February 10, 2011

Feb 10 – André Leon Talley: Voguing His Way through the Fashion World

Andre Leon Talley

I always like to look my best, but am not necessarily a ‘fashionista’.  Unlike many of my friends, I also don’t watch America’s or Britain’s Next Top Model – even as a guilty pleasure. Indeed, I worry that the fashion industry often promotes the wrong aspirations for ‘being beautiful’. However, I am very pleased to see that Vogue Italia magazine has published a ‘sequel’ to its sold out, all-Black model issue (July 2008) with the luminous Black Allure spread this month.

photo from the Vogue Italia, Black Allure spread

The Fashion World has been dubbed as ‘racist’ by not using enough Black models, and advertisers [incorrectly, in my opinion] saying that, “Black models don’t sell fashion.” There are, of course, Black supermodels – past and present – such as Naomi Sims, Naomi Campbell, Alek Wek, Iman, Veronica Webb, Beverly Johnson, Tyra Banks and Jourdan Dunn.

Very few African-Americans wield power in the industry, though, with the notable exception of André Leon Talley, Vogue magazine's Editor-at-Large turned Contributing Editor, stylesetter, mentor and now judge on America’s Next Top Model.

Born in Durham, North Carolina, in the late 1940s, André was the grandson of a sharecropper and son of a taxi driver. He was raised by his grandmother, Bennie Francis Davis, who worked as a domestic cleaner in people’s homes and at Duke University. His grandmother had a tremendous influence on André’s life through her religious faith and by insisting that their home, although very modestly furnished, always be pristine and ‘glow’ with cleanliness, pride and love. The roof leaked, and laundry was done by hand in a big, iron cauldron, in the backyard; but the sheets and towels were ironed.  Mrs. Davis also insisted that they look their absolute best, with polished shoes, best suits and starched gloves, especially on Sundays when dressing for church. She was extremely stylish and believed in ‘simple luxuries’.

In junior high school, André’s French teacher was also a great influence on his later life.  He went on to acquire a Bachelor of Arts degree from North Carolina Central University and a Masters degree in French (with a career goal of becoming a French teacher), from Ivy League school, Brown University, where he had won a scholarship – writing his thesis on the French poet, Baudelaire.

Gravitating towards fashion, as he was growing up, André read his first copy of Vogue in the public library. At 6’ 7” and a self-proclaimed, ‘eccentric dresser’, he always stood out. In an Interview magazine article, he said, "When you're a teenager from a small town and you are different, you are victimized by people's criticism and the way they look at you. That was a problem in high school, so I tried to conform a bit; but mostly I just stayed to myself."

A young Andre

At Brown, André befriended many students, from the nearby, prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, who were very creative and had a flair for fashion. After acquiring his Masters, he moved to New York, with his first job being an assistant to Andy Warhol, for $50.00 per week.  He subsequently became a journalist for Women’s Wear Daily, where he admits that he encountered a lot of racism; but he persevered.

His next job was as the protégé of Diana Vreeland, the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue from 1962 to 1971.  Ms. Vreeland, had hired him to serve as her assistant in her role as director of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The next stops for André were to work for Interview, the New York Times, and other publications – finally at Vogue as Fashion News Director in 1983, working for the infamous, Anna Wintour. Five years later, he was named its Creative Director and firmly established himself as one of the most powerful people in Fashion. He was eventually promoted to Editor-at-Large.  André is a permanent fixture in the coveted front row of fashion shows, the world over. He has also advised countless celebrities on their fashion choices - even First Lady, Michelle Obama, to whom he introduced designer, Jason Wu, whose clothes are now some of Mrs. Obama’s favorites in her wardrobe.

Anna Wintour and Andre in the 'front row'

André has also managed to use his position to champion the work of many up-and-coming, African-American designers, including Stephen Burrows and Patrick Robinson; and he continues to remind designers of all races that they should add more Black models in their runway shows and advertising campaigns. As he was once quoted, "Sometimes, when I sit and watch a fashion show, I get totally wrapped up in what is in front of me, in the fantasy of it and what it might mean to the person who will be wearing the clothes. Then the show's over, and I realize there has not been one person of color on the runway!"

Andre and Tyra Banks

Accepting a stint on the fourteenth season (and now, two more seasons) of America’s Next Top Model, after Tyra asked him to join the team, André has said that, he’d like “to be remembered as someone who made a difference in the lives of young people—that I nurtured someone and taught them to pursue their dreams and their careers, to leave a legacy. You cannot live your life in the elitist world of fashion and not step out, or you’re disconnected. You have to realize that fashion is not the endgame.”  Click here to see a fun, short interview with André.

Sources: Time Out NY, Wikipedia, Wall Street Journal, Net Industries, CityFile NY, Google Images 

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