Talley Works for Housing

NEW YORK — "I had these looks bagged, labeled and very carefully organized on a rack," boomed André Leon Talley to an assistant, who had been dispatched only moments before to retrieve a bag of evening shoes, but had instead returned with a...

NEW YORK — “I had these looks bagged, labeled and very carefully organized on a rack,” boomed André Leon Talley to an assistant, who had been dispatched only moments before to retrieve a bag of evening shoes, but had instead returned with a selection of alligator loafers and cap-toed pumps that were clearly for day, ceremoniously dumped at the feet of the giant editorial personality standing before him.

This story first appeared in the May 2, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“There has been some kind of mix-up,” Talley scolded the assistant, as he chased him back into a storeroom for more. “What is going on down there?”

Surely hundreds of Vogue interns and assistants have previously faced the lightning-paced styling direction of the mighty Talley, the magazine’s editor at large and winner of this year’s Eugenia Sheppard Award at the Council of Fashion Designers of America Fashion Awards, but none in such unusual circumstances as the mostly volunteer staff of the Housing Works Thrift Shop on East 23rd Street did Wednesday afternoon, when Talley swooped in wearing a Prada croc coat and matching crusher and immediately set to work. As the inaugural style expert selected to launch a series of Editor’s Choice installations in the windows of the store, Talley had scoured the charity’s Long Island City warehouse to unearth a trove of vintage gowns and suits that, when reassembled just the right way, would evoke classic scenes from the 1939 pinnacle of all fashion movies, and one of Talley’s all-time favorites, “The Women.”

As mannequin after mannequin was hauled up from a basement storeroom for Talley’s inspection, he explained that during the fall runway collections, the theme came to him one night after seeing so many Forties references, explicitly in John Galliano’s signature collection and more subtly in Tom Ford’s for Yves Saint Laurent, “and last season, Donna Karan’s collection was all about the Forties, and I was the only person to scream, ‘This is going to be the vortex of fashion.’”

So when Talley was approached by Housing Works, a charity that provides housing and services for homeless people affected by HIV and AIDS, to launch the Editor’s Choice program, he decided to re-create the beauty parlor and powder room scenes from “The Women” as his vitrines. “It’s the best of Adrian and it’s the best of the Forties,” Talley said. “You can’t define fashion any better than that movie — the characters are even defined by their clothes. Norma Shearer was the Mica Ertegun of her day.”

But in this case, Talley wasn’t dealing with a Hollywood movie budget, nor even a Vogue one, which would be comparable. Instead, a cast of dinged-up mannequins in all sorts of contorted positions were being pulled this way and that in an effort to somehow convey the wicked spirit of Clare Booth Luce, who wrote the original play. “Where are the gloves?” Talley asked. “I want long gloves, evening gloves, opera gloves. Gloves are really important right now, like Miuccia Prada’s crocodile gloves. It’s not just to keep your hands warm, but to spark up your look.”

Talley snatched the blond wig off another mannequin’s head, bringing to mind a moment from “Valley of the Dolls” until he clarified, “She needs a brunette wig. A blond would not have that much style!”

Alas, as Shearer, who played the doe-like Mary Haines, a proud woman dealing with an unfaithful husband, might have said, props are not a luxury Housing Works can afford. An Empire chandelier Talley had earmarked for the window was sold before he even had the chance to install it.

“I don’t have the budget or Pat McGrath here to do the right makeup,” Talley said. “Or Orlando. If I had Orlando, then it would be perfect.” Instead of Orlando, there was a young man named Coco, who, it should be noted, never flinched at Talley’s complaints.

With some patience, the powder room scene began to take shape. Talley had rouged the mannequins with lipstick, Jungle Red, after Joan Crawford’s shade in the film. Wigs were contorted to cover up bad eyes, Talley said, because the mood was more explicit in the expression of their bodies — turned away from the window or covering their faces. “She looks like she’s hiding herself from the paparazzi,” he said, then turned his attention to a mannequin’s feet. “Those are Manolo Blahniks.”

Big, white wedding dresses from Vera Wang were topped with a white Versace quilted satin jacket or a black YSL smoking jacket with giant crystal buttons. There was a red and black striped Victor Costa gown; a Carolina Herrera orange skirt trimmed in sable was topped with a leopard-print fur jacket, and a Gaultier dress printed with scenes from a comic book was topped with a gold leather jacket to evoke the tailored feel of the Forties, along with fishnet stockings, mountains of tulle and, when they finally arrived, some fierce shoes. All of it’s for sale, as well, for prices as low as $40.

“A girl who is into fashion and wants to create that John Galliano or Tom Ford vintage look can do the whole thing here for under $100,” he said, noting that the point of Editor’s Choice, which will later feature installations by Tuleh’s Bryan Bradley, stylist Anne Christensen from The New York Times Magazine, writer Lynn Hirschberg and stylist Lori Goldstein, is to raise awareness of the trove of designer merchandise that can be found at Housing Works. Talley will unveil his project on Tuesday during a private benefit at 5 p.m. at the 157 East 23rd Street location, followed by a reading of his new memoir, “A.L.T.,” at 8 p.m. at the Housing Works Used Book Cafe in SoHo at 126 Crosby Street.

“Helmut Newton once worked with mannequins,” he said, surveying his work. “I prefer real models, but this is actually easier, because they don’t talk.”