A look back at American icon André Leon Talley’s impact on the fashion industry

Photo credit: Julia Monteiro Martins

“I do believe there’s a heaven,” American fashion stylist and journalist André Leon Talley said. “I do believe that God has given me the resilience and the survival skills to withstand the chiffon trenches.”

Throughout his career, the fashion veteran survived the chiffon trenches of an adverse and homogenous fashion battleground and fought to create opportunities for the next generation of unrepresented creatives. In the wake of his passing on Jan. 18, the fashion icon and first Black creative director and editor-at-large at Vogue leaves behind a trailblazing legacy shaped by the manifestation of his own childhood vision of an accessible and cosmopolitan world.

Raised in Jim Crow-era North Carolina by his grandmother, a young Talley engrossed himself in the glamor of the attires donned in his church community. Surrounded by women with a meticulous attention to detail and beauty, Talley soon found his passion in the language of extravagance and creativity.

Photo credit: Julia Monteiro Martins

An only child, he translated his curiosity into the world of this speech. By engrossing himself in the glossy pages of captivating fashion publications like “Vogue” and “Ebony,” he sought to succeed in the metropolitan centerfold of the arts and culture.

After graduating high school, he received a scholarship to attend Brown University, where he began to curate the multilingual intellectual, wrote his thesis on Black womens’ influence on Charles Baudelaire and obtained a Master of Arts in French literature.

Despite setting his eyes on becoming a French professor, mutual friends of Talley’s connected him to Dianna Vreeland at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan. He later began working at Warhol’s Factory, The New York Times, the Parisian Bureau of Women’s Wear Daily, Ebony and Vogue.

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At Ebony, he created spreads that highlighted the beauty of African American models, which normalized their presence in the catwalks of New York and Paris. In his rapid evolution through the echelons of fashion journalism, he befriended Karl Lagerfeld and Marc Jacobs, partied with Diana Ross and Paloma Picasso at Studio 54, sat front row at fashion week with Anna Wintour and Diane von Furstenberg and styled the Obama family in 2008.

Behind the baroque capes and sparkly kaftans, Talley confronted deep resentment from the corners of the fashion world that did not share his confidence in Black excellence. These personal attacks on his image and character had traumatic and lasting effects on his psyche and health.

Despite his expertise, Talley’s salary of $300,000 was nearly a third of the compensation of his white colleagues who made close to one million annually, as revealed on the Tamron Hall Show. The pay gap emphasises a double standard in the publication sector.

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However, despite facing bigotry within the industry, Talley focused his energy on remaining a positive light for others, with the vision that they would one day not face the same opposition he did. He extended a hand to those who would follow in his footsteps, widening the path to their dreams through partnerships and educational funds.

An example of self-realization, he understood the perspectives of emerging designers and therefore defended unrecognized talent. His advocacy is well exhibited through his long-standing membership on the Board of Trustees of the Savannah College of Art and Design.

In 2020, Talley was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. The high honor is awarded to those who with significant contributions to French cultural inheritance in the realms of arts and literature. While not as decorated in the United States, the French government’s recognition of Talley highlights his global influence and multicultural outreach.

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Talley’s ability to create a path for the ignored came from an internal calling to be the attention. His belief in his own self-determination never denied the notion that his talent should bloom. In the years to come, may one man’s evolution teach us how to break down fashion’s barriers in revolution.