André Leon Talley Has Some Career Advice for Fashion Students

Learn your history and learn to listen, kids.
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Eliza Brooke
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Learn your history and learn to listen, kids.
André Leon Talley. Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

André Leon Talley. Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Having spent his career working with fashion heavyweights like Diana Vreeland and Anna Wintour, André Leon Talley is something of a fount of professional advice — and he is ready and willing to give it. While I was at the Savannah College of Art and Design for the school's annual fashion show in mid-May, I sat down with Talley to get his take on what design students and young people starting out in the industry need to know. 

Rule number one? Stop Googling and just listen.

Learn your history

"You can’t go toward the future without some sense of the past. Everything in life goes in cycles, and you cannot have any strength if you don’t know what the masters did. Masters in fashion would be the history of Balenciaga, the history of Yves Saint Laurent, the history of the 18th century.

"Nobody with any kind of authority can speak about fashion — a student, Vivienne [Westwood], myself, Marc Jacobs — without the knowledge of what Coco Chanel did for fashion, what she gave in terms of freedom and what Yves Saint Laurent did in his entire career. How can you even talk about fashion if you don’t know the modern impact of YSL’s great, great body of work?"

But you don't have to do it on the Internet

"You have to do your homework. In life, homework is important. That’s the advice I give to students. Homework could be reading or learning how to do that stitch. You can also do that on your own if you simply go to the library. It’s not necessarily about being on the computer and Googling it. That’s not enough. You have to explore it."

It's okay to reference your predecessors in your work

"If [students] are inspired by Margiela and want to create an homage to Margiela in their own way, that’s not a problem. Because they’re still in school and it’s a project, and this is what they felt like impacted them most. We’re not looking for a line-to-line Margiela or Prada, but if there are strains of Prada in their work, it's also good because it means they’re paying attention to something that’s very important in the world of fashion."

Young designers can be equally well served by working for a big company or starting their own line right out of school

"I think both are valid depending on the individual. If you’re entrepreneurial and have the means to do that out of school, perfect, but it’s always good to go learn and apprentice with someone in a big company. Yves Saint Laurent was working at Dior before he opened Yves Saint Laurent. Karl Lagerfeld was working at Jean Patou and Balmain, so he learned his craft. I don’t think that you can just jump out of school and be a superstar overnight. It’s going to be hard."

Learn to listen

"When I got a job with Andy Warhol where I was making $50 a week, I was happy to do that because I was in the world where I knew I would learn. Young people don’t know how to listen. You take it in and digest it. Being in the world of Andy Warhol, I felt very much respected, but I didn’t just go up to Andy and start talking with him. You have to respect your mentors and keep your nose to the grindstone and keep exploring your vision and your dreams. And if you have something, people can see it."

But while you are, don't mess around on Google

"Today I think people have it so easy because they think they can Google. You can also be with a young person, and every time that you're in a dinner environment and you say something he doesn't know, he Googles instantly to inform himself, to be part of the dinner conversation. I don't think that's necessary. I think that you listen and then you go back to research. You Google to say you found it. You have to go back and read about it."

Disclosure: SCAD paid for my travel and accommodation in Savannah to cover its senior fashion show.