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Andre Leon Talley explains it all for you

by Sura Wood

Andre Leon Talley, subject of "The Gospel According to Andre.", with director Kate Novack.  Photo: Magnolia Pictures
Andre Leon Talley, subject of "The Gospel According to Andre.", with director Kate Novack. Photo: Magnolia Pictures  

With his imposing 6'6" frame and a propensity for sweeping into and commanding a room in flamboyant caftans and capes, Andre Leon Talley, the eloquent former editor of Vogue, is a hard-to-miss, operatic figure. You might assume that the erudite high priest of high fashion has tales to tell, and you'd be right. He takes center stage - after all, where else could he possibly be? - as the thoroughly engaging subject of Kate Novack's affectionate documentary "The Gospel According to Andre," which opens in San Francisco on Friday.

"I've lived an extraordinary life," reflects the 68-year-old Talley, whose "Andre-isms" and personal recollections form the backbone of an origin story sure to be irresistible to fashionistas, and many outliers, too. It examines Talley's improbable trajectory, from his modest beginnings as the grandson of a sharecropper, raised in a house without heat in Durham, North Carolina, by a grandmother he worshipped, to the apex of the fashion world, becoming the first and only African American trendsetter, an anomaly in a predominantly white industry. "He was like a black Rockette," opines Whoopi Goldberg, one of the many celebrities, couture eminences and childhood friends who pay tribute to him here. "He's so many things he wasn't supposed to be." On that score, Talley's transgression of traditional notions of black masculinity didn't sit well with his conservative mother who, he recalls, scoffed that he dressed like the Phantom of the Opera.

Talley literally went to church on fashion, scrutinizing the Sunday finery of women in the congregation, when he wasn't spending hours at the local library lost in the glamour of back issues of Vogue. They were a powerful elixir for a young African American boy in the Jim Crow South, where white college students at neighboring Duke University threw rocks at him as he passed by. As one of his old friends puts it, "Success was the best revenge."

In 1974, he arrived in New York City to follow his dream. Early on he was tutored by the imperious Diana Vreeland, then the grande dame of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute, whom he calls "a mighty fashion chief" who taught him "the language of clothes and style." A tall, slender, charismatic black man back in the day - "until I was 40 and blew up" - he plunged into the libertine sex-and-drugs scene at Studio 54. But, unlike just about everyone else, he was there almost every night, he says, "for the dancing, not the decadence." Whether it's a product of his Southern upbringing or being part of an older generation, his allusions to his sexuality tend to be oblique. "I see him as a gay icon, but he doesn't self-identify as gay," explains Novack, who spent a year following Talley. "He talks about himself as quadrosexual."

He befriended Fran Lebowitz when he was a receptionist at Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, where, she says, he was quite a change from the string of debutantes who had previously held that post. She recalls her mother mistaking the regal, decoratively costumed Talley for African royalty. Novack weaves together these and other anecdotes from Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, et al., with backstage footage of Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell horsing around, excerpts of his flavorful fashion journalism enriched by cultural references to Gershwin and Nina Simone, and clips of New York and Paris runway extravaganzas, including Saint Laurent's 1978 collection of sumptuous, swoon-worthy evening dresses, a sequence I confess to watching three times.

Viewers get a ringside seat for a procession of glitterati seeking an audience with Pope Andre holding court on the red carpet at the annual Met costume gala - he pronounces Gisele Bundchen's shimmering, body-hugging gown and the woman in it "bootylicious" - and access to the front row of designer shows he dubs "the chiffon trenches," where he's often in the company of reigning ice queen Vogue editor in-chief Anna Wintour. "I've made it look effortless, with my sable and Prada coats - and attitude all those years," he demurs. "But it has been rough."

How so? One wishes that Novack had pushed him to elaborate. Talley is a scene-stealing performer with a well-practiced, larger-than-life theatrical persona. But the very qualities that make him entertaining also make him elusive, at times opaque, quarry for a filmmaker probing sensitive territory. He has rarely spoken about the racism he endured in the industry during his 50-year career, even in the context of his autobiography. But Novack elicits some of the film's most memorable moments when he drops his self-protective guard and recounts how he was mocked by insiders as "Queen Kong," and dogged by nasty gossip that he slept his way to the top of the food chain, as if he couldn't have gotten ahead any other way. The offensive stereotypes wounded then, and still rankle years later, judging from the bottled-up emotion and tears he sheds on camera.

Consumed by a domain he loved and ruled supreme, it's perhaps a cruel irony that this arbiter of style and spinner of unattainable romantic fantasy cites having never fallen in love as his greatest regret. Sitting alone on the porch of his sylvan home in White Plains, away from the glitz and the glare of the spotlight, the usually voluble Talley is both wistful and more subdued than his public facade would suggest. "Fashion is fleeting," he declares. "Beauty and style remain." And so does he.

textOpens June 1 @ Embarcadero Cinemas.

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