Long known to readers of Vogue magazine's American edition, André Leon Talley is one of the fashion industry's most influential stylesetters. Famous among fashionistas for his flamboyant, often custom-made outfits that accentuate his six-feet, seveninch frame, as well as by his booming baritone, Talley is undoubtedly the most prominent African American in the high-stakes world of designer fashion, a world which revolves around the semi-annual runway shows in New York, Paris, London, and Milan. The supremely confidant editor-at-large at Vogue has never been hesitant to chastise designers for not using enough women of color on the runway, and has also championed a number of young African-American designers over the course of his long career.
Born in the late 1940s, Talley was the grandson of a sharecropper. His father drove a taxi for a living, and he was raised by his grandmother, Bennie Frances Davis, whom he later wrote about extensively in his 2003 memoir, A.L.T. A domestic servant in the Durham, North Carolina, area, Davis was a tremendous influence on her grandson's life. Though she worked five days a week cleaning someone else's house, theirs was immaculate, too, despite their hardships. "We always had clothes to wear and food on the table," he wrote, "but we lived on limited means. Our roof leaked buckets of water when the snow melted, and if the pipes froze, my grandmother heated water on the wood-burning stove so I could take a 'bird bath' before school." His grandmother's life, he wrote, revolved around her family and her faith. "She worked hard at her job and kept a clean, welcoming home, so that those in her care … could all serve God. What this meant at a practical level was that every surface in our home glowed—not only through the application of soap, paste wax, or ammonia, but also through the underlying working of love. What it also meant was that my childhood was, by anyone's standards, a rich one."
Raised in Humble Yet Luxurious Home
Talley's grandmother took care of him and her own mother, who was called China. Both women were hard workers and did the household laundry the old-fashioned way—by hand. He recalled watching China set about on this task when he was very little, and before she grew too old to do it. His great-grandmother, he wrote in A.L.T., "boiled our laundry in a big black iron cauldron in the yard. She would set up everything under our peach trees, for shade. She would build a good fire from wood she had chopped herself." The sheets were then wrung out by hand, and hung to dry on a clothesline that was even wiped clean before the laundry went near it. Later, inside, they were ironed. "Our house was full of such simple luxuries," Talley explained in his memoir. "Until I left home, I never used a towel that hadn't been ironed—and had no idea how much I would miss them when I was out in the world."
Talley grew up in a the pre-civil rights era South, when the lives of blacks from all classes, but especially of the poorest, were restricted. Such constraints were met with silence but also a measure of pride and dignity. Talley sat down for lengthy interview with his friend, Italian designer Miuccia Prada, for the November issue ofInterview in 2003, and recalled that "for a long time my grandmother would not allow white people to come into our house. That was her rule. The only white man who ever came into the house was the coroner." Talley attended all-black schools in Durham, and remembered his junior high school French teacher as another profound influence on his life and later career.
Talley gravitated toward fashion in his teens, and was a devoted reader of Vogue, which he first found in the local library. "Vogue was my hobby, and no one in my family ever had a copy of the magazine in the house until I did," he told Prada in Interview. "The big experience was on Sundays after church. I'd wash the dishes, walk to the white part of town … to the newsstand that was open on Sundays. That was my big joy." Another writer once asked Talley where he seemed to have gotten his unerring sense of style, and he credited Vogue as well as his grandmother and her world, especially Sunday services. "You couldn't open your mouth unless you were told to speak, so you just sat there and you just had to observe," he told the Houston Chronicle's Clifford Pugh. "You saw beautiful images of women, beautiful church hats and gloves. These were not people of great means and wealth, but they had the most wonderful style—especially on Sundays."
Earned Ivy League Degree
On the pages of Vogue and in other fashion-centric publications, Talley's imposing frame has often been photographed in colorful, well-made clothes, some of them custom items. He claims to have dressed somewhat eccentrically even in high school, though he did try to fit in. "When you're a teenager from a small town and you are different, you are victimized by people's criticism and the way they look at you," he told Prada in the Interview article. "That was a problem in high school, so I tried to conform a bit; but mostly I just stayed to myself." That changed when he left home for the first time and moved to Providence, Rhode Island, to attend Brown University. He had won a scholarship to the Ivy League school, and planned on a career as French teacher, just like his junior high role model. He also befriended a raft of creative types from the nearby Rhode Island School of Design, one of the most prestigious art schools in the United States.
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