In life and death, André Leon Talley deserved better
OPINION: Vogue's former editor-at-large was a trailblazer in his field who changed the game for his successors. So why did the magazine he called home for decades seem to treat his death as an afterthought?
No matter how high you climb, it’s never easy being “first.” To be first in any arena is often synonymous with being the only; pioneering is more often than not a lonely pursuit. André Leon Talley knew this better than most, ascending from an awkward adolescence fantasizing about the elusive world of fashion and society he saw in the pages of Vogue to several prominent spots on its masthead over the course of three decades, most notably as the American Vogue’s editor-at-large from 1998 to 2013. As he wrote in the introduction to his bestselling 2020 memoir The Chiffon Trenches, in the process, Talley became “a fixture, a force, and a fierce advocate for fashion and style.”
“To my twelve-year-old self, raised in the segregated South, the idea of a Black man playing any kind of role in [the fashion] world seemed an impossibility,” he wrote. “To think of where I’ve come from, where we’ve come from, in my lifetime, and where we are today, is amazing.”
As Talley’s lifetime came to an unexpected end on Tuesday, those of us who’ve been privileged to follow in his now-legendary footsteps paid tribute, grateful to the man who made so many of our careers a possibility by the sheer dint of his presence. And yet, nearly 12 hours after news of his death broke, the editor’s decades-long media home remained conspicuously silent. Not a tweet nor tribute graced its social media pages, an oversight that did not go unnoticed by those expecting Vogue to be among the first to mourn one of its own.
To those familiar with Talley’s frosty relationship with onetime champion Anna Wintour, perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising. By Talley’s account, his relationship with American Vogue was one in which he was not only disparately paid but unceremoniously dismissed when the magazine’s famed editor-in-chief (and now Vogue’s global editorial director, among other titles) deemed him “too old, too overweight, [and] too uncool,” to remain one of the Vogue’s leading figures.
“There was a divide and then an earthquake,” Talley told People as his memoir debuted. “I felt, at a certain moment, she could not articulate it to me. Something happened,” he added, noting that the abrupt icing out left him with “huge emotional and psychic scars”—as well as in sudden exile from the journalistic home he’d arguably helped build.
In that context, while it may have been due to oversight, understaffing or simply shock, it was difficult not to interpret Vogue’s initial silence as a final snub of one of its most recognizable figures, Talley having been one of the only Black editors in its ranks for years. The magazine’s first acknowledgment of his death came in an obituary published late Wednesday morning, which lauded Talley’s incredible career and included a tribute from Wintour herself.
“The loss of André is felt by so many of us today: the designers he enthusiastically cheered on every season, and who loved him for it; the generations he inspired to work in the industry, seeing a figure who broke boundaries while never forgetting where he started from; those who knew fashion, and Vogue, simply because of him; and, not forgetting, the multitude of colleagues over the years who were consistently buoyed by every new discovery of André’s, which he would discuss loudly, and volubly—no one could make people more excited about the most seemingly insignificant fashion details than him. Even his stream of colorful faxes and emails were a highly anticipated event, something we all looked forward to,” said Anna Wintour. “Yet it’s the loss of André as my colleague and friend that I think of now; it’s immeasurable. He was magnificent and erudite and wickedly funny—mercurial, too. Like many decades-long relationships, there were complicated moments, but all I want to remember today, all I care about, is the brilliant and compassionate man who was a generous and loving friend to me and to my family for many, many years, and who we will all miss so much.”
It was the right thing for Wintour to say—however belatedly. But in the face of the loss of Talley’s titanic presence, why should we care? The legacy of the man so many of us will remember as “larger than life” is also larger than Vogue or Wintour’s long shadow—and has already been validated by the legions of Black protégées, fashion designers, journalists and admirers he will continue to inspire. “Without you, there would be no me,” British Vogue Editor-in-Chief Edward Enninful OBE—that imprint’s first Black editor-in-chief—aptly noted in a tribute posted early Wednesday morning. “Thank you for paving the way.”
“I think André’s legacy is multifold. He was arguably the highest-reaching Black person in fashion ever. He was able to live, breathe, and engage at the highest levels of fashion and probably the highest level of society anywhere in the world,” said author and veteran fashion journalist Harriette Cole in conversation with theGrio’s National Affairs Contributor Dr. Nii-Quartelai Quartey on Tuesday. “He was able to be everywhere, totally transcending every identity that he might have had. He was André Leon Talley and the doors opened for him. As a Black person, as a Black man to have that cachet is groundbreaking, was groundbreaking and will remain groundbreaking.
“And one of the things André did while working at Vogue for many years, slowly at first and later more boldly, was to mentor Black designers and Black talent. It had to be done quietly; this was not something that was a mandate from Vogue magazine,” Cole, a longtime friend of Talley’s, further explained. “So while it took a long time for people to know that André Leon Talley paid any attention to Black folks, quite frankly, he did. He did it behind the scenes and used his power, gravitas, and connections back to help folks in the Black community in ways that only he could.
“He would want to be remembered as someone who did his very best to represent the story of fashion and lifestyle and fantasy,” she later mused, adding: “But in the end, he was someone who, like all of us, wanted to be loved—and probably didn’t realize how beloved he was.”
As we now count Talley among the beloved ancestors, his words should be the ones that resonate the most.
“I went through my life on the strength of hope, and the memory of my ancestors, and the people who showed me unconditional love,” he wrote, adding: “I bow down to no one and find my way through the memory of what has been good in this life…”
Maiysha Kai is a columnist and Lifestyle Editor for theGrio, covering all things Black and beautiful. Her work is informed by two decades’ experience in the fashion and entertainment industries, a love of great books and aesthetics, and the indomitable brilliance of Black culture.