“My mother loved clothes, though I am not sure she ever fully loved me” says André Leon Talley halfway through his amazing book “The Chiffon Trenches”, the history of the fashion world between Andy Warhol’s “Interview” magazine and today’s “Vogue”. This well known figure of the first rows of fashion shows, is African American and was raised in Durham, North California, by his grand mother and great grand mother. He was a “church going” kid and was taught proper manners. He also learned French and graduated from Brown University with an MA in French litterature and an essay on Baudelaire. Jackie Kennedy and Julia Child were his inspiration. So when he eventually was hired at Vogue in New York by Grace Mirabella, he had all the right training. The book is very original because ALT always keeps his black boy’s vision on the fashion world. And he expresses personal feelings with a great voice.
I met André Leon Talley for the first time at the Mona Bismarck Foundation in Paris, in the fall of 2013, when he curated his exhibition “The Little Black Dress” produced by the Savannah College of Art and SCAD. Maureen Down, a contributor to the catalog, introduced us, and I am grateful for having had a chance to talk to this warm, loving, unpretentious yet formidable, fashion writer. ALT is the reassuring friend who is always there for you when you need him seem to say all his friends. This is how, Diana Vreeland, Karl Lagerfeld, Anna Wintour, Lee Radziwill and a few more, came to use him again and again as a witty, affectionate exclusive friend.
He also has a unique sense of style and he showed his sense of humor in a photo session in 1996 for Vanity Fair, run at the time by Graydon Carter. The theme was “Gone with the Wind” updated by Karl Lagerfeld as the photographer, and shot in hotel Pozzo di Borgo on rue de l’Université, where he lived. Naomi Campbell played Scarlett O’hara while all the white fashion stars of the time, Galliano, Manolo Blahnik, Gianfranco Ferré… were the servants and barefoot gardener.
What I liked most about the book are the beginnings: the Warhol years when he first encountered Karl Lagerfeld for an “Interview” article, read every single interview he had granted and wore bermudas. His slow apprenticeship of “rich and famous”, which would lead him to writing at Women’s Wear Daily for John Fairchild. None of the cruelty of the milieu is spared and the dangerously perverse Pierre Bergé is at the heart of it. ALT has a unique way in describing the love hate relationships, traffic of influence, in the Saint Laurent Lagerfeld world and this is well documented by his intimate relationship with Betty Catroux (YSL’s “twin”).
There seems to be no aggressivity on his part, when all the actors of his success close their door on him. Just sadness. And there is great finesse when he relates knocking a glass of wine on Princess Diana at Katherine Graham‘s Washington luncheon in her honor. He was seated on her right and does not mention whether the wine was white or red?
Some passages of the book are poignant when he describes the abuse he was a victim of as a young boy in Durham and how this led him to not having a love life ever after. Of the Aids years, he says: “There was so much death in the air back then”. His true love was all dedicated to his grandmother and to Diana Vreeland, who both died the same year, in 1988. This intense mourning led him to hide in Durham and start binge eating. The 1,98 meter tall fashion star had to change his wardrobe from then on.
The end of the book is dark. After a life of flying Concorde and staying at the Ritz, of collecting Louis Vuitton trunks and made to measure suits from Savile Row, he now wears caftans because of binge eating: “Physically, I am a huge galleon slowly sailing into harbor, broken from so many battles”.
ALT proves all along the book what a studious and hardworking boy he is. “Homework” is his motto and from being “the only person of color in the upper echelons of fashion journalism”, he became one of its most precious actors. He organized John Galliano’s first défilé at Saõ Schlumberger‘s house in 1994, introduced Amanda Harlech to the house of Chanel, and became the king of Paris overnight for his covering of the YSL show in 1978 for WWD. His greatest moment of joy was when Hubert de Givenchy put on a défilé with only black models that same year. This book is important in many ways and it is great fun to read!
“The Chiffon Trenches“, Ballantine, is out on May 19th
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