pore over fashion blogs.
I attempt to ask him if he follows any blogs himself, but I’m cut short by an abrupt “No. Do I read what..?” He sighs and shakes his head impatiently. “I take inspiration from history and art. The coat that I was wearing yesterday at the Oxford Union,” he pauses and adds with a deliberately patronising tone, “Yes, the coat, not a cape: it was a ‘chado’ designed by an American Designer Ralph Gucci, who took inspiration from the coats that the 17th century samurai warriors would wear over their armour to keep them warm before battle.”
I ask Talley about his style preferences: “I find the Duke of Windsor’s style tremendously inspirational. Pressed white shirt, tie, jacket – in other words Sunday church clothes — I was brought up that way.” I point out that his current clothes are rather more extravagant. “Oh yes, my style has evolved. This is my own interpretation of everything that surrounds me. I dress that way to show people that there are no rules in fashion. Perhaps I picked it up from the Factory, which gave me a great sense of freedom and confidence. At the Factory people were allowed to be themselves, you would even be encouraged to be yourself; you weren’t judged. Yes, I can wear a suit but I find it constrictive, boring and establishment-orientated.”
He halts and points at one of the portraits hanging on the wall opposite our table. “It is easy to go and have a suit fitted for you and then simply pick up a bowler hat.” His clothes, however, “reflect more originality”, he continues, pointing at an impressionist painting of a fisherman. “It is not easy to put on a shirt and trousers like that and still have, what I call, dash.”
Having travelled around the world, sat in the front row of many national fashion weeks and met models of various nationalities, Talley certainly has some light to shed on national dress sense. “Best dress sense is global these days, there isn’t one nationality that dresses best. However, I cannot deny that people are fabulously dressed in Moscow. Their outfits reflect the long legacy of splendour and royal opulence: fur collars, military-inspired coats but also 19th century floral skirts almost like a babushka doll.” Talley’s position on fur is not always enthusiastically welcomed. In fact, Anna Wintour has often been the target of animal rights organisations, which condemn her promotion of fur in Vogue. “Every one should have their own opinion about everything in life,” he tells me. “If you want to wear fur, it’s fine. If you do not wish to wear fur then it’s your decision but do not attack other people who wear it.”
But it’s not only the use of fur that has stirred controversy among fashion critics: in 2007 Talley confessed that most of the Vogue girls are so thin, “tremendously thin, because Miss Anna doesn’t like fat people.” When I mention this, Talley responds, “Oh not again, I got into trouble for saying that. What I really meant is that Anna is concerned about people being healthy. If you are overweight then probably you are not so healthy.”
Talley is known for using his influence to promote young fashion designers and mentor young talents in other fields. Jennifer Hudson is one of his pupils, who in 2005 made it to the cover of Vogue. In the history of American Vogue, however, there have only been 28 covers with black models. I decide to talk to Talley about this sensitive issue. “Everything needs time. I think that the ratio of black and white models in the fashion world will change slowly. In fact, those 28 covers reflect an enormous evolutionary process, which was stirred to a great extent by Anna Wintour. We can see a gradual change from where we started; from Beverly Johnson the first black model on the cover of American Vogue in 1974, Naomi Sims the first black woman in the TV commercial in 1977, to Michele Obama the first black First Lady of the cover of Vogue. The world of fashion slowly embraces women of colour. Vogue must reflect its times, and it does”.
“I don’t have a favourite black model. I don’t have a favourite anything. I love many things. I love Naomi Campbell, Liya Kebede, Joan Smalls,” he stops and casts a theatrically surprised glance around the table. “Have you not heard of Joan Smalls? Do your research, go on YouTube, do your homework!” He laughs, modulating his voice, “she is a top top top model. Oh, and of course, Naomi Sims who led the way for black women in the predominantly white fashion industry. To see a black model in the white TV blast wearing a pink couture dress and advertising a mobile phone was a definite breakthrough. Naomi represents to me history in its finest moment.”
Talley pauses and fixes his gaze on my plate. After a moment of silence he exclaims with disgust, “Do we really have to look at this savage image?” I realise that Talley is referring to the fish skeleton which remains on my plate after the delicious lemon sole that I ordered. “We don’t live in the Medieval Ages anymore. In every decent restaurant, the waiter comes with a separate plate and offers to debone the fish for us. It’s as simple as that.”
Talley confesses that he was extremely privileged to witness and withstand the mini decade of revolutions in the fashion world. Asked about his greatest achievements he replies instantly, “Coming to Oxford. I was completely dumbstruck by the invitation. At first I didn’t quite take it seriously, I though it was a joke. I had to read it twice to finally believe. Knowing the history, legacy and gravitas of the Oxford Union I felt extremely honoured.
I shared this news with Anna Wintour who said, ‘They will grill you to death.’” He launches a rocket of deep laughter across the room that turns heads and lowers teacups. “It was a supreme experience. The students were incredibly informed, incredibly smart. I don’t feel that I’ve been grilled at all. I absolutely loved the individuality of their style. I noticed some superb rabbit fur hats, Cleopatra-style make-up, and a red mohair coat, which – in combination with flat shoes – was way ahead of the fashion.”
The clock strikes five. Talley finishes his menthe and chocolate ice pudding, picks up his little black Prada purse with its silver dragon emblem and slowly makes his way to the restaurant door. The long tail of his raven black coat finally vanishes into the darkness of the late January evening.
Standing face to face with an empty car park space, where just a second ago stood his shiny black limo, I am trying to readjust my senses to the ordinariness of life. I just met an extraordinary man: the man who lived a dream. Or perhaps it is better to say, the man who dreamt a life?