A Q&A with André Leon Talley
André Leon Talley is clothed in a custom-made, floor-length kimono designed by Tom Ford when he walks past me and into a private room at Panorama restaurant at the Saint Louis Art Museum. As the other reporters and I await for our chance to talk one-on-one with the great Monsieur Vogue, museum staff shuffle in and out of the room to appease to his requests, which involve searching the gift stores for a grandiose African-inspired necklace that he can wear while in town. When the necklaces don’t suffice, Talley asks them to collect scarves instead. I walk into the room as he examines each one. Someone hands him another necklace, called the Mother of Pearl, which he likes but it is a bit too small for his stature. As I sit, Talley asks for a cup of lemonade and then affably smiles, asking my name and inquiring into my connection with St. Louis.
I want to ask Talley a host of questions. I want to know about his trajectory in fashion, from studying French in college to working closely with one of the most esteemed editors in the industry, and later becoming an editor himself. I want to ask about this year’s Met Gala and his opinions on diversity in fashion. However, I have only been allotted ten minutes with him and decide to discuss the most timely and relevant, which is his visit to St. Louis. As a part of the Saint Louis Art Museum’s newly opened fashion exhibition, Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear 1715-2015, Talley has been invited to speak on the past, present and future of menswear. His talk is sold out, with more than 450 people—and 80 more who have purchased tickets for the overflow room—waiting to hear him.
During our conversation, Talley, 68, tells me about his favorite items from the exhibition, speaks lovingly about his grandmother and childhood in Durham, North Carolina, and dismisses the notion that fashion can only thrive in fashion capitals, such as New York City and Paris. Instead, he argues that that ground is just as fertile for fashion in St. Louis and the Midwest as it is anywhere else.
What do you think of St. Louis so far?
I’m very impressed. It’s sophisticated. I’ve seen the best of St. Louis: I’ve been to the Ritz Carlton, I’ve seen the best St. Louis museum, and I’ve seen the best with Forest Park. So I’m impressed.
What did you think of the exhibition?
Did anything stand out?
Many things stand out. The things that stand out the most are the impressive moments of history. Things that are historically relevant and illuminating, such as the waistcoats, the dressing gowns. The velvet, beautiful embroidered things the people wore in places like Versailles. The marvelous underwear from 1925. I love the swimwear. And also what was very impressive to me is the Rick Owens’ white dress. I think that’s quite marvelous. The Gaultier with the bifurcated long skirt for smoking is great. And also Saint Laurent safari jacket, which is very rare.
You remember so much.
I have a photographic memory.
One of the goals of the exhibition is to deconstruct the generalization that fashion is related only to femininity. As much of your tenure in the industry has been associated with womenswear, what has been you perspective on menswear?
I’ve always been aware of menswear, although I work in womenswear primarily. I love womenswear—it’s always my first love. But I’ve always been very aware and conscious of it because I’ve always had the ultimate designers who design for women, yet are men, making my clothes. Men’s clothes are as important as women’s clothes. This show in particular really shows that men can be as stylish as women, and if you are an individual man you can pick from contemporary designers and be just as outstanding and original. You can be that man. You can have a neon green suit. Goodness gracious! Gold Jeremy Scott wing sandals. Or you can have extraordinary shoes from Rick Owens. Or you can have the most amazing Tom Ford dinner jacket. So, men can be just as vibrant and vital [as women].
Speaking about the clothing that designers have made for you, I watched your interview with Robin Givhan from April and you were talking about your time in Durham, North Carolina growing up. You describe your v-neck cashmere sweater and your church suits, the purple rouge on your cheeks. Can you talk a little bit about your personal experiences with clothing from childhood to now?
I was an only child, and grew up with my grandmother and great grandmother. My great grandmother died in 1960, and my grandmother in 1989—it was a house full of women, of unconditional love. I could do whatever I wanted. I was a spoiled child. My grandmother painted a room pink—she didn’t know it was Schiaparelli pink—and in that room I built my own universe. I papered the wall with pages from Vogue. I read everything in Vogue. I read all of the magazines and The New York Times, and I developed my style from what I was reading. I was trying to emulate what I was reading about. The rouge came from Naomi Sims. I didn’t know that Diana Vreeland put rouge on her temples, but Naomi Sims was putting Vaseline and purple on her temples. Naomi Sims was a very big inspiration of my youth. I loved Naomi Sims because she was, for me, the first Black model. She was in Bell telephone ads when they didn’t have Black women on TV. She became a great inspiration. When I met Naomi Sims—what an extraordinary moment that was for me.
