Fashion @ Brown hosted influential former student Andr Leon Talley MA72 for a Sunday afternoon webinar and conversation about his many years of experience as a black man in the fashion industry and his hopes for his future .
Talley has worked with a number of influential people throughout his career, including Andy Warhol, Michelle Obama, Karl Lagerfeld, Ralph Lauren and Oscar de la Renta, with a long tenure as Creative Director at Vogue Magazine in alongside Anna Wintour. I was fortunate to have stepped on the scene when I was doing Fashion was a much smaller world then, Talley said. It wasn’t what I looked like, and yet it was, but behind those looks I was smart. I had knowledge and I was original, he added.
We are extremely honored to have Andr as our first speaker this year, said Sasha Pinto 21, President of Fashion @ Brown and co-host of the webinar.
The fashion industry can be brutal (Talleys). The stratospheric rise serves as inspiration for the young creatives of BIPOC, added Sydney Taub 22, member of Fashion @ Brown and moderator of the event.
Talley went on to talk about the start of his career, including his early influences growing up in the southern United States. When I was a teenager, that was just the start of the civil rights movement which I remember going to my grandmother’s house where we watched the funerals of Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy on the small black and white TV, he said. The extremely tragic deaths of peacemakers were formative events for Talley.
Talley was also strongly influenced by his family’s dedication to church. Going to church was a ritual of our life, he recalls, and we always dressed up. Her grandmother, after working 50 years as a housekeeper at Duke University, along with the rest of the Talleys family, rescued and struggled to find the best she could afford. He described a memory he had of his grandmother at Easter services, wearing a blue Dior-inspired silk coat. These things may seem superficial now, but to us those things mattered, he said.
Talleys’ fascination with fashion was further developed when he discovered an issue of Vogue in his local library. After that, I had a wall in my room lined with magazine photos, it was so sacred, he said. These magazines also cultivated his affinity for French culture, as he eventually pursued a master’s degree in French literature at Brown.
His first trip to Paris was as a student during spring break, but many will follow. He described being struck by the acceptance of the blackness of the grudge that seemed so prevalent there. It was France with racism, racial profiling. They understood long before America how to treat black people equally, he said. Take it in the modern moment, black models are often advised to go to Paris in Europe (and) be an apprentice and you can come back and be a big star in New York.
Recently, the fashion industry has made efforts to nominate more black designers, Talley added. These powerful new appointments will determine the future of fashion, he said. He also refers to the recent appointment of Edward Enninfuls as editor-in-chief of British Vogue. Time magazine said he was the most important man in fashion in the world, he said, and went on to discuss Enninfuls’ insightful, exposed and confident work. Talley recalled his excitement when he heard the news of Enninfuls’ new position, and his greatest gratification when he received a response to his congratulatory email saying: Thank you, Andr. You paved the way for me.
From his former employer, Cond Nast (Vogue’s parent company), Talley said he was thrilled with the recent coverage that highlights black voices, including the Vanity Fair cover stories on Breonna Taylor and Viola Davis and a Glamor number on celebrating black hair. Suddenly there is negritude all over Cond Nast, he said. But, he admitted that he no longer reads Vogue. I don’t think what I might do will influence them in the future.
In his recent book, The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir, Talley described his career and his inspirations, including his long and complicated relationship with Wintour. Everything in the book is about love. I didn’t want it to be a (avenging), dirty, revealing, mean, bitchy, queenie book, he said. He explained that he had had negative experiences, but none of them were regrettable. I had a great break with Wintour, he said. I haven’t heard of her, and I don’t intend to hear her. Talley had allowed Wintour to view her book before publishing it in case she disputed anything he had written about her, and he deleted what she was asking for. I thought she would support me after that, but I never heard from her again.
Of Wintours’ recent apology for the racism and associated prejudice at Vogue, I just hope she lives up to it, Talley said. Like I said, as I was quoted, she is a privileged white woman, and she will never let anything get in the way of her white privilege. But Talley thinks the industry has to take a big toll in the world because of the death of George Floyds, where we actually saw a live technical lynching kneeling on a man’s neck. He named other black martyrs such as Taylor and Trayvon Martin in describing the Black Lives Matter movement as a pivotal moment in the history of the Americas. As James Baldwin says, we have a bill to pay. Change must come.
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