Larger than life. Generous. An incredible writer. Above all, a pioneer.
Those were the words designers, industry executives and others used Wednesday to describe André Leon Talley, who died Tuesday at the age of 73. Westchester County, N.Y., authorities did not reveal the cause of death, although some media outlets reported it as a heart attack. Representatives at White Plains Hospital said they were unable to comment for privacy reasons.
Services for Talley have not yet been revealed.
A trailblazer for 40-plus years in an industry that had very little diversity in its upper echelons, Talley worked at WWD, Interview, Vanity Fair, House & Garden and Vogue, in between dancing at Studio 54, being mentored by Diana Vreeland, interviewing Rihanna on the Met Gala red carpet and Michelle Obama for the pages of Vogue. With his baritone voice, vibrant caftans and unmistakable presence, Talley was a personality in an industry filled with them. He was a confidante of Karl Lagerfeld, Oscar de la Renta, Valentino Garavani, Marc Jacobs and many other legendary designers, and he provided support and a sounding board to up-and-comers on their first runway collections, including Rodarte, Sergio Hudson, LaQuan Smith and Zac Posen. His decades-long career in fashion included volunteering at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and a run at Andy Warhol’s Factory.
Along the way, by his own account, he dealt with ageism, racism and weight discrimination — but overcame them all to become a fashion force.
Ralph Lauren said Wednesday: “Losing André is a great personal loss, but an even greater loss to the world of fashion that he loved, influenced and celebrated all his life. Seeing him for so many years in the front row of my shows always gave me a feeling of confidence and optimism. André was a man of intelligence and integrity with great instincts for the authenticity of real style. He was committed to stand up for what he believed in not only in his work, but in the challenging world he lived in. You could not miss André Leon Talley. He was a man larger-than-life in stature and personality, but it was his huge heart and generous humanity that touched us all and leaves us wanting more.”
Donna Karan told WWD Tuesday night: “He was larger than life. I always looked up to him. He loved fashion and we all loved him so. His fashion was beyond the clothes — the people, his presence, his heart, his laughter. He was fashion to the world like a big daddy. He will always be here by our sides watching over us all. We love you, André.”
Norma Kamali said she knew André for many years, and a quote just isn’t enough because his impact on fashion has been so powerful.
“Fashion to André was an expression of life itself. I remember when he came to New York, I remember being a reference for André for his hire at WWD. I knew he was going to pour his soul into fashion and he did. We are all so lucky he was the storytelling thread of fashion, notably through his magical words describing detailed nuances as well as the superlative dramatic moments he witnessed and was part of for five decades. Just thinking of André passing takes my breath away,” said Kamali.
Tom Ford said Wednesday: “It is hard for me to truly grasp the fact that André is no longer in the world. The last emails that we exchanged were a few weeks ago on New Year’s Eve. We wrote to each other often. Usually at least once a week, in fact only yesterday I wondered why I had not heard from him in a while.
“His notes were truly works of art. His giant persona sometimes overshadowed the fact that he was a brilliant journalist and an incredible writer. Often his emails were not even sentences but just a series of words. But they were the right words. Or they could be a stream of consciousness rant about something he loved or something he loathed as there was never an in-between. His letters were expressive, powerful and large in every way. The type blown up to a giant point size, and more recently punctuated with emojis, they could sometimes be several pages long if one were to print them. And print them I did, as they were often so truly brilliant that I wanted to have an actual paper copy of them,” Ford said.
“He could be hysterically funny. Absurd and really genius at the same time. Just when he would say something so completely shocking and worthy of Marie Antoinette, he would then counter it with a statement so sharp and right on that it reminded you of just why he was able to have come so far in the world,” he said.
“As a designer, I felt that I often wanted to show off for him. He could look at one of my collections and basically recite all of the things that would have been on my mood board that season. He saw things or rather he ‘intuited’ them like no other editor I have ever known. A rave from him meant so much to me. I adored him. And I will miss him,” Ford said.
Valentino’s creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli said Wednesday: “André was an icon of fashion, who has truly marked and accompanied, with his progressive vision, a unique and magnificent era. He will continue to inspire the fashion world and all that revolves around it. He will continue to live in our hearts and memories.”
