André Leon Talley

He chatted with WWD about his projects for Numéro Russia, his take on the Academy Awards and the fascination of Americans with tabloid celebrities.

MILAN — Privet, André!

André Leon Talley better get used to hearing that phrase, since he’s just joined Numéro Russia as editor at large. The first issue of the magazine is slated to be published this month.

This story first appeared in the March 1, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

That’s not his only new venture, though. While continuing to contribute to Vogue, the flamboyant editor has also inked a deal with production company Electus to develop a late-night talk show, after serving as a fashion correspondent for “Entertainment Tonight” since last year and as a judge on “America’s Next Top Model” from 2009 to 2011. Sitting in a suite at the Four Seasons here wrapped in a furry Louis Vuitton scarf on a chilly, rainy day during fashion week, Talley chatted with WWD about his projects for Numéro Russia, his take on the Academy Awards, the most influential designers, and what he views as the “exhaustingly tacky” fascination of Americans with tabloid celebrities.

WWD: How will you develop Numéro Russia? What do you have in mind in terms of visuals and content?
Andre Leon Talley: My strategy is to bring my training. I’ve been trained by the best, working closely with Anna Wintour. My university is Vogue which is the best, top school in the world — American Vogue — and so I feel that I have definite skills to bring to Numéro Russia, something exciting for the Russian market and the Russian fashion reader that creates a human side to the fashion theme, a human narrative. Russia is a place of great culture. If you’ve read Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Chekhov…the culture of the great Russian literature is amazing. The human narrative you get out of “War and Peace” is universal. I would like to try in the visual standards to lift the standards higher and up and out of just the standard seamless [background] in a studio. This is still important, but I would love to be able to use Russia and all of its magnificence, history and culture in a special way. 

One my favorite things is to go to the provinces of Russia and see the 18th century wood churches with the onion dome architecture. These humble wonders of incredible imagination of architects that were obviously not living in places like Paris or London, but they’ve created these amazing churches. I’ve taken tours, it’s not something I’m reading in a book, I went myself. I love Russia, this is why I took the job. I’ve been there at least seven times on cultural tours.

WWD: When was your first time?

A.L.T.: “I went on a cultural tour in the mid-Nineties with [Baroness] Helene de Ludinghausen, the directrice of Yves Saint Laurent couture.…She organized tours, amazing private trips.

I love Russian culture. I don’t know the young Russia, I’m not at all familiar with young Russia, but the old school Russia is good enough for me for the moment.”

WWD: What do you have in mind for the magazine?
Shoots in Russia with historical narrative relevant to the Russian landscape that is only Russian — that may be difficult, provinces you reach by car or plane, that are not right outside of Moscow or Saint Petersburg. I’m not talking of the palaces of the czar but humble Russian villages — such beauty in the churches, or the cemeteries with their run-down graves and people still living there like 100 years ago.

Naomi Campbell is on the first cover. I chose her because she lives in Russia now, she has a Russian life with her boyfriend Vladimir [Doronin]. They have an extraordinary new house by Zaha Hadid, and I was privileged enough to see it before it was completed. It’s extraordinarily modern to be in Russia.

WWD: Will it be featured in the magazine?
A.L.T.: Maybe in the future, not in the first one. Hopefully they will give it to us.

Numéro has a certain format I must adhere to, but I want to be culturally correct, electrifying the cultural theme, bringing in local personalities who are Russian and on an international scale. First thing I want to do is a big spread of American fashion, of designers in America who have stores in Russia. Where do you see a Russian magazine concentrating on American fashion, which is strong and valid, especially Oscar de la Renta and Ralph Lauren having stores here but also others that don’t have stores in a Russian setting?

WWD: How do you feel at this moment in life with what you’ve accomplished and looking at your new projects?

A.L.T.: It’s a very creative moment and I’m very proud of myself here. On Jan. 28 I was at Oxford, at the Union Club Debate Society. I got the invitation by mail and I thought it was a joke. I spoke about my life, my background, my humble beginnings in North Carolina, my book, my life with Andy Warhol, my life at Interview, my life at Studio 54, my life in Paris, with WWD, with Vogue, Anna Wintour, everything that I’ve done. I spoke to 200 students and it was so well received. I knew it would be, I was prepared, I’d done my homework, I was sure that I would be a hit but I was not sure I would be smash hit.

