When André Leon Talley arrived at the Tribeca Film Festival for the debut of his documentary "The Gospel According to André" late last month, he was in full form. Wearing a gold and orange embroidered custom caftan by Dapper Dan — he of the recently re-opened Gucci co-signed Harlem atelier — Talley took to the stage as if it were his throne. He was holding court and we were his guests, including his discussion moderator Sandra Bernhard. Periodically, between his proclamations, he would call audience members with questions to the stage so that he could see them better and shower them with praise if their looks passed muster. This was André Leon Talley in his armor.
In one of the last scenes of "According to André," Condé Nast Artistic Director Anna Wintour gives an assessment of Talley as he is known to most. "The way he dressed, the way he would present himself with the capes and the caftans and the gold and the red and the jewelry," she says. "I always looked on it as André putting on his armor to present himself to the world." She stops there, but during the course of the film viewers come to understand why he is in need of that armor, as filmmakers Kate Novack and Andrew Rossi gradually peel it back, revealing what's beneath his larger-than-life persona.
"I'd seen [Talley] in fashion documentaries for probably about 25 years," Novack admitted on stage at the talkback, referencing the 1995 Isaac Mizrahi documentary "Unzipped." "He was always in these over-the-top roles but he was always a supporting role, so I wanted him to be the focus." Following a year of filming "The First Monday in May" where Rossi developed a relationship with Talley, that was possible — and for Novack, the opportunity was ideal for addressing the man behind the iconic portrayals.
"In his autobiography [Talley] talks about 'Precious Memories' which is the song you hear at the end of the film and how when he hears it in church he always cries as it really is his favorite hymn," Novack told Fashionista in an interview. "It's really about how memory can be a sustaining force. I love the larger-than-life André also, and that's an important part of who he is, but that [scene] was the thing that I was most interested in and I said that to him. Either he was going to want to tell that story or not, but I decided I was going to be honest with him about what I wanted to do." Talley did want to tell that story, and in one of the closing scenes of the film, we watch just that.
As much as the documentary is about the grandeur and glitz of fashion — Valentino Garavani, Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, Manolo Blahnik, Diane Von Fursternberg and more appear as talking heads — it's also about growing up and moving through the fashion industry as a tall, Black, southern, gay man. The likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Tamron Hall and Bethann Hardison speak to this, contextualizing not only what Talley's race meant for his experiences moving through the industry, but also the legacy he left for Black folks. That legacy was also apparent at the screening: Many viewers spoke about what Talley's achievements meant to them before posing their questions from the audience, and Talley revealed that Edward Enninful had credited him, in private correspondence, for paving the way shortly after he was named editor-in-chief of British Vogue.
The film grounds itself in the realities of Talley's life, playing out during the 2016 election and showing Talley's reactions to the sobering outcome. We watch him interact with his childhood friends, teachers and father. It's a tactic that humanizes Talley — a man who's been historically added to do the work of metaphorically fluffing the pillows of someone else's story.
But through it all, Talley's faith is the connecting thread; he pointed to it at his panel when asked what kept him going over the years. It is evident as some of his first exposure to fashion was in the Black community, where Sunday mornings call for a type of couture. We even see footage of where Talley was first baptized in his hometown. Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman, an assistant professor of theology and African American religion at Yale, provides additional context, making sense of how at odds Talley was with not only the world but the community he was raised in — even at times at odds with what his mother expected. Of why he needed his now-signature armor.
In 1994 The New Yorker released an in-depth profile of Talley written by Hilton Als. Titled "The Only One," the piece was eventually incorporated into the writer's 2013 book "White Girls," and according to i-D got him a job as a staff writer for the publication. In it, Als tackles many of the same issues as the documentary, particularly the editor's typical role as the only Black man in rooms of the fashion industry. But the profile is never explicitly discussed in the film.
"Ultimately the choice was to talk about the issues that article raised," Novack said, explaining that the article was discussed with Talley during the film's editing. "You know, that story ends with him kind of sublimating probably what must have been hurt and disgust. Instead, we tried to give him the opportunity in the film to share that hurt."
One of the article's anecdotes describes a lunch that Talley organized in Paris for couture week, and preparations for a photo were being made. In the process, LouLou de la Falaise, the Yves Saint Laurent muse, said, "I will stand there only if André tries not to look like such a nigger dandy." As a response several members of the group, including Talley himself, laughed loudly. But there's a moment before the laugh that Als captured.
"He shuttered his eyes, his grin grew larger, and his back went rigid, as he saw his belief in the durability of glamour and allure shatter before him in a million glistening bits," Als wrote. There's a moment in the film that reflects this sentiment: Talley tells a story about a group of white boys that once threw rocks at him for walking across the campus of Duke University to pick up magazines in his hometown. This was before he found his armor. As he retells the story, his eyes shutter, his back straightens and his smile widens; this is sublimation.
However, he deals with those emotions later. In a scene where he's expanding on his negative experiences in the fashion industry, he recounts how one editor he worked with at Women's Wear Daily confronted him with a rumor that he had slept his way through Paris. The inference is clear: his acumen and skill alone were not enough to see him excel. But Talley, still flustered and upset about it, explains the racial background of the insult which likened him to a Black buck, or an overtly sexualized image of Black men. At the Tribeca debut, Talley was still clearly upset about the incident and that seeped out in his responses when it was brought up.
Of course, there were many who saw his potential, skill and acumen. Chief amongst them was Anna Wintour. Much like how "The September Issue" contextualized the relationship between her and Grace Coddington, with Coddington being the creative expert and Wintour understanding how to turn that into a business, this documentary lays plain the exchange with Talley.
"To be totally candid, my fashion history is not so great," Wintour says in the film. "His was impeccable, so I think I learned a lot from him." It is for that reason that she kept him by her side for so long, and the sense from Talley is that he got a bit of a protector from his former editor-in-chief. She came in a line of women that started with his grandmother and included Diana Vreeland. In this new relationship, Talley would hand write long letters to Wintour about the pushback and issues he faced in the industry, hoping for assistance and respite.
"The Gospel According to André" is the tale of an American success story according to Novack and Rossi. And it truly is, one that has been routinely ignored by the industry though it's sat in front of them for decades.
"We both thought the time was right to cast the spotlight on André himself as the protagonist of his own story and as the hero," Rossi said. "As the central figure." The work adds the influential editor to a canon of fashion documentaries at a time when others like Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss as well as journalist Antwaun Sargent are intent on writing Black people back into the narratives surrounding American history. And, it's a work that underlines the experience of moving as a Black person in the fashion industry, at even the highest echelons of power.