That memory comes rushing back to me now as I speak to Talley about today’s release of The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir, his second (and much anticipated) literary autobiography. The title, after all, is how he has long characterized his struggle in the overwhelmingly White fashion industry. “We are in a culture where White supremacy reigns,” the former creative director and editor at large for American Vogue tells me over the phone from his home in White Plains, New York. “I survived based on my work ethic, my style, my roots, and all the experiences that made me who I became and who I am still becoming.”
For all his power and prominence, he did not lift as he climbed, leaving other Black folks in fashion and media to fend for themselves. André Leon Talley navigated the chiffon trenches alone.
Along the way, Talley says, Blackness was ever present. “I always go back to the roots of my grandmother, the Black church, the Black family tradition, Black reunions, Black dinners,” he continues. “I lean on my Blackness. It gives me strength to know that we as a people are strong.”
Such a declaration of identity is notable considering his long aversion to explicitly discuss race. In The Gospel According to André, even when he recounts treatment like being called “Queen Kong” by a White publicist behind his back, there’s a reticence in his posture, his speech. That hesitation has since melted away. The strong facade of a man who beat the odds is still present, but with The Chiffon Trenches, Talley’s story — how he was used and dismissed by the (White) people and institutions he gave his life to, from Anna Wintour to Karl Lagerfeld — is no longer a secret.
Read more: My Dinners and Debates With Andre Harrell
Yet, while the book goes some way toward exorcising Talley’s own traumas, it fails to confront a frequent criticism about Talley himself: that his personal ambition eclipsed any inclination to bring others along. For all his power and prominence, he did not lift as he climbed, leaving other Black folks in fashion and media to fend for themselves. André Leon Talley navigated the chiffon trenches alone.
I ask him about this — if he felt that he could bring others up with him. “When I got my foot in the door in 1975 with Andy Warhol,” Talley responds, “there was no way that I was going to be able to maintain my position in their world by bringing behind me a pied-piper group of talented young Black people. Blackness must also be aligned with Whiteness in order to succeed, because we live in a White society, a society of White redundancy.”
“Me at 71 and you, at your young age, we have to be so smart,” Talley continues, echoing a sentiment every Black person has come to know like the back of our hands. “We have to be 500% smart while our White counterpart has to only prove [they’re] 100% smart.”
André Leon Talley has long been a possibility model for me: not simply a role model, but someone who by virtue of existing in the world showed me what was possible. I first discovered his greatness watching episodes of the reality competition show America’s Next Top Model. Both Talley and Miss J. Alexander, the show’s runway coach, were early representations of gender transgressiveness in a body, like mine, that was assigned male at birth. “They allowed me to imagine a world that accepted gender-bending Black folks,” I once wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “while I still lived in one where manhood and masculinity were narrowly defined.”
Imagine my joy then when, in 2017, I had the chance to interview Talley at TIFF for a Los Angeles Times video. I was a flurry of emotions, though my damp forehead was (hopefully) the only outward sign. Afterward, we continued talking, and he began asking me questions. We discussed our shared Carolinian church backgrounds and navigating the world being gender nonconforming. I told him that his example had been a blueprint as I came into myself. Tears ran down his face as I fought back my own. “You’re really going to be André Leon Talley one day,” he told me. “But more evolved.” I was honored.
Eight months later, I interviewed Talley a second time in advance of the documentary’s Los Angeles premiere. During the post-screening Q&A, he called me onstage stage from the crowd. (No, I wasn’t expecting it; I would’ve worn something better if I had been!) It was yet another signal of his seeing something, himself, in me. To be seen is a wonder.
Near the end of The Chiffon Trenches, much to my surprise, Talley mentions our first meeting. “I had come full circle,” he writes. “I cite this talented young man because he created and crafted his career through the love and devotion of his grandmother, his education, and his solid confidence, clearly instilled at a young age. I can only imagine the confidence he had to have to get to the Los Angeles Times, in stilettos.”
Later in the chapter, Talley strikes a similar tone when discussing being moved to tears when Edward Enninful, the first Black editor in chief of British Vogue, tells him, “You paved the way.” “Symbolically I may have paved the way,” Talley writes, “but Edward got there on his own talents.”
That section crystallized my understanding of Talley, recontextualizing his work — or lack thereof — in diversifying staffs and mastheads he was part of, and runways, campaigns, and fashion houses that cherished his approval. He is proud to be an icon and a motivating force, but Talley never saw that as a mandate for action. “I was not hired to be an advocate for Blackness,” he tells me. “I was hired because I was smart. I was hired because I was educated. People didn’t see me as Black, and that was unfortunate. I now realize that maybe most of the world didn’t see me as Black until something went awry.”
The concept of “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps” has become a conservative dog whistle of sorts, an impossible standard used as an argument against social support programs like food stamps and healthcare. The reality, of course, is that ambition alone cannot overcome structural imbalances like social capital and cronyism, advantages that bring many White folks past the gatekeepers of their chosen industries. But the idea that hard work and self-reliance alone make success still has traction with generations of Black folks who view work ethic, education, and willpower as the magic ticket to career mobility and security.
It would seem Talley feels similarly. “I had arrived in a place where I was accepted and where I now belonged,” he writes of his early success in Paris as an editor for Women’s Wear Daily. “My Blackness was not important. What mattered was that I was smart.”
On the phone now, he brings up George Wayne, a former Vanity Fair writer who recently told Page Six that Talley never helped him and “never mentored any of the Black kids at Condé [Nast].” Not surprisingly, Talley takes issue with the story. “You pull yourself up first,” he says. “You don’t have to be pulled up. I was pulled up by myself, and people recognized me… and to those naysayers who say I didn’t do enough, I did a lot in my own way.”
In 2018, Lindsay Peoples Wagner, currently editor in chief of Teen Vogue, published a massive inquisition in The Cut about “what it’s really like to be Black and work in fashion.” She interviewed more than 100 people — writers, designers, assistants, executives, stylists, models and more — about the barriers to entry and barricades to sustained success in the chiffon trenches. The result is a complex exploration of being forced to preserve White folks’ comfort while navigating a special brand of alienation experienced by Black people in the industry. “I understand not wanting to be pigeonholed,” one anonymous interviewee says, “but there’s a fine line between actually being proud of your Blackness and not really being here for Black people.”
I can’t get this quote out of my mind, because it reminds me of some of the conflicted feelings many have about Talley. While he assures me that he did mentor some up-and-coming Black folks in the industry — he name drops 31-year-old LaQuan Smith, a designer to whom he gave $2,000 to take his first trip to Paris and whose fashion show he pushed Serena Williams to walk in — Talley again maintains that “I did things my way, in an original way.”
“I always was an advocate for Blackness, a quiet advocate,” he says. “I did it through the subtleties of nuance. I didn’t carry a bullhorn or a flag and say, ‘Well, I’m Black. Can we get some more Black people in here?’”
In Chiffon, Talley writes that his was about “quiet activism at the time, no overt celebration of blackness” — like rhapsodizing about Givenchy using only Black models in a runway show, as he did in the pages of WWD in 1978. It’s a thought that I, even as a vocal admirer, bristle at; coming from someone like Talley, long a transgressor in so many ways, it seems passive, even a cop-out. Then again, survival in our White cishet patriarchal capitalist society often demands such a sacrifice.
Still, few things are more transgressive than a Black man raised in the Jim Crow American South who grew to become a titan of industry — yet, I keep hearing from people that perhaps Talley didn’t do enough. And maybe they’re right. But the cracks he made in the ceilings of our industries nonetheless made room for generations to come. From Enninful to Peoples Wagner, Vogue.com’s fashion news director Chioma Nnadi to Highsnobiety’s fashion editor at large Corey Stokes, critic Antwaun Sargent to stylist Yashua Simmons. Even me.
We are because he was. Though maybe we also could have been more — if he was, too.