There is no fashion school at Oxford, it’s the mecca of education, there is no fashion school, students came from 39 different universities. It is one of the oldest places established…what in? [Asks his assistant at a computer, who says the university dates back to 1209.] Thank God Jeffrey is here with his computer, it’s just as in an American TV show.

WWD: Speaking of television, how do you feel in front of the camera? Do you feel comfortable?
I always feel comfortable, basically in any situation except perhaps airports. I feel insecure because of the process. You never know how long they are going to let you stand with your shoes off, if they are going to throw away your most expensive cream because it’s 120 ml. as opposed to 100 ml., it always happens to me. I don’t know what to expect.

You can’t argue with them. I had been given a beautiful bottle of fragrance from L’Wren Scott, they made me go twice, tested the cologne, wrote down my name and that of the fragrance. It’s annoying.

WWD: Yes, and you are busy.

A.L.T.: Yes, I’m busy and I like to go fast.

WWD: Do you continue to work with Vogue? This week we saw you sitting apart from that magazine’s team.
A.L.T.: Yes, I sit with Numéro, but I’m connected to Vogue, it’s my family and we remain great friends. Anna [Wintour] and I exchanged four e-mails this morning. I will  be doing digital — online “Mondays With André” which has already started, and I just wrote a post this morning about the Oscars.

About Vogue: I’ve been there for 30 years, it was a tough decision when I went to talk to Anna about this. I’m proud to say I’m going to be 64, I felt I needed more financial security as I go in my twilight age, a little bit more cash for mortgages and as I go into retirement. I took the job because I love Russia and the salary was something fabulous. Money isn’t everything but it is when you start thinking about putting money away for your retirement days.…Anna was very sympathetic and understood and she decided we remain on good terms and that I do the digital and the online. And I’m very happy to do it. 

We just had dinner two nights ago here in the Veranda and will be having dinner in Paris.

WWD: In reference to the Oscars, what did you think of the ceremony and its fashion?
A.L.T.: Last night was one of the dullest, saddest moments of the history of the Oscars, and the red carpet was the dullest, saddest moment for many reasons. These women are so controlled by the uber-stylist that they are afraid of giving their own opinion on what they should wear and they all feel safe with a strapless dress with a train that is unnecessary. In the heyday of the Oscars, there were electric sparks flying. When Cher went in her fabulous Bob Mackie dress and her Mohawk, and Björk with her swan dress. Then we thought it was bad taste, now I think it should have been the best dress because she stood out. Strapless dresses make you want to turn the page. Luckily, I was supposed to go to the Oscars and do television and I chose to concentrate and come here for my new job.

WWD: Who would you have covered it for?
For “ET.” Last year it was very successful, with the blessings of Anna and Vogue. I did the SAG Awards, the Grammys and the Oscars. This year I did only the Golden Globes. I had a rude awakening: These women have the privilege to wear the best clothes and jewels, but they don’t know how to walk  in them because they haven’t lived in these worlds.

At the SAG, it’s striking how these women…Amanda Seyfried. She wore Zac Posen, saying to the TV presenter: I chose it because it’s so intense and I knew it was intense but I hope I don’t win because I don’t want to stumble. She knew she wasn’t handling the dress properly.

Beautiful Jennifer Lawrence in her beautiful Dior dress and she deserved the best actress Oscar because she was fabulous in the movie. She is the new Ava Gardner, fabulous, and she fell off the steps [opens his eyes wide in disbelief]. She fell because she doesn’t  know how to wear big ballgown dress. She didn’t grow up wearing one, she is not expected to, but if you have the privilege to be nominated, it’s better to say please let it be light or have someone in your hotel suite to give you lessons on how to walk and control your look so that you feel at ease in your gown.

After seeing the SAG Awards, I decided I was not going because this is the place of empty gestures and only echoes a system where people want to feel safe. I’m not talking about Meryl Streep in her gold Lanvin dress when she won her Oscar last year. Her daughter told her to wear it. Lucy Liu looked incredible at the Golden Globes with her huge floral Carolina Herrera gown, wearing a ponytail. She stood out like a Fragonard painting. You have to  be original and confident and wear something that is unexpected, even if it’s a jumpsuit or a pantsuit, a smoking, dare to step out of the zeitgeist of the strapless uniform because it’s safe and you know you will not be criticized by tabloids.

WWD: What do you think of all the different media now and fashion journalism within the media?

A.L.T.: Fashion bloggers are overwhelming, really it is stifling, it used to be so because of the photographers, but now they leave you alone. Now you have to wade through a sea of bloggers, you don’t know where you end up. You have to be polite because you don’t know who they are. I don’t read blogs, except for those of the New York Times or WWD. But I’m happy people have this intimate relationship with people that have opinions.

Everyone is a fashion editor now only because you blog.

WWD: And how do you feel about that?

A.L.T.: Well, it’s incorrect to assume you can be a fashion editor because you blog, if you don’t have experience to look at fashion in a professional way.  I’ve been trained without going to fashion school, I’ve been in fashion all my life, starting with Andy Warhol. It’s a combination of decades of experience with the best people. Therefore, I know how to assess a fashion look, a dress, a collection, a celebrity, an event like the Oscars.

I don’t understand the world of the Internet. I just type up on my computer. 

[Showing Jennifer Lawrence falling at the Oscars on his computer.] This will be on record forever. Take a lesson in Oscar dress etiquette like little debutantes who are taught how to serve tea or go to a dance. People need to be edited, life needs to be edited. I need to be edited.

Jennifer should have said, “Show me how to walk.” She is not the only one to have problems walking up the steps. She looked wonderful standing still. She is so beautiful and I’m not objecting to the dress. It’s divine. I’m sure she doesn’t care, it’s not important to her, but you don’t want to see yourself falling [at such a time].

WWD: In terms of designers, who do you think is influential now?

A.L.T.: Miuccia Prada, Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs. And Tom Ford.

WWD: What do you think of the obsession with celebrities? Is it healthy or positive for fashion?
A.L.T.: It depends on the season, it’s good when the movies are great. “Argo” is great and it has done wonders. I’ve never met a more polite, elegant and impeccable human being as Ben Affleck. He was back at the time with Jennifer Lopez and he is now. Success has not spoiled him. He’s like a new Cary Grant, but better. Celebrity is good, because it’s aspirational when you give young people [the idea] to become like Ben Affleck, to become a successful film director.

WWD: I meant, what do you think of people’s obsession with celebrities and what they are wearing?
A.L.T.: It’s always been that way, maybe it was a different formula. In the Thirties, people were obsessed with the Duchess of Windsor, a fashion icon through the pages of Vogue and Tatler. People have always been fascinated by people in the public eye and what they wear, what they are doing, but not in a tabloid way. Tabloid celebrities are a turnoff. A lot of celebrities…you wonder why they are celebrities. I name no names, I don’t want to offend…Beyoncé is an  incredible success, she is not a tabloid, she is a human being that has achieved extraordinary things. You want to read about her.

But I don’t want to read about a reality-show celebrity. Snooki and Honey Boo Boo. These are big celebrities in the U.S. You want to throw up. More people watched Honey Boo Boo’s show during the Republican and Democratic conventions last year [looking puzzled]. She is exhaustingly tacky. The fascination with that is not necessary. If you have a fascination with First Lady Michelle Obama and what she does, it’s another thing. There are no more Elizabeth Taylors, you could be fascinated by her, she lived so many lives, she lived far, she loved the jewels, she had gaudy taste but she had extraordinary talent.

They don’t influence fashion but people that watch what they are doing.

Fashion influentials today are Beyoncé, Rihanna, top models, I still think to this day Madonna, Nicki Minaj in a very strange way. First Lady Michelle Obama is a great fashion icon. These are positive role models. Particularly Michelle Obama and Beyoncé. I put them at the top.

WWD: Looking ahead, what are your upcoming projects?

A.L.T.: A book, coming out in April, from the catalogue of an exhibit of black dresses — contemporary not historical — in Savannah [last year], which was a big success. Rizzoli published the book. My biggest dream is for the show — which is going to travel to Paris in June and will be at the Mono Bismarck Foundation for three months, my biggest dream is that it will go to Russia and be at the Garage, the contemporary art gallery. I feel very proud of it.

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