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Maura O’Kiely

The Chiffon Trenches, by André Leon Talley, 4th Estate, 248 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0008342340

The full-length colour portrait of André Talley reproduced halfway through this book is eye-catching to say the least. Standing six foot six and spectacularly dressed, everything about American Vogue’s former creative director attracts the eye. It could be a while before the viewer also notices that Talley is in Paris, that what he is leaning against is the magnificent Pont Alexandre III, and that the other tall frame in the photograph is the Eiffel Tower.

Regularly described as “larger than life”, Talley (71) is known for his unmistakable silhouette, his signature caftans, grandiose pronouncements and Louis Quatorze predilections. But he’s brainy too: he has a master’s degree in French studies from Brown University in Rhode Island, is the author of several books and an award-winning fashion journalist. In interviews he comes across as a courtly dude, one who likes to throw in a French expression when common-or-garden English words are not sufficiently parfait.

A child of the segregated American South, Talley was raised in North Carolina by his grandmother after his parents’ divorce, and a remarkable career trajectory vaulted him from being the grandson of sharecroppers into one of fashion’s most elite enclaves. As an adolescent, Vogue was his inspiration; he even papered his bedroom, floor to ceiling, with its pages. Later on he sought escape from his modest surroundings by immersing himself in French culture, before heading to New York in the early 1970s and finding work with creative supernovas like Andy Warhol and Diana Vreeland. 

Talley’s great talent has always been that he not only adored fashion but that he “got” it at a cellular level. And so, over time, he rose to become Vogue’s editor-at-large as well as it creative director. Industry behemoths valued his opinion, designers sought his imprimatur for each new collection.

And now here he comes, ripping Vogue open at the very seams. What on earth happend? It appears that Anna Wintour, the magazine’s exacting editor-in-chief, suddenly dropped him in 2013, and he is still spitting pins. Sharp pins. The result is a wildly entertaining ‑ but also peevish and self-serving ‑ memoir.

Haute couture can come across as intangible and niche. To those of us who have not passed through the looking-glass, that world can seem too fantastic, that bit too wacky. Nicholas Coleridge, in his 1988 book The Fashion Conspiracy – an engaging and penetrating overview of the industry – writes that after three years of research and hundreds of interviews, he had come to a startling conclusion: that of the 400 people in fashion he had spoken to, “only about 50 seemed altogether sane”.

Coleridge was not wrong about the craziness; it’s also a thread that runs right through The Chiffon Trenches. Random example: at the 2019 Met Gala, New York’s swishest fashion event, actor Jared Leto arrived carrying his own “severed” head. The singer Katy Perry went as a chandelier and later that evening “changed into a giant hamburger, with pickles, ketchup and a bun”.

Talley indulged in similar excesses of course. But while overall he was recognised for his contribution to fashion, he attracted attention too because of his colour. As he tells it, for a long time he was “the only person of color in the upper echelons of fashion journalism”, and that’s what motivated him to write this, his second memoir. “Although great strides have been made,” he continues, “I’m still very aware of my being black in this country. I’m aware that a black man still has to work one thousand times harder to live the American dream. I’m aware that every day when a black man wakes up in this country, no matter how successful or unsuccessful he is, his race will determine what he does and how far he goes in his life. No matter what you do, who you are, what career you choose, as a black man, you realize every day that our country  was founded on the misguided rules and conceits of racism and slavery. A black man goes through life realizing, there but for the grace of God go I.”

Then there’s the ghost of Wintour, looming over everything. Talley is clearly still hurt, and not certain why he became surplus to requirements at Vogue. A fall from that lofty a promontory would make anyone’s ears pop, and being dropped by Wintour, “in all her imperial hauteur and froideur”, was a terrible blow to his ego. Had he become too old, too overweight, he wonders. It’s difficult not to feel sorry for him as he tries to work out what went wrong. (Easy too to conclude that at times he must have been a monumental pain to be around.)

