Black Fashion Leaders Reflect on André Leon Talley's Legacy

Robin Givhan, Victor Qunnuell Vaughns Jr. and Justin Fenner are among those paying tribute to Talley, who changed the fashion industry forever.
André Leon Talley
André Leon Talley
Illustration: HuffPost; Photo: Getty Images

On Jan. 18, the world lost a titan, a pioneer, a giant. Fashion journalist, creative trailblazer and former Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley died at age 73 after a heart attack. Known for his billowing caftans and capes, and his larger-than-life persona, Talley toiled through the chiffon trenches (for which he aptly named his memoir), paving the way for generations of Black creatives, designers and writers.

Hailing from Durham, North Carolina, Talley was raised by his grandmother — his first muse — who was a maid on Duke University’s West Campus. Despite the rocks hurled at him by Duke students or the pervasive racial violence of the Jim Crow South, Talley defied the odds, spreading his wings from the halls of North Carolina Central University to the runways of Paris and the magazine empires of New York.

In 1975, Talley became the Paris bureau chief of Women’s Wear Daily. In the early 1980s, he served as the New York City-based editor of Ebony magazine, ascending to a role that would “make my entire church family and all my aunts and cousins proud,” he wrote in “The Chiffon Trenches.” From 1983 to 2013, Talley poured his heart and soul into Vogue, an institution he loved, although it didn’t always love him back, as he noted in his memoir. He was the first Black creative director at Vogue, and to this day is the highest-ranking Black person to have been listed on the Vogue U.S. masthead.

André Leon Talley and Marina Schiano circa 1980 in New York City.
André Leon Talley and Marina Schiano circa 1980 in New York City.
Images Press/Getty Images

No matter how high he flew, he invoked the style of his community, of Black churchgoers in Durham, as a vehicle to propel him, define his remarkable taste, and compel the industry to evolve.

“I never separated from my Blackness,” he told Essence magazine in a 2020 interview. “My Blackness is what made me.”

His death has left an irreplaceable vacancy in the industry, but a legacy for us to look back on and learn from.

From Pulitzer Prize-winner Robin Givhan to Black Fashion Fair founder Antoine Gregory, HuffPost asked several Black fashion leaders to discuss what Talley meant to them personally. His Blackness has allowed so many of us to say, “Because of Talley, I can.”

Robin Givhan, Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion editor, author and senior critic-at-large at The Washington Post

He made it very clear that it’s impossible, almost dangerous to attempt to put people into a box. That what you may presume them to be or presume them to know will continually surprise you if you give them an opportunity. I think that at the time that André first entered the fashion world, there were a lot of preconceptions about what to expect from this tall, lanky Black guy from the South. I think he defied all those expectations.

Because of his uniqueness, his point of view was rare. He brought his background as a Southerner who had gone to undergrad at a historically Black college, but then had a master’s from Brown University, had this incredible sweeping knowledge of European history and French, and he looked at fashion through a really layered lens that brought that informality. It brought the Black church, it brought the dignity of his grandmother, it brought the traditions of Europe, and it brought New York — his adopted home — and brought the idea of American sportswear. He also was able to expand the idea of beauty and nobility in the broader sense, not in the aristocratic sense. I was always fascinated that he was able to get excited about some esoteric corner of French history, and he could be equally as excited about some young person that he had met who he had decided had impeccable manners.

He was very tough and he was very honest. He had no patience for people who felt that they were owed something or felt that certain jobs were beneath them. He was very much about getting your foot in the door, doing the grunt work and being prepared. That was particularly striking. I would always joke that he could be incredibly prickly, imperious and grand, but when he decided that he admired your work or your tenacity, he opened the gates — the doors to his generosity — and he could really just flood the dome with it.

So many people talk about André’s larger-than-life personality and his enormous presence on the fashion scene. But, one of the things that I found most compelling about him was a real sort of humanity and kindness, and the way that he sort of dealt with his own flaws, which I think was part of what drew people to him and what created for him some very enduring friendships.

André Leon Talley and Anna Wintour attend Diane von Furstenberg Fall 2006 Fashion Show Front Row at The Tent at Bryant Park on Feb. 5, 2006, in New York.
André Leon Talley and Anna Wintour attend Diane von Furstenberg Fall 2006 Fashion Show Front Row at The Tent at Bryant Park on Feb. 5, 2006, in New York.
Patrick McMullan/Getty Images

Victor Qunnuell Vaughns Jr., style editor at Ebony Media

André walked so that many of us could run. Beginning his career with an unpaid apprenticeship like many of us did, upon completing the job his career took off. Oftentimes we forget that our fashion heroes have similar starting-out stories to us. André’s legacy is a testimony that you don’t have to come from a rich family with a prestigious last name. Hard work and dedication will see you to your dream job.

Shelton Boyd-Griffith, fashion and culture writer

Like many other Black fashion creatives and editors in the industry, I’m indebted to André for breaking through the glass ceiling — and making space for me to even dare to dream to work in fashion. I got my first Vogue at 11, and seeing him, this Black man that looked just like me, and reading his column educated me and provided a blueprint for what was possible. André really lived his life full of grandeur and surrounded by beauty, and that’s something I try to carry with me in everything I do. The way he narrated fashion, culturally critiqued the zeitgeist, and gave prose to the way we look at and engage with clothes, is a special talent that we’ll sadly never see again.

