Tribute paid to André Leon Talley

The Gospel According To André director Kate Novack shares her thoughts

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Kate Novack on André Leon Talley: “There was something transcendent about his capacity for wonder. ‘Beauty can be a flower,’ he said. ‘It can be a gesture. It can be so many things.’ He embraced it all …”
Kate Novack on André Leon Talley: “There was something transcendent about his capacity for wonder. ‘Beauty can be a flower,’ he said. ‘It can be a gesture. It can be so many things.’ He embraced it all …” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

André Leon Talley, a major influencer of style and fashion in the best sense of the word, died on Tuesday, January 18, 2022 at the age of 73 in White Plains, New York. 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 on style. He wanted to look in my shopping bag to see the green dress I had purchased that morning and gave it two thumbs up. 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. I wore the dress on the red carpet for First Time Fest, as a member of the jury. I still have the dress and think of the elevator encounter each time I wear it.

Kate Novack with The Gospel According To André poster
Kate Novack with The Gospel According To André poster

André Leon Talley will appear on the final episode of season eight of the PBS program Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., airing on April 19.

I contacted Kate Novack, the director of the embracing documentary The Gospel According To André (a highlight of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival), on the day of his passing and she sent the following remembrance in honour of André Leon Talley. Her intimate film flashes a light to illuminate different stages in the life of the man who invented himself with style and grace and shows the obstacles that he boldly confronted along the way, from his childhood living with his beloved grandmother in the Jim Crow South of Durham, North Carolina to the Paris fashion scene where he became bureau chief for Women's Wear Daily in the Seventies, to becoming the first Black Vogue Contributing Editor.

“I was shocked to learn that André Leon Talley, the legendary fashion editor, had died this week, at the age of 73. It was shocking in the way that death is always a shock. But it was particularly stunning to think that someone whose presence felt so permanent, so majestic could suddenly be absent.

Anne-Katrin Titze (in the Yigal Azrouël green dress) with David Schwartz, Stephanie Zacharek, and Nicholas Haden-Guest on the First Time Fest red carpet
Anne-Katrin Titze (in the Yigal Azrouël green dress) with David Schwartz, Stephanie Zacharek, and Nicholas Haden-Guest on the First Time Fest red carpet Photo: Ed Bahlman

“For about 14 months leading up to the 2016 election, I filmed with André for The Gospel According to André, the documentary about his life. From the start, he was everything he tends to be described as -- larger than life, operatic, glamorous, hilarious. He'd admiringly declare a stranger's bowl haircut to be just like a serf's in 12th-century Europe. ‘Maaahvelous!’ he'd roar. Then he'd punctuate the whole thing with a swoosh of his ruby-red caftan. His laugh was more like a scream.

“What emerged over the course of shooting was another side. André was also tender and sensitive, and he needed and could exude quietude. His house in Westchester had a front porch that reminded him of his childhood in Durham, NC. He'd sit there and commune with the bunnies and notice how the leaves on the Japanese maple in his front yard were starting to change colour. There was something transcendent about his capacity for wonder. ‘Beauty can be a flower,’ he said. ‘It can be a gesture. It can be so many things.’ He embraced it all, from the pressed sheets at the Ritz in Paris and his closet full of Hermès boxes, to the chocolate milkshakes from his local diner. Sometimes this awe was tinged with sorrow. Once, when asked where to find safe spaces today, he responded ‘the safest space is going to be in your mind.’ His imagination was a place of both joy and respite from a world that could be cruel.

André Leon Talley’s Little Black Dress book
André Leon Talley’s Little Black Dress book Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

“Reading some of the obituaries, I feel sad when I see the phrase ‘no next of kin.’ But I don't think it's really true. Once, when André was speaking to a crowd of students, a young Black man in the audience stood up and said: ‘Mr. Talley, I've wanted to work in fashion my whole life. My parents don't think what I do is real. But I know that it is because I saw you do it.’ André expanded the definition of what was acceptable or even possible for a Queer, Black man from the Jim Crow South. ‘He was so many things he wasn't supposed to be,’ as Whoopi Goldberg put it. ‘And he just was.’ I like to think of his next of kin as all of the people who looked at André and saw possibility.” - Kate Novack.

Over the years, André Leon Talley appeared in a number of high-profile documentaries including Andrew Rossi’s The First Monday In May, which features Talley at the Opening Night Gala of The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute China: Through the Looking Glass exhibition; Ebs Burnough’s The Capote Tapes on Truman Capote; Susan Lacy’s Very Ralph on Ralph Lauren; Lorna Tucker’s Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist on Vivienne Westwood, and Michael Roberts’s Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards on Manolo Blahnik.

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