N.C. Central University alumnus André Leon Talley lived for extravagant designs, colors and fabrics far beyond the average closet. While many see clothes as mere objects, he used them to showcase his impeccable eye for fashion which led him to break boundaries.
The fashion journalist and stylist — who died last month at age 73 in New York — was best known for his work at the magazine Vogue, where he held the position of editor-at-large for 15 years from 1998 to 2013.
Talley entered the magazine as the fashion news director from 1983 to 1987, later becoming creative director from 1988 to 1995.
He was the first African-American male to become the company’s creative director and editor-at-large in an industry where few black creatives held top roles.
With a career spanning six decades, Talley was well known for his unique, bold sense of style and eloquence, earning him a reputation within the fashion industry as a “fashion icon.”
Standing at 6-foot-6 inches, he often wore capes and robes in an elaborate and grandiose style, which he became well known for.
Following his death, friends and associates, such as first lady Michelle Obama, Beyoncé, Oprah Winfrey, and others, paid respects to the fashion icon.
Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, who worked closely with Talley for decades at the magazine, left a heartfelt statement following the news.
“The loss of André is felt by so many of us today: the designers he enthusiastically cheered on every season, and who loved him for it; the generations he inspired to work in the industry, seeing a figure who broke boundaries while never forgetting where he started from,” said Wintour in Vogue’s obituary.
Born in Washington, D.C. in 1948 and raised by his grandmother in Durham, Talley grew up experiencing the harsh realities of the Jim Crow era South.
“To my 12-year-old self, raised in the segregated South, the idea of a black man playing any kind of role in this world seemed an impossibility,” Talley wrote in his memoir “The Chiffon Trenches,” published in 2020.
“To think of where I’ve come from, where we’ve come from, in my lifetime, and where we are today, is amazing. And, yet, of course, we still have so far to go.”
Talley credited much of his success to his grandmother, Binnie Francis Davis, for nurturing his love for fashion at an early age and giving him an “understanding of luxury.”
He would also go to the Duke University campus — where his grandmother worked as a cleaning lady — to often read the latest edition of Vogue and other fashion literature.
A Hillside High School graduate of 1966, Talley would attend college at NCCU majoring in French literature.
“Obtaining your degree and getting your education will allow you to explore horizons and pathways that you never thought of,” he said during his homecoming weekend in February 2018.
“Do not be afraid to take any job in fashion. Put your head down and work hard.”
Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1970, he won a scholarship to Brown University, where he earned his master’s in 1972.
Senior fashion design student, Sydni Mottley, credited Talley as her inspiration for attending NCCU.
“I decided to attend NCCU because of Mr. Talley, one of my goals was to meet and hopefully work with him,” she told NCCU News.
Throughout his career, Talley would advocate for increased diversity at Vogue and across the fashion industry.
In the 2018 documentary called “The Gospel According to André” — which Talley is the subject of — actress and TV personality Whoopi Goldberg described Talley as a groundbreaker.
“He was like the Black Rockette … he was the one,” said Goldberg, while also mentioning the lack of diversity in the fashion industry.
In the documentary, Talley also describes how he was confident in who he was, even in a predominantly white culture.
“You don’t get up and say, ‘look, I’m Black and I’m proud,’ you just do it and it impacts the culture,” Talley said.
Before his death, Talley received France’s Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2020 and last year received the North Carolina Award for his role in literature.
In 2018, British style magazine Dazed collected some of Talley’s best quotes. In one of them, he says to be optimistic throughout life and its challenges.
“Be kind. Smile,” Talley said.
“I read this somewhere: ‘If you smile, it means you are in control of your destiny.’”