Style icon André Leon Talley on navigating the fashion world: "My armor is my self-invention"

Legendary fashion celebrity on the "discipline" that fueled his rise from the Jim Crow South to Paris and Milan

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 8, 2018 4:30PM (EDT)

André Leon Talley in "The Gospel According To André" (Magnolia Pictures)
André Leon Talley in "The Gospel According To André" (Magnolia Pictures)

Style and fashion are much more than just how a person chooses to dress or the other ways they adorn themselves. They expressions of the self that tell us a great deal about society and how various groups and individuals relate to one another. Who has power? Who does not? What does resistance look like? In navigating those relationships, individuals assert themselves in ways both small and large. This involves the obviously "political" such as voting, protesting and joining various organizations. It also involves the subtle and the discrete, such as decisions about how to dress in ways that stand against the norms, rules, constraints and conventions of dominant society.

For example, during slavery black human property would adorn their clothing -- often made of cheap cotton and other remnant materials provided by slave-owners -- with buttons or other jewelry they made or found. This was an act of resistance, asserting individual value and self-worth in a white-dominated society that deemed black folks less than human.

During the crescendo of the civil rights movement in the struggle against Jim and Jane Crow, black freedom fighters often wore their finest clothing as a way of signaling their human dignity and that they, as Americans, deserved equal citizenship and full rights.

In the now, "Black Lives Matter" is more than words on a T-shirt. It is a slogan, plea and demand about the value of black people under siege in America.

Ultimately, for marginalized groups, and others viewed as "outsiders," style and fashion -- especially clothing -- are a type of armor.

André Leon Talley, the former American editor-at-large of Vogue magazine and legendary media personality, knows this to be true on a personal level.

In our conversation about Kate Novack's documentary "The Gospel According to André," Talley reflected on his upbringing in the Jim Crow South and how family, the black church and the broader African-American community taught him lessons about how style and fashion empowered black people and fueled their freedom dreams. He also shared his insights about style and fashion at present, navigating the very white world of European and American high fashion, and the importance of maintaining one's dignity and self-respect even in the most difficult circumstances.

"The Gospel According to André" is now also available on Digital HD.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you feel watching the documentary?

I was moved. I felt that the documentary was exceptional. And it is very elegant. As I watched it the first time I also cried, I had tears in my eyes. I was so very touched by how director Kate Novack nailed it. She really got it. She got me. The documentary speaks in a proud way to who I am, what I became and what I continue to try to be in this life.

My mother's family is from the American South. They survived Jim Crow. One of the lessons my mother and my grandmother and other relatives from North Carolina taught me is the power of maintaining our dignity as black people and not letting racism humiliate us. That theme resonates throughout your life.

You have to have dignity. I was raised by a dignified people, church people, faith-based people. My family were of very modest means. We were not poor. No one in my family was ever on welfare. We were hardworking. The men mostly worked in the tobacco industry in Durham [North Carolina]. That was the most prestigious job a black man could have in the '40s, '50s and '60s. My aunts worked as domestic maids and did other types of similar work.

What we were taught early is to be dignified. We learned to keep our heads up, to speak when you are spoken to and to do the right thing. We also learned to behave correctly and to be strong. All that comes from a basic churchgoing education and environment. The black church gives you a kind of discipline and dignity.

And we wear that armor as a people. Obviously style and fashion are integral to your armor. In your case the armor you wear through style and fashion is so wonderfully crafted and beautifully intentional. As black men -- and black folks more generally -- how do we use that armor to hide our vulnerability?

Of course it is very conscious. It is my awareness of who I am. It's how I present myself to the world. I don't feel I have to explain whatever my choices have been. My choices are myriad and are based on traditional Tudor-like elegance. This is not just rooted in the Western condition. I draw power and inspiration from the indigenous cultures of Africa and North Africa. I also embrace the elegance of the Western tradition with the double breasted suits and shirt and tie.

So I chose my armor according to the moves of the decades of my life. I've made choices with great seriousness and great attention to detail because I thought it was important to present that best foot forward, because I am a black man from the South. I knew as a black person I had to be noticed. But I did it with very deft and subtle nuances -- even though I may have been flamboyant on the surface.

I am very aware that I am a self-made person. My armor is part of my own self-invention. I invented myself, but all the choices that I made were based on my education. I am an expert in those choices.

That's a profound type of freedom. So much of racism is about denying human freedom -- in the South and elsewhere with Jim and Jane Crow it was an effort to deny black folks our freedom of latitude and self-invention. But at every opportunity we lived freely and expressed ourselves. Our humanity was and is resistance.

We did it through culture. We did it through the aspirational images. We had great people to look up to. When I was young, I had the greatest role models in popular culture. We had Nina Simone, the late Aretha Franklin, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry and other great people who are emblematic of great moments that became part of the fabric of our education. You always wanted to aspire and reach up to the standards of greatness established by such people.

