A sensory experience

Kate Novack and Andrew Rossi on kaleidoscope eyes and The Gospel According To André

by Anne-Katrin Titze

‪The Gospel According to André‬ director Kate Novack with producer Andrew Rossi on André Leon Talley‪: "He says he is equally inspired by Lady Ottoline Morrell, a British aristocrat, as he is by Martin Luther King Jr. with the crisp white shirt."
‪The Gospel According to André‬ director Kate Novack with producer Andrew Rossi on André Leon Talley‪: "He says he is equally inspired by Lady Ottoline Morrell, a British aristocrat, as he is by Martin Luther King Jr. with the crisp white shirt." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The Gospel According To André, a Tribeca Film Festival Special Screening highlight, will have its UK première at the Edinburgh International Film Festival later this month. Kate Novack's revealing documentary portrait on André Leon Talley, shot by Bryan Sarkinen (Andrew Rossi's Bronx Gothic, The First Monday In May, Ivory Tower) and edited with Andrew Coffman, flashes a light to illuminate different stages in the life of the man who invented himself with style and grace.

Andrew Rossi on André Leon Talley: "I think that's one of the unique things that Kate has done in the film, is to see how ‪André ‬brings a unique perspective to the history of fashion."
Andrew Rossi on André Leon Talley: "I think that's one of the unique things that Kate has done in the film, is to see how ‪André ‬brings a unique perspective to the history of fashion."

Recent interviews with Tom Ford, Anna Wintour, Marc Jacobs, Norma Kamali, Diane von Furstenberg, Whoopi Goldberg, Sean Combs, Valentino Garavani, will.i.am, Fran Lebowitz, Manolo Blahnik, and a visit to Isabella Rossellini's farm on Long Island, flow seamlessly together with archival clips and photographs.

In The Gospel According To André, André Leon Talley tells us that Julia Child inspired him to learn French and Barbra Streisand to buy secondhand clothes, which is presented here as a lovely montage of capes - from a cartoon king to Dracula, to Lulu, to Tolstoy. He talks about the great importance of his mentor Diana Vreeland, who was the fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue and curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute. "André would become Vreeland" jokes his friend Reed.

The most revelatory scenes in The Gospel According To André go deep quickly and then leave us with irresistible narrative outfit combinations. The "Sunday Best" church clothes of his childhood in the Jim Crow South of Durham, North Carolina, look suddenly so similar to Yves Saint Laurent.

Talley, when he attended Brown University on scholarship, made friends with the students at the Rhode Island School of Design where they had dress-up nights that he wrote about. Fran Lebowitz has more than one funny anecdote on when she first met him while he worked as the receptionist for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine.

In ‪The Gospel According to André‬, Talley visits Isabella Rossellini's farm and meets Boris and Pepe
In ‪The Gospel According to André‬, Talley visits Isabella Rossellini's farm and meets Boris and Pepe Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The help he received from and gave to Anna Wintour before she became Editor-in-Chief of Vogue - all form magnificent puzzle pieces that begin to add up to the man who is at times larger-than-life and more complicated than any of these episodes.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Part of André's gospel is - "you must cultivate your own universe." You start out with that. An old phone, a sofa, a Martin Luther King Jr. photograph, Gucci loafers with the furry parts inside, monogrammed Louis Vuitton luggage - what were your thoughts on beginning this way?

Kate Novack: Well, that was also our really wonderful editor Andrew Coffman who cut that scene. We didn't always know that we would begin with it. It emerged in the course of filming that André's home is this place of quiet and solitude and I think it kind of represents his most private self. It's this beautiful kind of oasis in Westchester with a porch and the trees and I think those objects represent his private self in a way. That's his domain.

AKT: I was thinking of the Chinese Confucian principle of xiu shen - you must self-cultivate.

Andrew Rossi: Absolutely.

Kate Novack on André Leon Talley: "He's kind of taking in everything around him and he isn't bound by these rules of what's allowed to go together."
Kate Novack on André Leon Talley: "He's kind of taking in everything around him and he isn't bound by these rules of what's allowed to go together." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: He is pulling his inspiration from everywhere. Lady Ottoline Morrell is one of his patron saints. Virginia Woolf has scenes where life is created as art, and we get that sense from him, too.

