Talley
André Leon Talley spoke after a documentary about him during Montclair Film Festival. DAVID HUBELBANK/FOR MONTCLAIR FILM

By KELLY NICHOLAIDES
For Montclair Local

A haute couture defining figure in late 20th century style, Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley seems to have been driven by his childhood experience in a Southern black Baptist church during the Jim Crow era.

“The Gospel According to André,” a documentary centerpiece which screened at the Montclair Film Festival on May 5, packed the Wellmont Theater. The film weaves Talley’s early life with his rise as a global tastemaker at magazines like Women’s Wear Daily, W and Vogue. It includes interviews with Marc Jacobs, Anna Wintour, Valentino and Tom Ford. Directed by Kate Novack, the film chronicles the fashion industry through the eyes of the six-foot, six-inch style historian whose colorful kaftans and bold capes transcend the boundaries of black masculinity.   

“The Black church was the only place where African-American life and identity was affirmed and valued, and it was where you put on your Sunday best. You wear your ‘uniform’ Monday through Friday. On Sunday you bring your best to God,” he says in the film, recalling his grandmother Bennie Davis’ stacks of hat boxes for all seasons.

During the Jim Crow era, Black women were asked to put on a veil when trying on hats at shops. Talley used that frame of reference later, when he put on a long, black veil on Cindy Crawford for a funeral themed magazine photo spread. Fashion was his escape from an unfair world. Talley earned a Master’s in French Literature from Brown University, while admiring Yves Saint Laurent, Sonia Rykiel and Givenchy.

“At one point, I was penniless and homeless, but beautifully dressed, in velvet trousers, and had two pairs of custom slippers,” Talley recalls.

He got his first fashion industry job working for Andy Warhol for $50 a week.

During the Studio 54 era of the 1970s, Talley reveled in dancing and fashion, sans the sex and drugs the disco was known for. As his star rose, Talley was stereotyped as a “black buck” who had access to top designers for sexual reasons. Talley focused on work, saying that he never had a love life as he poured all his energy into his love for style.

WE’RE NOT QUITE THERE YET

During a Q&A after the screening, Talley said seeing his own life in a documentary was powerful.

“My career is steeped in knowledge from the beginning, and every page of Vogue is real to me. The captions, the people, the Irving Penn photos of African tribes. It’s serious intellect, not superficial. It’s the world of literature and high fashion,” Talley said.

The Q&A included Talley, Producer Andrew Rossi and Director Kate Novack.

Talley
Dancers enjoy the beats at the House Party following the screening of “The Gospel According to André.” COURTESY TONY TURNER/MONTCLAIR FILM

Addressing lack of African-American representation on the runway, Talley said, “We’re not quite there, but I hope this film will bring a Harlem Renaissance into the fashion industry.”

HOUSE PARTY BEATS

A post-screening House Party featured the sounds of Hip Hop and R&B from DJ Easy Mo Bee as the Wellmont crowds danced to the beats.

Montclair resident Debra Small said she was impressed with Talley’s life.

“It’s history for a black man from the south to make his mark and with such confidence. He became an icon, traveled the world and influenced all these top fashion designers,” Small said.

Partygoer Laurena White said he was grounded and gracious in explaining the challenges of breaking into the fashion industry.

“I loved his honesty, openness about life, presenting his truth,” added Jeri Gloster of Bloomfield.

England native Kim Ramsey said, “I found it incredible that his influence crossed over to Europe and the cliques of the fashion industry. He created his own narrative with no boundaries. Seeing his face there, an African-American figurehead, is iconic.”