Style & Grooming

Fashion Icon André Leon Talley Sheds the Capes in New Doc

We give thanks for The Gospel According To André, which just premiered at TIFF

  • TextMichael-Oliver Harding

Over the years, many people have attempted to talk longtime Vogue style arbiter and all-around fashion icon André Leon Talley into making a documentary about his pioneering journey – including his friend and soon-to-exit Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter. But it took looking into director Kate Novack’s “beautiful eyes”, according to the towering 67-year-old himself, to sign on the dotted line. And we’re grateful he did. Novack’s solo directorial debut, The Gospel According To André, charts how an African-American man from humble beginnings in the Jim Crow South (Durham, North Carolina) survived the fashion world’s unforgiving chiffon trenches to become one of the planet’s most ubiquitous and beloved tastemakers – all the while breaking the race barrier guarding the upper echelons of mainstream fashion publications.

To no one’s surprise, The Gospel features an all-star cast attempting to outdo one another in effusive proclamations about their brilliant, frequently kaftan-clad friend. Tom Ford raves about his “fabulous insanity”, likens him to the “Kofi Annan of what you’ve got on” and the routinely unimpressed Anna Wintour describes his sartorial knowledge as “impeccable.” And yet, whether you’ve come across his byline in the pages of WWD and Vogue, enjoyed his live commentary during the annual Met Galas or seen him judge four cycles of meltdowns and miracles on America’s Next Top Model, chances are you’ve wanted to know more about the six-foot-and-a-half enigma. Because Talley has always kept his private life at a safe distance from the loquacious, uber-knowledgeable savant persona he’s cultivated. In fact, during a post-film Q&A at the Toronto International Film Festival, Talley compared the experience of repeatedly having to confront his past on camera to open-heart surgery.

The rare disclosures Novack draws out from Talley about the casual racism he’s endured or his atypical silence on the topic of President Trump account for some of the documentary’s most telling segments. Walls come down as we understand how a man who’s served as a beacon of hope to so many, always projecting such grace and refinement, overcame a great many hurdles on the road to ALT sanctification. The filmmaker hones in on the importance of Talley’s beloved grandmother – the values she instilled in him and the box full of fine hats she and his aunts donned to church every Sunday. It’s in this sacred space that Talley’s appreciation for great style first came to be informed by “the elegant black church ladies,” as he refers to them.

The fly-on-the-wall doc is plenty fun, too: there are stories about itching to learn French thanks to Julia Child and being the only Studio 54 regular who’d avoid all the “Sodom and Gomorrah” stuff going on downstairs. There’s time spent at his art-filled home in suburban New York with Isabella Rossellini and her chicken Andy Warhol, or gleeful flipping through his yearbook with a high school friend in Durham, speculating about all the possible derelicts and drug addicts. Talley’s also terribly funny. After Anna Wintour initiates an intervention to help him lose weight, Novack’s camera captures his trips to the nutritionist, where he half-heartedly swallows tasteless goop while blissfully describing his grandmother’s buttermilk biscuits as “rococo cakes.”

But Talley’s a natural raconteur – and The Gospel isn’t the first time his gift of the gab is on display. What strikes a really resonant chord is the stuff he’s most hesitant and uncomfortable to discuss, and which he sometimes plays down: the struggles people of colour still face not only in the industry but also the country at large. While he’ll proudly point to trailblazing models such as Naomi Sims and Pat Cleveland, he’ll also recall the unfounded accusations he’s had to stomach since taking that first job answering the phones at Interview Magazine in the 1970s. And while his most consistent response to Trump appears to be silent disbelief, a teary-eyed Talley tells Novack he wishes his grandma could have been around to witness the crowning of the Obamas, as he looks down at his March 2009 Vogue cover story with Michelle – one of the top honours of his illustrious career.  

After so many scene-stealing cameos in other fashion doc profiles (for everyone from Valentino to Zac Posen), it’s about time Talley took centre stage. And from his all-black high school in the still-segregated South to late Vogue legend Diana Vreeland instantly recognising his talent, Talley’s is a story that deserved to be told.

The Gospel According To André will be released by Magnolia Pictures in the spring of 2018. Talley is also curating the exhibition The Glamour and Romance of Oscar de la Renta, which opens October 8 at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts.