The fashion world says goodbye to André Leon Talley in an emotional celebration of his life
OPINION: The funeral for the fashion icon, who died in January, was attended by luminaries who came to honor a man who was one of the central voices in the fashion community.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
The large, ornate Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem was filled with over 100 white flowers and over 200 exquisitely dressed people when the supermodel Naomi Campbell entered and began strutting down the aisle toward a seat saved for her in the front pew.
Campbell is tall and stunningly gorgeous and luminescent in a large white fur with a white hat hanging sideways on her head as her long, dark hair hung straight down. As she walked toward her seat, the famous Dr. Rev. Calvin Butts, who is as smooth as any pastor God ever made, was in the pulpit preaching, but at the sight of Campbell, he stopped, losing his tongue for a brief moment. Later he said to Campbell, “I was quoting Scripture and saw you coming down the aisle and almost forgot the Bible!”
This was the sort of collision that marked the life of fashion legend André Leon Talley—the Abyssinian was his favorite church, and Campbell was one of his closest friends. Talley passed away in January (complications from COVID), and on this late April Friday, the crowd that came together to remember him included many fashion world luminaries because Talley was, for decades, one of the central voices in the fashion community.
The legendary designer Marc Jacobs told the church, “His approval was deeply important to me.” Many of the most powerful creatives in fashion would have said the same thing because Talley’s exquisite taste, encyclopedic fashion knowledge and enthusiasm about fashion made him so deeply respected. People looked at this man, the grandson of a domestic worker, like he was royalty precisely because he carried himself like he was. His giant presence, his regal demeanor, his perfect diction, his effervescent brilliance, and his sky-high level of self-esteem all made him seem like a fun king.
Diane von Furstenberg, the legendary fashion designer, told the church that Talley sometimes told people he was a visiting African dignitary, and it makes perfect sense why anyone would buy that immediately. It’s so inspiring that the boy who grew up in North Carolina dreaming of joining the fashion world became such an important part of it as a friend and an adviser to many important designers and editors.
The service reflected a man who was a fashion legend. Jacobs also told the crowd, “The allure of André was truly metaphysical. He was my high priest of fashion.” Jacobs recalled traveling to Russia with Talley and Campbell. Jacobs said, to laughs, that Talley was detained at the airport in Moscow because “He was following Naomi’s advice that a visa was not required.” Oh boy. “He glamorously dwarfed the fiberglass chair they made him sit in, and he was dripping in a Louis Vuitton mink as the officer said to him, ‘Nyet!’” Of course, eventually, they all got in and had big fun before getting back on a private jet to Paris. Did the bacchanal ever stop?
After Jacobs’ turn on the microphone came Anna Wintour, the legendary editor-in-chief of Vogue and one of Talley’s longtime bosses. Wintour’s voice wavered as she spoke, her throat heavy at the moment of goodbye. “It seemed to me he was better connected than the queen,” she said. “And he was self-created.” She added, “He was not the life of the party, he was life itself. He changed my life in ways I can’t count.”
Late in the service, Campbell stepped to the mic, seemingly deeply affected by it all. “He pushed me beyond boundaries I never thought I could pass,” she said. “André gave me the courage…” She stopped, breaking down a bit, pausing to find her words. The church shouted back, “Take your time!” (I love the Black church.) Campbell continued, “André gave me the courage so many times to pick up the phone and ask for what I wanted.” Talley’s fashion advice to Campbell, and everyone, was always to be as fabulous as possible. “If we thought it was over the top, then it was right,” she said. “Hence the way I’m dressed today.” She concluded: “André lit up rooms and elevated every moment to new heights and that will endure longer than the time he spent on this Earth…Just as you lit up every room on this Earth, I know you are lighting up heaven.”
I knew Talley well. We did several interviews and had dinners together. It was always a joy to be around him, to feel his warmth, to hear his stories, to laugh at his jokes. He loved to hold court, and he was good at it. He would flash his massive smile and shift from wild narratives to gossip to the history of fashion. I don’t care about fashion like the true believers do, but he made the discussion of fashion spellbinding. It was easy to fall into his trance and listen to him wax poetic on his favorite subject.
When he spoke of the people he revered most, he said their names with a particular articulation and oomph and volume and timbre. He had a way of emphasizing every syllable to give them all the respect he could muster. To hear him say Meghan Markle or Oscar de la Renta or Diana Vreeland or Michelle Obama was to know he loved them. Talley was full of joie de vivre and the sense that we must snatch every possible bit of joy out of every day.
Because of all that, I felt his death in my bones and knew there was a void in the world without him. I wanted a funeral to help me say goodbye. It’s been years since I attended a funeral for anyone, and this beautiful service reminded me why we need funerals—it felt good to be around a large group of people who loved the deceased. It felt necessary to hear people proclaim that his life was important and that he would not be forgotten. It’s helpful to mourn in a group and to reconnect with people.
We need funerals so that we know that our loved ones will not be forgotten after they die. We also need funerals to know that we will not be forgotten after we die. I have often wondered whether funerals are really for the dead or the living. After Talley’s service, I thought they were surely for the living. One of the last things Rev. Butts said in the service was, “I will see you in heaven,” and that’s a big part of what funerals provide—a sense that even though the person is not here, they are, in some sense, still alive. They’re alive somewhere else. The living can handle death a little better when we believe it’s not really goodbye. We came together to say André Leon Talley was an incredible person, and he will never be forgotten, and also to say goodbye, my friend, for now.
Touré hosts the podcast “Touré Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.
TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku, and Android TV. Please download theGrio mobile apps today!