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Andr Leon Talley was the visionary of the fashion world

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André Leon Talley shared his fabulous encounters with Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren, Karl Lagerfeld and Diane von Furstenburg in his monthly column, Life with Andre, a staple of 1990s American Vogue.

He had the kind of access to designers, celebrities and models that fashionistas could only dream of and he wrote about his experiences in such a way that I felt like I was right there with him. I’ve sat with him on overstuffed sofas in Victorian-era drawing rooms. When he ran his fingers over an icy blue satin, so did my fingertips. The fresh air of the Mediterranean Sea kissed my cheeks on a designer yacht at the same time as hers. Talleys column was about beauty and his words were so descriptive it was like scrolling Instagram decades before social media.

Talley succumbed to a heart attack at a New York hospital on Tuesday. He was 73 years old.

Talley and I became friends early in my career as a fashion journalist. As we left the New York Fashion Week shows, which I wandered into with him because no one stopped Andr, we did more than chat about the season’s polka dots and pleats.

He explained to me why the Michael Kors skirt suits were reminiscent of Dior’s new look. He made sure I knew which elements of the Carolina Herreras evening wear collection were influenced by American couture designer Main Rousseau Bocher. I once admitted to not knowing who the leading lady of American sportswear Claire McCardell was and, I swear, Talley rolled her eyes. You need to know who Claire is, he said before we parted ways. It was in these moments that I learned that the story was a crucial part of fashion journalism.

He was simply extraordinary, said Ralph Rucci, a Philadelphia couture designer and longtime friend of Talley’s. He was an encyclopedia. He was the fashion bibliography you’ve never seen. We went to dinner and we talked for hours about sewing… We lost a great, great visionary of our planet. I wish someone knew more about his kindness. He was hiding behind being a little rough.

He was imposing, he was 6ft 6in tall and his importance was telegraphed through his pile of assorted Louis Vuitton luggage.

As the creative director of American Vogues, and later its editor, Talley was the highest-ranked black man in the industry, paving the way for the likes of Edward Enninful, British editor of Vogues, and influencing countless young designers, like Philadelphia Fashion Week founder Kevin Parker. Talley dressed Jennifer Hudson for the 2008 Oscars and helped Michelle Obama choose her dress at her husband’s 2009 Inaugural Ball. He was a judge on Tyra Banks Top Model of the Americas and full of clever jokes as a host on the Met Gala and Oscars red carpets.

But through his memoirs and documentaries, we learned that inside he was trying to fit in with a world that treated him poorly. The fashion world is notoriously mean. It’s especially mean to black people. And it’s even meaner with the big ones. Talley was not immune to wickedness. In the 2018 documentary, The Gospel According to Andrew he told us that a well-known designer had hinted that he had slept all the way to the top. They basically called me a Black buck, he said. A few scenes later, he cried when he called back a fashion editor who called him Queen Kong.

READ MORE: Black fashion superhero Andr Leon Talley finally gets his due in new documentary

Talley swallowed his pain the way many older black people do when white people in powerful positions dehumanize them. Her flowing kaftans evoked strength and looked dignified. Weakness was not an option.

Talley was born in Washington, DC in 1948, but was raised by his grandmother, Bennie Francis Davis, in Durham, NC Davis, who worked as a maid at Duke University, preferred dyed blue hair and wore sharp navy suits in church. She taught Talley the importance of dressing well.

He received a bachelor’s degree in French studies from the historically Black College North Carolina Central University and later earned a master’s degree at Brown. Talley moved to New York in the 1970s to pursue fashion. He became close to then-Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, who Talley says inspired his fashion sense as much as his grandmother. He got a job at Interview magazine and worked as a Paris correspondent for Womens Wear Daily before Anna Wintour hired him at American Vogue in 1993.

Wintour and Talley had been friends and colleagues at Vogue for years. It was even reported that Wintour had sent Talley to a diet center three times. In 2018, Wintour replaced Talley as host of the Met Ball with YouTube personality Liza Koshy, and their relationship cooled. Talley said Wintour walked away from him because he was too old, too fat, and too cool.

Talley talks about her relationship with Wintour in her 2020 book, The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir.

Talley championed exclusivity, but was also keenly aware of his role as a black man in the fashion industry. He supported black designers. He advocated for black role models. He gushed with excitement about the Obamas. Yet he never really talked about racing beyond the track because the sleek and fabulous trumped issues of race.

After Talley left Vogue in 2013, he became much more outspoken. He supported Black Lives Matter. He spoke about racism in the fashion industry. He talked about how the industry hurt him. And he called on his ancestors for strength.

In May, he appeared on The Tamron Hall Show to address rumors about where he lived and his relationship with Wintour. He said he and Wintour were civil and he wanted to fix their friendship.

The New York Times reported that Talley was openly gay, lived alone and had little semblance of a romantic life. The Times also reported that he had no immediate survivors.

Fashion journalists have described Talley as larger than life and remember him for his confidence and elegance.

Talley not only floated in a room, they wrote, he commanded it. Talley was a unicorn, in a world that wasn’t kind to anyone, let alone a tall, flamboyant black man.

I remember Talley as a sensitive human being who cared about people. He even cared about me. I knew it because of her sisterly eye roll.

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