Shelby Ivey Christie, fashion and costume historian

As a fellow North Carolinian, as an HBCU graduate, as a Black person who worked at Vogue, I have the utmost respect for André Leon Talley. It’s not hyperbolic to say that anyone who is Black and works in fashion in some part is there because of things that André Leon Talley did, whether they’re obvious to us, unseen by us or seen by us. That’s the path that he definitely forged. It was just important to see a figure like him. Even just recently, I feel like this is the most people I’ve seen in the industry who didn’t go to a New York arts school. Traditionally, that’s the track. He did not go to design school; he didn’t even go to school for fashion.

So, seeing someone graduate from an HBCU, from North Carolina, who’s Black, who took up such a huge space and has such a huge impact, was pivotal for me as a kid. I felt like if he can do it, I can do it. For him to do that in the ’60s and ’70s, it has to be respected. His knowledge about history and fashion was just so broad and expansive, and of course, I have a lot of respect and love for that as a historian. He knew a lot of it because he was there when it happened. He talked to Oscar de la Renta directly, so he knows Oscar de la Renta went to Balenciaga and picked up pins off the floor of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s atelier just to get experience. As a historian, that’s just amazing to me that he got to live a lot of that history.

His writing is beautiful, his language is so expansive, and he added so much color and personality to fashion reporting; before that, it could be very stiff and matter-of-fact, but he came in and just made it so colorful, enjoyable and accessible. I think he did a lot of that to make it accessible to where his demographic could follow and understand. He was still elevating the storytelling, but doing it in a way that was interesting to us. It’s going to leave a huge, huge gap. I wish the industry had treated him much better. He deserved much, much better.

André Leon Talley attends the Blue Jacket Fashion Show to benefit the Prostate Cancer Foundation on Feb. 5, 2020, in New York City.
André Leon Talley attends the Blue Jacket Fashion Show to benefit the Prostate Cancer Foundation on Feb. 5, 2020, in New York City.
Craig Barritt/Getty Images

Antoine Gregory, fashion consultant, stylist and founder of Black Fashion Fair

André Leon Talley was a larger-than-life icon. He was my fashion icon. For so long he was the only point of reference I had. To be Black, to be ostentatious, to be in fashion. I would not exist in the way that I do had it not been for his contributions to an industry that rarely sees us.

Scarlett Newman, fashion writer

When I was younger and had aspirations of becoming a fashion journalist, André Leon Talley was my North Star. Once my mother became hip to these dreams I had, she made sure that I knew who André was. At the time, as far as I knew, there were no Black people that held such aspirational titles at fashion magazines, at fashion houses, etc. I was so impressed by the way he communicated about clothes with such dignity and authority, and beyond those things, he made it fun and made it seem like it was one of God’s greatest creative contributions. I don’t think that Black fashion journalists would exist in the way that we do today, with such autonomy over our various points of view, if it weren’t for André laying that path. We are not restricted to the Black fashion canon, which means we are increasingly being tapped for our broad perspectives on all corners of the industry. His legacy means that I could be here talking with you today, a poor Black girl from North Carolina with absolutely no connections to the industry, writing for the biggest fashion magazines in the world.

Greg Emmanuel, style, beauty and culture journalist

Discovering André Leon Talley at a young age opened a portal of new, exciting possibilities. His way of being and presence in the fashion industry proved that there was space for young professionals like myself. It validated that the luxury sector of the industry isn’t reserved just for those that come from privileged backgrounds, but that acquiring knowledge and genuine skill will lead you to an entry point. André’s legacy will always remind me how curiosity, a thirst for knowledge, an urge to make genuine, positive impact and determination makes your value undeniable.

André Leon Talley speaks during 'The Gospel According to Andre' Q&A during the 21st SCAD Savannah Film Festival on Nov. 2, 2018, in Savannah, Georgia.
André Leon Talley speaks during 'The Gospel According to Andre' Q&A during the 21st SCAD Savannah Film Festival on Nov. 2, 2018, in Savannah, Georgia.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Justin Fenner, senior editor at Robb Report

I only had the privilege of meeting André Leon Talley once, and briefly, at an event he hosted in honor of Valentino’s entertaining book “Valentino: At the Emperor’s Table.” The book is about keeping things healthy yet still luxurious at the dinner table. What they say about André’s sparkling wit and effortless charm is true: He found a devilishly funny way to tell the assembled reporters and editors, most of us in our 20s and 30s, that our bodies, like his and Mr. Garavani’s, would one day no longer abide sugar or red meat, and that we probably wouldn’t fully appreciate the book until then.

But to me that epitomizes what we’ve heard about André in the weeks since his passing. His grand aphorisms and pronouncements — to say nothing of his caftans — made him seem so far away from the surface of the Earth, but he really could connect with anybody. André’s legacy as a forthright Black man in an industry dominated by people who didn’t look like him will always be important, especially to me and other fashion and lifestyle journalists of color. I don’t know that I’d be here now if it weren’t for his visibility. But equally important is the example he set for us all: He found a way to be successful because of his extravagant and outlandish personality, not in spite of it. He was a true original, and in an era when so many are being influenced to wear, eat, think, say and do the same stuff, that’s an invaluable lesson.