If there is one thing I miss in these circumscribed times it is the glossy magazine. Heavy, thick, and sheeny, featuring outré fashion and witty writing, filled with stuff that didn’t matter very much. They whispered of leisure time and dozing holidays on the sofa, of abandon and indulgence. Digital editions and Instagram bites just aren’t the same.
Long before the pandemic closed borders and decimated industries, the magazine world was in shreds. The high-end gravure presses worldwide were steadily falling silent, as more and more publications went online, or worse, were shuttered forever. And so André Leon Talley’s glittering memoir The Chiffon Trenches (HarperCollins) is not only the chronicle of a glamorous life, but also a memorial to a vanishing world. It is also a plaintive cri de coeur of a lonely, forsaken man.
For some 50 years Talley had a front-row seat, literally and figuratively, in the world of high fashion. He was born in Durham, North Carolina, in the segregationist Jim-Crow South, and was raised by his grandmother, a cleaner on the Duke University campus. A singular boy, tall and skinny, he liked to lose himself in the pages of Vogue in the town library, dreaming of a world in which “bad things never happened” and learning the names of high-society women like a rosary. Talley won a scholarship to the Ivy League Brown University where he obtained a master’s degree in French studies and hoped for nothing more than to become a teacher. Through the father of a friend, however, he was introduced to the legendary Diana Vreeland, the former editor of Vogue, who introduced him to Andy Warhol, who then gave him a job as a receptionist at his Interview magazine. And so “ALT” as he was sometimes known, was launched.
Cut from his crappy room at the YMCA in New York in the early ’70s to yachts, first-class cabins, and gilded hotel suites with his Louis Vuitton luggage piled up high. He vaults from magazine to magazine, from New York to Paris and back again, until he reaches the apex of the febrile fashion world, American Vogue. Its editor-in-chief Anna Wintour named him the creative director in 1988 and Talley settled in as uber-arbiter of style, courtier to models and designers and grand dames like Lee Radziwill and Anne Bass. He flew on a Concorde to Florence and danced with Diana Ross at Studio 54. Karl Lagerfeld flung dozens of exquisite shirts at him in a mad, Gatsby-esque moment, and gave him $50,000 for his 50th birthday. He held Paloma Picasso’s handbag while she danced, and Wintour’s bouquet at her first wedding.
At shows he was a big, loud, billowing presence and, shockingly, the only black man in fashion journalism until Edward Enninful was named editor of British Vogue in 2017. He was hurt by the inherent racism of the fashion sphere: one acquaintance called him “Queen Kong”; another accused him of sleeping with designers like “a big black buck”.
If only they had known that Talley was not sleeping with anyone. He reveals in this book that he was abused repeatedly as an adolescent and is incapable of intimacy with anyone. He believes this is at the root of his binge-eating disorder. For as Talley grew in influence, so he grew physically, too. He is enormous.
Wintour staged several interventions to get him to lose weight, but nothing lasted. Designers just made him vast kaftans and coats like marquees.
Gradually, his diary emptied. Lagerfeld cut him off some time before he died with no explanation, and several years ago Wintour did too. He was no longer summoned to oversee her couture fittings and he lost his place as the only interviewer on the Met Gala red carpet to a young YouTube star with millions of followers. “But surely she didn’t know what a martingale back is to a Balenciaga one-seamed coat,” he writes, acidly.
Talley has some choice words about Wintour who, he says, is “incapable of human kindness” and who has “dashed so many on a frayed and tattered heap during her powerful rule”. The devil really does wear Prada, it seems. “I had suddenly become too old, too overweight, and too uncool, I imagined, for Anna Wintour,” he writes.
His pain at his exile is palpable, and he is nostalgic for the glory days of Vogue, when staffers billed their dry cleaning and chauffeur services to the magazine, stayed at the Ritz in Paris for the collections, and wore any couture they wanted. Talley is now 71 and the book feels like his last hurrah as he sits alone in his suburban house with rooms full of clothes and the Vuitton suitcases that are rarely used anymore because, he sighs, “There’s no one at the airports to carry them.”
• From the October issue of Wanted 2020.