Recalling his time helming the Italian label Fendi, Louis Vuitton chairman and chief executive officer Michael Burke said what he remembered most about Talley was “his laugh, his joie de vivre. He would always come to Rome with Anna [Wintour]. He loved fur, he loved life, he loved people. He was a big teddy bear.”
Burke still has a picture of Talley in Palazzo Ruspoli in Rome, decked out in a full-length fox coat, “laughing his baritone laugh, and he always traveled with his Louis Vuitton trunks. It was the only thing that could hold his garments,” Burke said.
“Talley’s appearances were always spectacular and stunning,” reminisced Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior’s creative director for women’s wear. “I warmly remember his amazing curiosity, and his capability to really listen, and understand. We’ll miss his wit and the sharp and visionary intelligence of one of the greatest protagonists of the fashion system, one who truly loved (and mastered) fashion.”
Michael Kors said Wednesday he many great memories of Talley. “From discussing the American simplicity and glamour of Mainbocher, to going to see Diahann Carroll at the Regency on Park Avenue, to dishing about Studio 54 and talking about shopping at The Westchester mall. He was always curious, fun and incredibly smart. One of my all-time favorite moments with André was a photo shoot that he was styling for American Vogue back in the ‘90s. It was a portrait of me, Isaac Mizrahi and Marc Jacobs shot by Annie Leibovitz, and he and Annie kept telling us that we were looking very sullen and sad. Considering it was the end of fashion week, it wasn’t sadness — it was just pure exhaustion. André immediately started telling outrageous stories and told all of us who were still smokers at the time to light up a cigarette and just relax. He had a way of being able to change the energy in any room he entered. He truly was a force of nature.”
Describing Talley as “a phenomenal journalist, who amazed you with his analysis of fashion and the whole history of fashion in general,” Ralph Toledano, president of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, said: “Above all, he was the only person who dared to stand up to Karl Lagerfeld two days before a show. He didn’t let go and Karl listened to him…it’s a scene that has remained engraved in my memory.”
He was best known for his time at Vogue, where he was fashion director between 1983 and 1987, before becoming its creative director and later an editor at large, in the early years helping Anna Wintour establish what would be her American Vogue. But from sitting by her side in the front row at fashion shows for years, Talley gradually was moved one seat, then three, then five and eventually more until he wasn’t even sitting near her at all. Their falling out was immensely hurtful to him.
In a statement published Wednesday morning, Wintour said: “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.”
Teri Agins recalled meeting Talley in 1977, when they both worked for Fairchild Publications, parent of WWD. With his gravitas, towering 6-foot, 7-inch frame, fluent French, Savile Row suits, custom shoes and leather gloves, Talley cut a figure in any room he entered. Educated academically and socially, “he became the fashion guru, because he worked really hard,” Agins said. “André was ‘the quote-tron’ — a quote machine. People loved to talk to him, because he wasn’t just pontificating. He actually understood fashion.”
She added: “You have to remember that at the time in the ’70s, fashion was a very elite, rarefied gated community of wealthy Europeans and wealthy white people in America. It was not egalitarian or anything like it is now. André was not there because they needed a Black person. André was there because they needed a connoisseur. He was part of the club.”
“I have 45 years of memories of André from his working for Interview and Andy Warhol to working at WWD and WWD in Paris,” said Diane von Furstenberg. “I remember him wearing a cashmere robe when people wore black tie. We used to have tea at the Plaza Athénée in Paris, and he used to pretend he was an African king. We went to the inauguration for [Barack] Obama together and Nancy Pelosi gave us the best seats in the house. He introduced me to SCAD and he has a gallery in his name at SCAD [Savannah College of Art & Design]. Naomi [Campbell] took him to Algeria just before COVID-19 and he loved it. He had so many friends. He was truly bigger than life.”
Paula Wallace, SCAD president and founder, said Wednesday: “André will live forever in my memory for his generosity, passion, commitment and kindness. The world will never know another genius like André. He brought us all on a journey from Durham to a desk at Vogue to the studios of SCAD. In a world of changing tastes and styles, André Leon Talley was a classic. Mentor. Educator. Ingenue. Confidant. André shared his knowledge, passion, talent and friendship with SCAD and with me for decades.”
