Column

HERE COMES THE JUDGE

This U.S. fashion arbiter is male, six-footseven, and wears fur coats and diamonds

BARBARA AMIEL May 12 2003
Column

HERE COMES THE JUDGE

This U.S. fashion arbiter is male, six-footseven, and wears fur coats and diamonds

BARBARA AMIEL May 12 2003

HERE COMES THE JUDGE

This U.S. fashion arbiter is male, six-footseven, and wears fur coats and diamonds

Column

BARBARA AMIEL

WHEN the red carpet walk was cancelled before the Oscar ceremonies in March because America was at war and Hollywood was “conflicted” about how flashy to make its big evening, no one could have been more upset than André Leon Talley, American Vogue’s editor-at-large.

“I was going to be doing my fashion commentating alongside Joan Rivers,” he lamented. But the war on Iraq had further bombshells for him. His appearance on CNN’s Larry King Live was postponed. He was facing every writer’s nightmare: publishing a book and being upstaged by geopolitical events.

Nevertheless, Talley’s first book, his autobiography A.L.T., came out on April 8 to more acclaim than most seasoned authors ever see. The New' York Times “Sunday Styles” section featured it in a front-page review. The Washington Post titled its splashy coverage “André the Giant.” New York City department store Bergdorf Goodman devoted an entire window to recreating Talley’s life and New York magazine has him on its cover.

Talley, 54, is the black, six-foot, seven-inch American fashion arbiter. He writes the StyleFax column in each issue of Vogue. He dresses in a way that sends Middle America into therapy: fur coats down to his ankles, real diamond brooches 11 inches long on his breast pocket. At the bash of the year, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last week, co-hosted by Vogue editor Anna Wintour, Gucci designer Tom Ford and Nicole Kidman in aid of the museum’s Costume Institute, Talley arrived in a demure black dinner suit—sans jewellery—compensated for with a Dior kimono as a coat, in black and silver silk lacquered lamé, lined with double-faced red satin.

His book, however, is not a romp through Paris ateliers. A.L.T. describes Talley’s life growing up in Durham, N.C. Its heroines are his two mentors: his grandmother and the fashion doyenne, the late Diana Vreeland, both of whom died after long illnesses, watched over by André.

Talley was raised by his widowed grandmother, Bennie Frances Davis, who provided for André on a salary earned cleaning men’s dormitory rooms at Duke University. Just how André went from this background to obtain an MA in French studies from Brown University, live in Paris, and become first an assistant and then great friend to the legendary Vreeland, former editor of Vogue, is fully narrated in the book but remains one of the mysteries of existence.

The writing is full of gleaming vignettes of southern black life in the fifties. Talley evokes with genuine power the “Negroes,” as they were then politely called, whose women had to know everything from how to chop wood to laying out a dead body. This is a world as far from the splendour of André’s offices

ANDRÉ LEON TALLEY of Vogue has produced an autobiography to more acclaim than most seasoned authors ever see

today in Condé Nast’s Times Square building as white America was then from it.

The book is bathed in an innocence Talley seems not to have entirely lost. Whether or not his upbringing was as relentlessly sunny and full of love as he describes, he has willed it to be so. His own values are now predicated on those memories. His grandmother’s priorities have become the foundation for his own aesthetic: church, cleaning and cooking. Of these three, the Church and its Sabbath organize his life.

“My grandmother’s makeup routine,” he writes, “was simple and only for Sundays. She sought not to create an impression of glamour, but to finish her appearance. In much the same way she used paste wax to give that last bit of luster to her well-chosen furniture, her makeup routine provided the

polish to augment her natural beauty. She wore only one shade of lipstick, a deep cranberry red, and it was only, only for church. She also kept a box of face powder on the bureau, as well as a small compact in her purse in case her nose should begin to glow; she dabbed the powder on carefully, for a very natural look on Sunday mornings. The face powder and lipstick were nothing unusual, just what she could buy at the five-and-dime, but she treated them like they were special and so they were.”

This ethos of seeing quality in ordinary objects is what makes Talley stand out so conspicuously from the fashionista world. “Luxury is what you make it,” Talley has said. “A white shirt from Kmart is made luxurious by the way you wear and maintain it.” And what makes this book significant, apart from the debut of a fine writer, is that nothing in it can be reduced to formulas or easy answers. Talley’s life is the American Dream in a splendidly wacky version. Everything about the man is larger than life, but at the core is a simplicity that great taste inevitably requires.

This taste finds its way into most women’s lives. Talley’s strict editing eye is sought out by many of the world’s leading designers. “The best ideas,” says Talley, “filter down to affordable levels.” He cites Banana Republic, H&M and DKNY.

The grandson buried his grandmother in the style he supposed she wanted. “I had managed to buy up the last stock of unworn, vintage Dior gloves from the 1950s to bring home to her. It was in one of those pairs of couture gloves that I buried her; and of course, I tucked a fresh pair inside the coffin, in case the pair she was wearing should become soiled. I gave her a church fan bearing a colour image of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., a small tin of her favorite snuff, and a couple of extra handkerchiefs. I selected the hymn No Tears in Heaven as part of her going-home services ... I was glad I buried her with the appropriate accessories, because I knew how proud she would be to enter heaven with those Christian Dior gloves crushed down to just below her elbows.”

“Going home” is how André Leon Talley writes of death. And he obviously tries to live his life as his grandmother left hers— a thoroughbred every moment till the curtain fell. fifi

Barbara Amiel’s column appears monthly. bamiel@macleans.ca