We [my grandmother and I] weren’t poor, but we weren’t rich. We sometimes had hard times. But church was very important, so everything was invested in beautiful church clothes. That was where we decked out and put on our finest clothes. I had the most beautiful navy blue suit, the best white shirts, the best black moccasins.
I didn’t have a dialogue about fashion, but these were just the things that were impressed upon me as I was growing up. I didn’t have a lot, but I had the best clothes that my grandmother could afford. She gave me a pair of paisley pajamas that were Dior, and they were from New York. I thought those paisley pajamas were just the best thing ever. I don’t know where they are now, but I miss them.
It’s interesting you mention the clothing worn to church on Sunday. In the documentary Fresh Dressed [that you appear in], they discuss Black people dressing in their Sunday’s best, but you also talk about Little Richard and how he was an icon of freedom.
The rogue that broke the rules.
Yes. Going through the exhibition, there were things that stood out to me, such as the Zoot Suit and knowing that history represented more than just the Jazz Age, but it had this historical stake in the lives of Black and Latino youth who really subverted bodily tropes. Can you speak a little bit about Black masculinity in particular and the freedom that clothing has provided them?
There aren’t many moments to be a rebel when you’re Black because you’ve got to fit in. Unless today when they wear their pants low-slung, that’s sort of a rebelliousness. It’s funny that they have a picture of Tupac in the show. That was a brilliant moment on the slide because it had a pair of underwear that were meant to be worn with low-slung jeans. The sexuality of a Black man has always been repressed by Black men except for musicians, except for entertainers. But then at the same time, Sammy Davis Jr. was very elegant, but wore very strict, ultra-conservative classic naval jackets. Little Richard pomaded his hair. James Brown pomaded his hair. The great thing about James Brown and Little Richard is that they had great music, they had outlandish style, and maybe you didn’t notice their style in terms of their clothing, but in terms of their sexuality, it certainly was stylish.
Now, I will say something that is perhaps provocative: if you notice Little Richard and James Brown, if you look closely at the films of them and performing, they don’t have any underwear on. They went commando. In the show, in the 18th century, the men are beautifully dressed in waistcoats and breeches to the knees and I asked one of the curators, “Has that been padded”? And she said “Yes, it’s been anatomically padded because it’s important to the period.” So, in 18th century, men did not wear underwear under those clothes. If they wore underwear it was like soft underwear. So I think that’s important that Little Richard and James Brown created like an indolent, subversive sexuality.
Having this exhibition here in St. Louis is a big deal, as a city striving to carve out spaces for fashion. What is your perspective on that?
It’s a plausible goal as long as you have a facility like this [ the Saint Louis Art Museum]. There’s the Detroit Institute of Art—another place that’s very viable for carving out a niche about fashion. I was just there recently. It’s important that there’s sophistication and a knowledge of curatorial expertise to present these moments of exhibits that create history and excitement. Because around fashion exhibits, there has to be excitement or it’s just dull. And this is very exciting: the choice of colors, the range, the contrast from 18th-century to modern dress. It’s very important. And this can be carved out. This exhibit primarily comes from LACMA, and here it is in St. Louis. It’s great.
What about fashion design? Do designers still need to be working in markets like New York, Paris, Milan and London to be successful?
You can be anywhere. Fashion goes anywhere and everywhere.
There are a lot of budding fashion enthusiasts in St. Louis who look up to you, and some of them don’t have equitable access to the fashion industry—the education, the resources, the opportunities. But they’re talented and they persevere. What would be your advice to them?
Never give up the dream. Continue to work hard. Study. Go to the museum. The museum is a great place to get a great sense of knowledge. Latch on to a book that gives you some sort of inspiration. One of the greatest books that ever happened to me when I was in high school was the late John Fairchild’s book Fashionable Savages. It was just the most inspirational book for me. That was my education into the world of fashion. Even if you go to the museum, it could be a painting, a sculpture or it could be anything in your locale that just inspires you to evolve, and conceptually conceive your dream.
Photography by Cameron Morrow.