Coco Rocha talked about the friendship she and André developed over the years. “André Leon Talley was a friend and trusted confidant. He and I were neighbors in Westchester County for the last 10 years and he would often check in with me and my family. In the last email he sent me, we were discussing having tea and introducing him to my newest baby girl, Iley. His departing line to me was, ‘Nothing matters in this world but family and love, and you have IT.’ I read over that email again last night with eyes filled with tears. I hope, in the moments before he passed, he recalled how much he was loved by the extended family he had built over many decades in this industry.”
Fern Mallis described Talley Tuesday night “as always being so much fun to be around.” When he appeared at one of her “Fashion Icons” talks, Talley reeled in the A-list to attend, including Carolina Herrera, Michael Kors, Grace Coddington and Bette Midler. When his friend Bethann Hardison attempted to leave for the restroom, Talley chastised her from the stage, Mallis recalled.
Unabashed about sharing his views, Talley was not one to pull punches. His friend, the designer Ralph Rucci, said Tuesday night: “Beneath the particulars and the judgments, he was the most sensitive man — a brother. I loved him and watched over him with a paternal nature. I, and others, loved to constantly bring luxury into his life. Most of all, he made me laugh, which extinguished so much steam from this thing called fashion,” Rucci said.
Born in Washington, D.C., he was raised in Durham, N.C., by his grandmother, who cleaned dorm rooms at Duke University. On that campus, he started reading copies of Vogue. Later as an undergraduate at Carolina Central University, he earned a degree in French literature. Afterward, he attended Brown University and earned a master of arts degree in French literature. Talley lived in France from 1978 to 1980 while working for WWD, with his first big piece on Yves Saint Laurent establishing him in Paris and throughout the fashion world.
There were numerous trying exchanges along the way, as chronicled in his memoir “The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir,” which was released in 2020. In any interview with WWD before its debut, Talley acknowledged that he did not consider himself to be a perfect person. “To put up with me at Vogue, at Women’s Wear Daily, I’m sure was not an easy thing. I take total responsibility, too. But I’m not going to be a victim of Anna Wintour. I’m not sitting here crying, saying, ‘Woe is me. Anna Wintour has ditched me and pushed me to the curb,’ which I feel she has done. But I’m strong enough to overcome that.”
And despite the arcs and tenors of his life, Talley maintained the importance of progressing and moving forward. In a 2020 interview with WWD, he said: “What makes me hopeful is a sense of who I am and that there can be progress. People have to come together — individuals within the fashion world and outside the fashion world — to continue to work, to struggle and you don’t give up. You don’t give up the dream. The dream has not been realized.”
Talley authored several other books, including “Valentino,” “A.L.T.: André Leon Talley,” “A.L.T. 365+“ and “Little Black Dress,” and contributed to “Valentino: At the Emperor’s Table” and “Cartier Panthère.”
Valentino Garavani said Wednesday that he wouldn’t call Talley a fashion journalist. “He was an artist, who wrote about fashion. He wrote in the same style that he dressed…flamboyant, elegant and fun, which was just as he was himself. I am honored to have worked with him on so many projects, which remain very dear to me, like my book. I feel very privileged to have been his friend,” Garavani said.
Talley was also the subject of the 2017 documentary film “The Gospel According to André” and appeared in the movie “Sex and the City 2.” Accustomed as he was to the designer crowd and the adornments of a fashion career, Talley often spoke in recent years about the need for greater diversity and understanding. In the 2020 WWD interview, Talley said: “The biggest challenge is to get up every day and to go forward and to fight the battle…a Black man must think about racism every single day.”
All in all, “The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir” was meant to show readers how he survived the “rarified atmosphere and culture of publishing and of fashion in Vogue magazine,” he told WWD 18 months ago. “Through a career in fashion journalism, I hope that it will impart on future generations that you can survive as long as you are strong and that you believe in yourself. It is my goal that when I am gone from this earth, people will go to the library, pick up the book and be inspired by it.”