I particularly had great role models in the fashion world.

I thought Naomi Sims was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. And when she got on the cover of Life magazine she was most beautiful thing I've ever seen. She has been discovered on the subway by a New York Times editor and she made the cover of the New York Times Magazine. Naomi Sims was discovered in the stockroom of Bergdorf Goodman. She was not allowed on the floor at Bergdorf. Naomi Sims, this beautiful, tall, elegant woman and then she became a great model. She was one of the first great African-American models that really made it big. People don't think about her enough.

Where does that inner sense of style and culture and presence come from for black folks? Some people seem to have it naturally. Others can never summon and channel it regardless of what they are wearing.

It just comes from a sense of confidence that I think most black people have. They picked up quickly on the moments of elegance. I remember my aunt, she was one of my favorites. She wore the most extraordinary lavender coat, I remember it so well. Her lavender stilettos, lavender coat, lavender dress, everything she wore was lavender. The coat was a swing coat, and stilettos with the highest heels. The kind of stilettos that the First Lady wears today. And it was just so elegant. For me, style can just be so instinctive. We learn so much from those around us.

There are some people who make a conscious decision to be "stylish" and end up looking tacky and low rent even if they are wearing expensive clothing. But there are other folks who can wear the most understated and inexpensive clothing and look amazing.

That would be generational. I did not know anyone who went to church and said, "I will look stylish today." They just went to church knowing they were doing the best they could. They wore the best that they could afford. White dresses, white shoes, white stockings and hair combed beautifully. That is an image that you keep with you for the rest of your life.

What are your thoughts about the relaxing of norms around day-to-day clothing, where comfort seems to have triumphed over formality and elegance during the last few decades in America?

Yes, in general day-to-day life. But not when we celebrate. For example at the BET "Black Girls Rock!" Awards show there was Ava DuVernay in a marvelous Michael Kors. There was Naomi Campbell in a very elegant Calvin Klein throwback to the 1970s, a kind of a Halston-revisited dress. There was Janet Jackson in the most amazing clothing. Mary J. Blige was attired in the most marvelous Roberto Cavalli printed dress. And there was Queen Latifah, who was a disruptor, wearing a cape. We know the right armor to select.

What role have mentors played in your life success?

Diana Vreeland was my greatest mentor. I miss her very much. My mentors were also my very close friends. There were also my teachers in high school who mentored me. Mrs. Garrett, who is still there in Durham, appears in the documentary. She's a wonderful English teacher. But the thing I remember the most was how she used to walk down the hall in stilettos and the swinging skirts. She was an extraordinary vision of elegance and also a great teacher. Cynthia Smith, who has passed away, was brilliant. She was my favorite French teacher. She made French culture and French history come alive, even in a public high school.

What advice would you give people about finding a mentor and respecting those relationships?

I just tell people don't be afraid to make copies when you get your foot in the door. If they ask you to go to Starbucks, do it. If you just got your foot in the door, as a young person trying to make a career, don't be afraid to pick up the pen off the floor. Don't be afraid to sweep the floors. Don't get an attitude because someone asked you to do something that you might consider menial. You're there learning and you are there observing. And this is my best advice: Don't give up your dream.

As a black man you are hyper-visible in the mostly white spaces of high fashion you shaped, traveled and worked in. You were the target of some very vicious racism and bigotry from some prominent people in the fashion world who spread rumors and called you "Queen Kong." How did you negotiate that?

It all returns to my sense of faith. My strength of my inner resilient faith is what got me through life. My grandmother gave me the best upbringing I could ever have. My upbringing in the Missionary Baptist Church is so important here too. My grandmother, my mother and father all supported me. It takes a village, and all my aunts and uncles were very much part of my life. The luxury of my childhood was my family nurturing me and keeping me as safe as you could possibly be. There was church on every Sunday. That is how I got through all the adversity.

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Many people would confront someone who used such vile language about them. But you were restrained, disciplined and strategic.

When people behave in a truly ugly way you don't take the low road you take the high road. I thought about the horrible thing that woman said. But of course, you know, it's a cruel world. It's a cruel business, real human beings can be very cruel. My victory is that I've survived that. I revealed in the documentary that I had not spoken about that incident since the 1970s.

What are some common misconceptions that people have about you?

I'm a visual person, but they confuse that with me being superficial which I am not. They look at me and they see the clothes and think that’s it.

Once people meet you and come to that realization, what do you think is the most admirable thing about you they discover?

My humanity, kindness, politeness -- and of course my intelligence.

If you had to give advice to your younger self, what would it be?

Do the same thing. Make the same decisions. Do everything exactly the way I did it. I would do it over again. I would make the decisions that I made throughout my life in the exact same way that I did. I don't regret anything in the decisions that I made ever.

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By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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