André Leon Talley Shares an Intimate and Nostalgic Tale From Inside the Fashion Industry

André Leon Talley Shares an Intimate and Nostalgic Tale From Inside the Fashion Industry

André Leon Talley Shares an Intimate and Nostalgic Tale From Inside the Fashion Industry

The legendary fashion editor talks race, friendships and weight in his book The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir.

The legendary fashion editor talks race, friendships and weight in his book The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir.

Text: Valerie Stepanova

André Leon Talley has confessed, on numerous occasions, that he regrets not writing Yves Saint Laurent’s definitive biography back in the 1980s. Pierre Bergé, the co-founder of the fashion house and Yves’ business partner, has once tasked Talley with putting the life of the extraordinary designer down on paper. Unfortunately, the deal fell through: due to his demanding professional and social schedule back when he worked full-time for the American Vogue, Talley has simply failed to make time for the project. Laurence Benaïm later wrote and published the book, which Talley said he recommends nevertheless.

But decades later, the legendary fashion journalist decided to write and publish a book of his own — The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir.  

Looking back and reflecting on what he calls the “golden age” of fashion journalism, Talley spills the tea on the members of the high fashion society of the era. Diana Vreeland, Karl Lagerfeld, Anna Wintour, Yves Saint Laurent, Lee Radziwill, Naomi Campbell… The list goes on. This is a journey of a very tall, highly educated man who thought he would grow to become a French teacher but somehow found himself immersed in the world of fashion — falling in and out of favor with the industry players, confessing and embracing his love for comfort foods and describing iconic outfits in a way only a seasoned fashion editor could. It’s a nostalgic chronicle of his entire life, with French words and phrases sprinkled throughout, courtesy of his master’s degree from Brown.

The memoir traces Talley's career path as he soldiered on through “the chiffon trenches.” From working at Andy Warhol’s Factory and volunteering at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to then writing for WWD and W and ultimately becoming the editor-at-large at US Vogue, he marched on through the industry as a black man — paving the path for the future generations of people who would go on to take positions of power in the fashion industry around the world (take Edward Enninful of the British Vogue.) The subject of race and racism keeps reappearing as one of the major themes throughout this book; other persisting elements are his camaraderie with Karl and friendship with Anna, which felt like an on-and-off kind of situation. Both relationships have come to a not very amicable ending, but Talley made it was clear that he personally holds nothing against either of them. It was good a good time while it lasted.  

Though there is a lot of talk around the relationship between Anna and André being revealed in this memoir. While this is true to some extent, it is not what the book is all about. In fact, it reveals the deep friendship André has had with Karl to an equal extent, if not more — as André has gotten to know Karl a lot earlier than Anna. That Talley-Lagerfeld tandem also felt a lot more personal than professional. That being said, there is a whole chapter in The Chiffon Trenches that is dedicated to André’s frustration with how he figuratively got “thrown to the curb” before the Met Gala of 2018.

“My hope is that she will find a way to apologize before I die, or if I linger on incapacitated before I pass, she will show up at my bedside, with an extended hand clasped into mine, and say, ‘I love you. You have no idea how much you have meant to me,’” he writes. “Not a day goes by when I do not think of Anna Wintour.”

He didn’t exactly feel marginalized in the world of fashion; after all, the book largely consists of the first-person accounts of all the biggest shows, the most fashionable soirées, and the most exclusive parties one could get into back in the day. The Ivy League education and his expertise in fashion, art, and literature, as well as French — which he spoke “meticulously” — made him a full-fledged member of this high society. “I had a strong opinion and I looked people in the eye,” he recalls. “I didn’t turn away. I may have been insecure but I was never shy.” 

But he was always acutely aware of what a unique position he occupied as a person of color in these highly elite circles — being referred to as “Queen Kong” behind his back was one of the first indications of that; many others have followed. “I didn’t have time back then to contemplate my plight as a black man making it in the world,” Talley writes. “Instead, I internalized and buried the pain deep within myself, as black men and women have been forced to do time and time again.”

Professional relationships are not exclusively in the center of this story — personal ones hold an equal place, if not more important one. Talley shares the warm, affectionate memories of his grandmother (whom he refers to as Mama), along with glimpses of a difficult relationship with his mother and the continual sexual abuse he experienced in his childhood years. He was unable to share what happened to him with anyone. He was too ashamed.

“I feared that telling my father, a wonderful man who loved me, would be wrong, and that I would possibly be blamed and sent away to some sort of sanatorium as a result. Or I would be brought before the church deacons and censured, which equaled exile,” he writes. “I felt I had no choice. I kept it all to myself.”

Yes, there are mentions of the cold-blooded Anna Wintour (“she maintains her sangfroid at all times”) who has discarded Talley from Vogue and her life when she felt he was no longer needed. Yes, his fashion industry friends reminded him that “his weight as out of control” — and went as far as arranging to send him to a rehabilitation center in his hometown of Durham, North Caroline. Though Talley struggled to keep his dignity, he later took up the offer because he realized he could not fix his dietary problems on his own. (Vogue paid for the entire program.) 

Misunderstood and under-appreciated by his friends and colleagues at times, he had his moments of glory in those highly sophisticated fashion and art circles. And he made the most of it all — still somewhat in there, still a contributing editor on Vogue’s masthead.


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