By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
“The Gospel According to André” has been described as “the most essential fashion documentary since “Bill Cunningham New York.” I have also seen the latter documentary, which was an amazing tribute to the New York Times photographer who not only was a noted fashion photographer who took photos of celebs and those making inroads in the world of fashion, but he also took beautiful photos of ordinary folks on the streets of New York who made fashion statements on their own.
This all-encompassing portrait of André Leon Talley – formidable potentate in the world of style, right-hand-man to Vogue’s Anna Wintour, and longtime protégé of the legendary editor Diana Vreeland – details his struggle as a gay, Black man scaling the heights in the elite and once all-white sub-culture of international fashion.
A flamboyant presence and expansive raconteur, Talley, who was raised by his grandmother in Durham, North Carolina, credits her sense of propriety and the high style of Southern Black church-goers in their Sunday best as the influences that profoundly shaped his world view. Earning an advanced degree in French literature at Brown, he got his foot in the door in New York by answering phones at Warhol’s Interviewmagazine and volunteering for Vreeland’s Costume Institute at the Met. If he hadn’t attended Brown, Talley says that he would probably “still be in Durham, going to church in the Jim Crow South.”
As his eye for style made him indispensable, Talley used his power to advocate for Black models and designers, as testified by the film’s interviews with Naomi Campbell, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Tom Ford, Diana Ross, Karl Lagerfeld, Whoopi Goldberg, and more.
Talley’s life story, which is spilled out into about 90 minutes of a magnificent documentary of his life, is simply breathtaking—which sort of echoes some of the designs and moments in fashion history upon which Talley reported during his remarkable career at Vogue.
His early life in Durham being raised by his grandmother, who worked as a domestic cleaning the men’s dorms at Duke University, was not one of poverty, as Talley shares, but he lived in a respectable, clean home.
Talley is a luminous man of stature who, in my opinion, made an impression whenever he walked into a room, whether he was wearing blue jeans—which this documentary didn’t show—or in one of his custom capes and caftans, with which he became in love after watching Barbra Streisand in “Second Hand Rose.” He had an “appreciation for the dramatic moment” and gravitated to many things French, and he finally landed in Paris in the mid-70s. In 1974, he was in New York City assisting Vreeland, whom he impressed and who taught him “the language of clothes.” Talley credits his success in the fashion world to Vreeland and his grandmother, and he grew emotional toward the end of the documentary when he shared that some in the fashion world had questioned whether his meteoritic rise in that community was due to the fact that he had had sexual liaisons with designers. He was tearful while sharing this notion that people thought of him as a “Black buck” and talked about “ugly, dirty” comments that were lobbed his way, even being called “Queen Kong.”
While some in the documentary said that Talley never talked race during his career, even though he advocated for Black models such as Naomi Sims and did a wonderful spread called “Scarlett in the Hood” for Vanity Fair, I thought that he had held things in for a long time and this moment may have been a reflection or purging of his disgust and disappointment about folks not valuing his wealth of knowledge about all things prim and proper and fashion!
I had read an article about Talley where he said that during the holidays he often felt sad, because he didn’t have a life partner. In “The Gospel According to André,” Talley speaks of never having been in love, because his career kept him busy. He loved “the world of Paris, the world of fashion, and the love of the runway.”
No matter what acclaim Talley acquired, he never lost his love and affection for his grandmother and for his upbringing in the South. Toward the end of the documentary, Talley goes back home and visits his home church and the house that he purchased for his grandmother, Bennie Francis Davis, before she passed away. The living room was fabulously decorated in red with some tributes to Vreeland—a sort of meshing the worlds of the two women who had a profound effect on this “bombastic personality,” according to Wintour. “The Gospel According to André” is playing until July 26 at the Gene Siskel Film Center. For more information, visit http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/accordingtoandre.