André Leon Talley, the talented and sometimes enigmatic fashion editor who broke his industry’s glass ceiling with his meteoric rise from the segregated South to the upper echelons of Parisian couture, died Tuesday, Jan. 18 in White Plains, N.Y at the age of 73.
His death followed several health challenges according to his friend Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation.
“André Leon Talley was a singular force in an industry that he had to fight to be recognized in,” said Walker, describing him as a “creative genius” and noting his ability to shape a persona for himself out of “a deep academic understanding of fashion and design.”
Talley, who towered over many of his colleagues at 6 feet 6 inches tall, also dominated most rooms in which he entered because of his being an enigma: the only Black editor in an industry known for its elitist and white membership.
His personal style of dress would also help to define Talley who often adorned himself in capes, furs, gloves and elaborate headpieces.
He worked his way to the top with jobs that included: receptionist at Interview magazine under Andy Warhol; Paris bureau chief of Women’s Wear Daily under John Fairchild; and creative director and editor at large of Vogue under Anna Wintour.
Most recently, he served as a judge on “America’s Next Top Model and counted former first lady Michelle Obama, top designer Oscar de la Renta and supermodel Naomi Campbell as close friends.
Talley, known for his commitment to his faith, could often be seen in the pews at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, accompanied by a cavalcade of his celebrity pals.
Openly gay and rarely able to secure romantic relationships due to his commitment to his work, he died without survivors.
Born Oct. 16, 1948, in Washington to Alma and William Carroll Talley, he would be raised from the age of two months old by his grandmother, Bennie Frances Davis in Durham, N.C., who worked as a maid at the men’s campus of Duke University. He majored in French studies at North Carolina Central University and received a master’s from Brown University.
One reporter suggested that for Talley, fashion served as both an inspiration and a disguise – his form of camouflage against the racist barbs he often experienced including being derogatively referred to as “Queen Kong.”
In his memoirs, he said it eventually dawned on him how he had overcome life’s many obstacles.
“The blinders I had to keep on in order to survive,” he wrote. “The idea of a Black man playing any kind of role in this world seemed an impossibility,” he said, referencing his formative years in the South. “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 said.