Talley, who had a wonderful relationship with his grandmother, says he was never sure his mother fully loved him. Author John Lahr, writing about another huge personality ‑ the critic Kenneth Tynan ‑ wondered whether “big magic as an antidote to big hurt” might explain how a humdrum childhood and early letdowns could lead to the invention of a more dazzling version of oneself; and it’s not much of a stretch to see how this might apply to Talley too. At times he really does go over the top though, and you’re desperate to save him from himself. Here’s part of a tone deaf report of his first ever trip to Africa, which he took for a Nigerian Fashion Week.

We arrived at the Seattle Residences hotel, on embassy row in downtown Lagos, and I was shown to a massive three-bedroom suite, all Westernized to within an inch of any first-class hotel accommodations in Europe. The impeccable beds, adorned with plush white linens, were equal to those at the Ritz in Paris. Chase [his assistant] took the second bedroom, and the third was given over to my enormous wardrobe of Tom Ford caftans, bespoke Dapper Dan-Gucci-collaboration custom caftans in rich brocades, and Ralph Rucci taffeta and gros de Londres caftans, all unfurled from my army-navy surplus bag, to be ironed the next morning by an uneducated male butler, a native of Lagos, who spoke perfect English.

At other times Talley likes to portray himself as an innocent abroad. A visit with Andy Warhol and Rudolf Nureyev to a New York S&M club called The Anvil ended abruptly after Talley had wondered what another clubber, via fairly obvious hand gestures, was suggesting to him. So Nureyev explained. “Wearing matte jersey by Scott Barrie, a necklace made from a metal pipe on a grosgrain ribbon, and my Rive Gauche velvet trousers, when I was told this, I shrieked and ran toward the door.”

Talley is an enthusiastic name-dropper, and why not? Naomi, mwah-mwah; Paloma, mwah-mwah – the fashion circles he moved in must have been air-kissing heaven. Name-checked too are Jackie Kennedy and her sister Lee Radziwill, Barbra Streisand, Tom Ford, Diana Ross, Manolo Blahnik, Tina Browne, the Obamas, Bianca Jagger, Rihanna, Beyoncé; many of them acquaintances, some genuine friends. The designer juggernauts are there too: Lagerfeld, Saint Laurent, de la Renta, Versace.

Enemies were collected along the way of course. During his time working in Paris, Tally was distraught to be told by Paloma Picasso that a well-known fashion publicist had been widely referring to him as “Queen Kong”. There was an accusation of stealing sketches from one top designer and passing them on to another. After a two-decade close friendship, Karl Lagerfeld dropped him; cue another deep well of grievance and the telling of some quite spiteful tales.

Despite everything, it would seem Talley’s ego remains robust, as these few lines early in the book imply: “My great depth of knowledge is the number one skill I possess and has carried me throughout my career to this day … I hope you find my glorious and, somehow, triumphant crawls through the chiffon trenches to be fierce and fearless.” His journey through those trenches has indeed produced a compelling book, despite the pettiness. It also has a timely narrative, coming along just as the fashion world finally starts including diversity in any meaningful way. There is still a long way to go, but since this book was published, though not necessarily because of it, Anna Wintour has apologised to black staffers at Vogue for how they were treated at the magazine.

After the many barbed anecdotes he tells about Wintour, he then says that not a day goes by when he does not think of her, and adds: “My hope is that she will find a way to apologize before I die, or if I linger on incapacitated before I pass, she will show up at my bedside, with an extended hand clasped into mine, and say, “I love you. You have no idea how much you have meant to me.” Let’s just say he has a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening now.

These days Talley lives in White Plains. He finds much solace in his Baptist faith and he has dedicated this memoir to his pastor. He lives alone; that fastidiously hedonistic existence is no more. A series of abusive encounters in boyhood had led to a sexual guardedness in adulthood and a mostly celibate life. Years of binge-eating and unhealthy weight gain brought health problems. “Physically,” he writes, “I am a huge galleon slowly sailing into harbor, broken from so many battles.”

If it’s a searing look at the damage done in the labour-intense world of fast fashion you’re interested in, try Fashionopolis by Dana Thomas, published last year. If you want an insight into the politics and morality of global fashion, read Coleridge’s still relevant The Fashion Conspiracy. And if you would just like to know more about someone who was one of fashion’s most influential players, especially one who has a big shiny axe to grind, the looking-glass is right here: just step this way.

1/9/2020

Maura O’Kiely is an Irish Times journalist

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