One of the least mentioned aspects of the death of André Leon Talley has been the role that race played during his life. But he was very vocal about the intersection of racism and the fashion world in the years leading up to his death.
The fashion icon and former creative director and editor at large of the famed Vogue magazine — both firsts for a Black man — died on Tuesday at the age of 73 and there has been an outpouring of condolences from across the fashion world and beyond. But many of those expressions of sympathy have been largely lacking any recognition of Talley’s Blackness and the intersection of race with the fashion industry, which is notoriously exclusionary and elitist when it comes to anybody who isn’t white.
Talley’s story isn’t complete without discussing those very real factors, and he made sure they were included in his memoirs and celebrated biopic. But the man who once worked as Andy Warhol’s assistant has also addressed his experiences colliding with the intersection of race and fashion on multiple other occasions, underscoring how the business sector in which he worked for decades was far from exempt from the anti-Black hatred that permeates the U.S. and world at large.
Keep reading to find Talley’s thoughts on race during his lifetime, in his own words.
To be sure, the topic of race was all but unavoidable for the Durham, North Carolina, native who grew up in the Jim Crow south, attended a segregated high school and graduated from North Carolina Central University, a historically Black college, before going on to achieve great success in the fashion world following grad school at Brown University.
As the New York Times noted in its obituary, Talley’s thesis at Brown before graduating with a master’s degree in French literature was about how Black women influenced France’s greatest writers and artists. He would go on to keep that same energy at Vogue when he chose Black supermodel Naomi Campbell to be depicted as Scarlett O’Hara for a “Gone With the Wind”-esque photoshoot “long before fashion woke up to its own racism.”
Talley achieved unrivaled levels of success both in spite of and because of his Blackness, he suggested in “The Chiffon Trenches,” his memoir published in 2020.
“To my 12-year-old self, raised in the segregated South, the idea of a Black man playing any kind of role in this world seemed an impossibility,” Talley wrote. “To think of where I’ve come from, where we’ve come from, in my lifetime, and where we are today, is amazing. And, yet, of course, we still have so far to go.”
He also suggested he had been a bit naive when it came to the role race played in his career. Talley wrote that he ultimately came to the conclusion that he needed to remove “the blinders I had to keep on in order to survive.”
Talley also said in a documentary about his life said he took a more muted approach to express his Blackness in the fashion industry.
“[Y]ou don’t get up and say, ‘look, I’m Black and I’m proud,’ you just do it and it impacts the culture,” Talley proclaimed in “The Gospel According to André,” which was released in 2018.
One of those ways was to devote attention to Black designers on the hallowed pages of Vogue.
In 2010, Talley was a guest as then-upstart designer LaQuan Smith’s Fashion Week show in New York City.
“I’m here to embrace an African American designer for his debut, because we need that diversity in the fashion world,” Talley told the New York Daily News at the time.
Talley became even more outspoken about race in recent years.
During an interview on MSNBC with the Rev. Al Sharpton in 2020, Talley said unequivocally, “Blackness is always a threat.”
Addressing racism in the fashion industry, Talley went on to tell Sharpton that “there is systemic racism in every walk of life,” pointing to the times he said fashion giants like Yves St. Laurent were “going behind my back and calling me ‘Queen Kong,'” a racist allusion to his sexuality.
“I have experienced racism all my life as any Black man does,” Talley said before adding, “it shows that even in the glamorous world of fashion, there is racism.”
As further proof of his claims, Talley shared an anecdote about the time Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour — with whom he worked side by side for decades — did not consult him about featuring Oprah Winfrey on the magazine’s cover.
“She never included me in the conversations,” Talley said of Wintour’s plans for putting Oprah on Vogue’s cover. He said he only learned of it when the issue was published. For perspective, a Black woman has been featured on Vogue’s cover just a few dozen times in the magazine’s 130-year history.
Talley also expressed exasperation in recent years that fashion designers were still being categorized by race instead of their ability.
“In 2016, I think we would have moved beyond being considered a ‘Black designer,” Talley said at the start of a panel discussion he moderated with designers Mimi Plange and Tracy Reese to address the role race played in their careers.
The following year, while being interviewed by fashion critic Robin Givhan of the Washington Post, Talley said he had been “naive” about the concept of racism as a young man until he was physically attacked in the 1960s by students at Duke University while he was walking to buy fashion magazines, including Vogue.
“I didn’t even notice I was walking in the white part of town,” he recalled.
In 2018, Talley was a bit more forthcoming about race with Givhan, who featured him in a piece focused on the aforementioned “Gospel According To André” documentary.
“Race does define me,” Talley told Givhan in the article. “It feels more relevant now to bring it to the forefront.”
He said Wintour would use him to conduct a racial litmus test about whether certain depictions of Black people in Vogue “would offend anyone.”
During an interview with Brown University’s student newspaper in 2020, Talley described his experience with race on a spring break trip to France. He said the French had a welcoming “négritude” toward Black people, a far cry from his experience in the U.S.
“That was France with racism, racial profiling … They understood way before America how to treat Blacks with equality,” Talley said. “Take it to the modern moment, Black models are often advised to go to Paris — to Europe — (and) be an apprentice … and you can come back and be a big star in New York.”
Addressing his public falling out with Wintour, he said he was surprised to see Vogue’s parent company showing more attention to matters dealing with race.
“Suddenly there is negritude all over Condé Nast,” Talley said at the time before suggesting he did not accept Wintour’s apology for the racist culture at Vogue.
“As I’ve said — as I’ve been quoted — she is a white woman of privilege, and she will never let anything get in the way of her white privilege,” Talley said about Wintour.
Without mentioning Wintour by name, Talley addressed the glaring lack of diversity in fashion journalism during an interview in 2014.
“How many African-American or any diverse ethnic individuals do you have at the heads of any of the high niche magazines or high niche design brands? You can count them on one finger,” Talley told HuffPost at the time. “How many people are there that have broken the glass ceiling? There are very, very few.”
He said that while he was accepted by the fashion world, it didn’t completely accept him. He said that was an indication that global attitudes about race were stagnant and archaic.
“One of the reasons that I think the world has not changed, being a Black man, is that people try to look at me without color, but color is always there,” Talley added.
He expounded by pointing to Black designers, in particular.
“Can you name a black designer that you know who has a huge brand?” Talley asked before answering his own question: “No. There is not one.”