KN: Yeah, he says he is equally inspired by Lady Ottoline Morrell, a British aristocrat, as he is by Martin Luther King Jr. with the crisp white shirt. I love that moment actually because it so symbolises how he is an amalgam of so many different ideas that typically we view as having no relation. Even things that would be in conflict are kind of synthesised within who he is, if that makes sense.

AKT: You have another moment of lovely editing that speaks of that. A return to the footage from the Sunday Best church goers in the context of the Yves Saint Laurent fashion show. The collection looks so similar.

AR: The Porgy and Bess collection, absolutely. And I think that's one of the unique things that Kate has done in the film, is to see how André brings a unique perspective to the history of fashion.

Certainly his upbringing in the South and in the black church gives him a point of view that is complemented with all that he's studied at Brown and in the chiffon trenches, as he says.

AKT: There's one thread going through the whole film that surprised me and that is animals.

André Leon Talley's Little Black Dress at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York
André Leon Talley's Little Black Dress at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

KN: Animals?

AKT: Animals. You have so many funny episodes including animals.

KN: Oh, right. Pigs!

AR: Isabella Rossellini's pigs.

AKT: Isabella Rossellini with Boris and Pepe. You have him with his friend's tiny dog.

KN: May-love. Her name is May-love.

AKT: How do you spell that?

KN: I think it's M a e l u v. I think that's how she spells it.

AR: He [André] talks about having a moment. That's something that he always wants to have in the streets of New York or anywhere he is. And that can be with a prince, princess or some fabulous figure or with an elephant. With an animal. I think he has this communion with creatures of all kinds.

KN: Right. In the same way that he has a communion with the objects he surrounds himself with. It's kind of like the pigs and the chicken and the little dog. In the end he talks about skunks and the bunnies are there.

AR: And snakes.

AKT: And he takes them all seriously.

KN: I feel he almost views the world in a way that's different from other people. That's part of what makes him such an original. He's kind of taking in everything around him and he isn't bound by these rules of what's allowed to go together.

Kate Novack on André Leon Talley at home: "It's this beautiful kind of oasis in Westchester with a porch and the trees and I think those objects represent his private self in a way. That's his domain."
Kate Novack on André Leon Talley at home: "It's this beautiful kind of oasis in Westchester with a porch and the trees and I think those objects represent his private self in a way. That's his domain."

AKT: There is no hierarchy in the usual sense. I think I mentioned to you, Andrew, when we talked about Bronx Gothic, and you told me off the record that this film was in the making, that I ran into André at the Yigal Azrouël showroom a few years ago.

I held the elevator door for him and the two of us had a lovely chat. It felt like the most normal thing to have a chat with André Leon Talley. That doesn't happen too often between total strangers in New York.

KN: Right. I think life for him is a sensory experience, constantly.

AR: As he says, you have to see the world through the kaleidoscope eyes of a child. That's kind of part of his mantra.

AKT: You brought up the snakes - that story puts Joan Didion to shame and her books are filled with snakes. He says snakes could fall asleep on the branch and fall on top of you? What a nightmare.

‪The Gospel According To André‬ poster at the Angelika Film Center in New York
‪The Gospel According To André‬ poster at the Angelika Film Center in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

KN: Oh my gosh. When we were filming him walking to the site where he was baptized behind his church, we had that scheduled … He really wanted to wait for it to be the season when snakes would not be there. So we kept kind of pushing it back.

AKT: To not-snake season?

KN: I know! Then I was like, are there really going to be snakes or is he kind of nervous about doing this shoot?

AKT: All those details make the documentary great because you do get the kaleidoscope of a man. It needs all of it in order to get an understanding.

KN: I love the way you are talking about it. That's wonderful. Thank you.

Read what Kate Novack and Andrew Rossi had to say on André Leon Talley being a great storyteller, Maureen Dowd's live blog with him for The New York Times during the Trump inauguration, and a Nick Carraway Gatsby comparison.

The Gospel According To André UK premiere during the Edinburgh International Film Festival will take place on June 29 at 6:10pm with a second screening on June 30 at 8:45pm - Cineworld

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