Byline: Jessica Kerwin

NEW YORK — While they’ll probably never land a Nobel, designers can and do win plenty of awards, from the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s designer of the year to those of the VH-1/Vogue Fashion Awards. A new accolade in the offering, however, may raise the criteria to new heights. It’s the Andre Leon Talley Lifetime Achievement Award.
Last spring, Talley, Vogue’s famed editor at large, flew down to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia to accept what the school then simply called its Lifetime Achievement Award. Yet, once he hit campus, it was clear the honor would have to be renamed. “We don’t really expect much from the people who visit,” says Danny Filson, an administrator at the school. “If someone agrees to come down and speak to the students and attend the student fashion show, that’s all we can ask. But Andre came and just wouldn’t stop giving.”
Talley gave a public seminar on the season’s couture, highlighting Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel collection, and lectured students on Manolo Blahnik and his work. He showed slides and video clips. He answered questions. He toured the campus. He stayed for four or five days and swept the Savannah college off its feet.
Needless to say, he’s one tough act to follow. But if anyone is up to the task, it’s Oscar de la Renta, whom Talley and the college will honor on May 26. “I had not heard of the school before I got the award, and neither had Oscar de la Renta,” Talley says. “But I told him about it, and he was delighted. So, we’re all going down to Savannah when the city is in bloom.”
“I’ve never been to Say-van-ah Gee-or-gia before,” de la Renta says in his best Southern accent, “but it’s going to be fun. Andre Leon Talley is someone I really care for. He’s such a dynamo.”
While a year ago Talley didn’t know of the school, one if its students, graduating fashion major Santiago Barberi, had certainly heard of him. Barberi, a former Blahnik intern who is currently working at the Nancy Gonzalez bag company, recommended that he receive the school’s first award. “We usually offer money to speakers who come to the school, but he wouldn’t accept any money,” says Barberi. “He also declined a cocktail reception to honor him and went to the student party instead. He spent four hours there talking to the graduating students and taking photos with the students and their parents.”
Each year more than 5,000 students graduate from the design college, which offers 18 courses of study, including art history, graphic design and fashion, making it one of the biggest of its kind. This year, 24 undergraduate fashion majors and seven graduate students will complete their studies.
“It’s important at this stage in my career to give back to the new generation, and that means giving time to students,” says Talley, who came to New York in 1974 to work with Diana Vreeland. “I was so touched. They stood up three times during my acceptance speech. Don’t ask me why.”
Talley was moved to an ovation himself during last year’s fashion show by the designs of student Susan Webb. “I’ve told so many designers about her — John Galliano, Lars Nilsson at Bill Blass,” Talley says. “Oscar de la Renta has met her, and just because of my enthusiasm for her work, she packed up and moved to New York. She doesn’t have a fashion job yet, but she’s working in an insurance company until she gets her big break.”
It’s just the kind of encouragement the editor himself received from Vreeland and from Andy Warhol when he was starting out. “Mrs. Vreeland was someone I knew all about before I ever hit New York,” Talley recalls. “She was my mentor before I even worked for her. Andy Warhol was a teacher and a mentor and an educator. It wasn’t the most orthodox campus, but it certainly helped me in my career.”