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For 'Vogue' Titan André Leon Talley, Fashion Was A 'Gateway To The World'

Growing up in his grandmother's home in Durham, N.C., in the era of Jim Crow, former Vogue magazine editor André Leon Talley often felt like a misfit. Bullied for his clothes — which he describes as beautiful, but not overly flashy — he remembers feeling alone.

Then, when he was around 9 or 10, he stumbled onto an issue of Vogue at the public library. Paging through the magazine, he was captivated — it was was like traveling down a "rabbit hole," he says, into "a world of glamour."

"[Vogue] was my gateway to the world outside of Durham," Talley says. "It was the world of literature, what was happening in the world of art, what was happening in the world of entertainment."

Talley went on to study French literature at Brown University. Afterward, he headed to New York City, where he met and worked for Andy Warhol in his "Factory" studio and eventually landed a job at Vogue.

Though he was nervous to work at the iconic magazine, Talley tried not to show it. "I just rose to the occasion," he says. "I stood up straight and tall — like a tall, tall sunflower — and I just radiated the light and the beauty of my mind in relationship to the world of fashion."

Talley took over as Vogue's creative director in 1988, and served as editor-at-large from 1998 until 2013. Director Kate Novack profiles Talley in the new documentary The Gospel According to André.

Interview Highlights

On his early years

I grew up in my grandmother's home in Durham, N.C., a modest home. She was a maid at Duke University and it was just my grandmother and myself. She was an extraordinary woman. She was a frugal woman. And she watched her budget, she had a bank account, and we had a wonderful life because I never knew anything but love, unconditional love.

On working with Andy Warhol at Interview magazine

The people that I met through Warhol were the people that I always wanted to know. They were not bullies, they did not judge you. There was unconditional admiration, if not love. People were free. People had made their choices. ... Everyone was noted for their own worth, their own gifts, and I think that's why I felt so good, because I felt at home. I felt that I was part of a special club at Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and they embraced me and there was no criticism of me as there would've been at home.

On what it was like to work at Warhol's studio, The Factory

There were all kinds of people. There were lesbians. There were gays. There were straights. There were drag queens. There were artists. But everyone was equal, so everyone mattered. ... You mattered because you had individual gifts and talents and that's what Andy admired.

Now, there wasn't a lot of sexuality going on. I did not see people having sex rampantly at work or taking drugs, because it wasn't that atmosphere when I got to The Factory. It was long after Andy had an assassination attempt [in 1968] so the rules changed. People were chosen for their seriousness and chosen for their possibilities to become who they wanted to be. And I was allowed to become who I wanted to be at The Factory and with Andy Warhol.

On the blurred line between editorial and advertising in fashion magazines

One is never comfortable with that blurring of the line, but one has to live up to the responsibilities and the demands of the job. One is never comfortable. The luxury of true, true editorial is very rare in any fashion magazine, but one has to honor the commitment to create the dollar that pays your salary that gives you food to eat. ...

I remember once Estée Lauder ... was very upset because the Vogue issue had come out at Christmas and they said there were three great queens of beauty empire and they were Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden and Paloma Picasso. ... And Mrs. Lauder called up to the heads of Condé Nast and said: All my advertising will be removed, not only from Vogue but from all the other magazines. ...

Estée Lauder was an empire, and that was revenue that was going to be yanked out of Condé Nast. And Anna Wintour sent me straight down to Palm Beach, Fla., to do a major profile on Mrs. Lauder to make up for that slight.

Talley is known for wearing capes and caftans: "You are ventilated. You're roomy. You're cozy, and you can just stretch. ... I will continue to wear these things for the rest of my life!"
Seth Wenig / AP
Talley is known for wearing capes and caftans: "You are ventilated. You're roomy. You're cozy, and you can just stretch. ... I will continue to wear these things for the rest of my life!"

On his signature capes and caftans

I went to [Morocco] and saw that the men in North Africa in Marrakech and Casablanca walked around in caftan shirts and loose-fitting clothes all day, every day. ... This is the indigenous dress of the black man in Marrakech, and this is [when] I decided: I want to be like that. I want to wear that instead of a suit because it's comfortable. You are ventilated. You're roomy. You're cozy, and you can just stretch.

I'm not a tall stick anymore! I'm a big, big guy of great girth and people think I look like maybe my clothes don't look that important, but I have taken great time and [done] fittings for my capes and caftans made by the great designers. I will continue to wear these things for the rest of my life!

On feeling lonely

I was afraid to fall in love. I was afraid of the rejection. I was afraid of emotional commitment and ... I was emotionally afraid of people, so I did not want to get close to people. I did not want people to touch me. I did not like to touch people, so that's just a part of who I am. ...

I regret to this day [that] I have difficulty responding to physical emotion and it's based on a childhood experience — I don't know what it is, I can't think about that now — but I do regret not having that relationship.

I regret not having siblings and I think about it almost every day, because as I get older it's very, very lonely. ... However, I'm not going to say it's the worst life; it's been a wonderful life.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.