André Leon Talley. What comes to mind first when one hears his name? Those who follow the fashion industry will surely recognize his larger-than-life presence. Talley is widely recognized for sitting front row at fashion shows and judging episodes of “America’s Next Top Model.” However, Talley’s immeasurable influence on the fashion industry goes far beyond judging the popular reality television show.
Given his work as a fashion journalist, stylist and editor, Talley was a renaissance man in the industry and utilized his influence to promote diversity and change. Talley made fashion less exclusive, and more accessible for those who were not traditionally able to take part in the industry. Though Talley passed away last month at the age of 73, his legacy and courage have left a mark on the industry, forever changing the previously exclusive world of fashion.
Talley was exposed to fashion at a young age through his grandmother and great-grandmother, whom he described as women with great power and style. They taught him the importance of dressing well by emphasizing the need to look one’s best for church; this mindset of looking as polished as one can be would later go on to influence his work in the fashion industry. However, it wasn’t until he discovered his first copy of Vogue Magazine at a local library that he truly fell in love with fashion journalism. His passion for fashion from a young age aided his knowledge of the industry and is what helped him succeed.
Talley’s influence and power grew from holding multiple positions at various magazines such as Interview, W and Women’s Wear Daily. When Talley eventually became the creative director and editor-at-large at Vogue, he was able to break barriers in the fashion industry, showing his dedication to making the fashion space more inclusive. He used his influence in the fashion industry to become an advocate for diversity.
Talley first began this mission by pushing for more Black models to be featured in the industry, leading magazines to feature models with darker skin tones. He also mentored supermodels such as Naomi Campbell, and helped open doors for many popular fashion designers by highlighting their pieces to influential individuals in the industry. Notably, Talley introduced Rick Owens to Anna Wintour, Jason Wu to former first lady Michelle Obama and featured Issay Miyake in the pages of Vogue. Talley also mentored photographer Dario Calmese who, in 2020, became the first Black photographer to shoot the cover of Vanity Fair.
The culture of the fashion world was changing, and Talley was there to lead the charge. His drive, passion and skill enabled him to push the boundaries of fashion, as he carved a path for a generation of designers, models and photographers.
Talley made the fashion world less intimidating. In an industry that retains an air of sophistication and exclusivity, André Leon Talley was different. His larger-than-life stature juxtaposed his personable personality that allowed him to become a friend to many. He made fashion less distant and more comforting, and instilled meaning and importance in his work. In interviews, Talley made audiences believe that fashion was for everyone. Though many figures in the fashion world appear to be rather frightening and cold, Talley’s enthusiastic, friendly personality made it seem like he was just a regular person with an extensive reservoir of fashion knowledge.
Within his personal life, Talley was not afraid to stand out. Though the fashion industry often values the rotation of trends, Talley always remained true to his own style with an expansive and eye-catching wardrobe. He owned custom capes, kaftans and suits from Chanel, Balenciaga, Ralph Rucci, Ralph Lauren, Tom Ford and Valentino — many designers with whom he was personal friends. He took inspiration from various designers, something that contributed to his unique, regal style. No matter where he was, whether at the front of a fashion show or on the tennis court, Talley was always best dressed.
By being unapologetically himself, Talley was a role model who gave audiences the courage to dress according to their own desires regardless of societal norms. Watching a powerful figure who was the complete opposite of typical individuals in the industry instilled confidence in those who also did not conform to the rules of fashion.
Standing at over six feet tall, Talley was a giant both physically and metaphorically in the fashion world. By being genuine throughout his life, Talley was able to teach many people the importance of dressing for oneself rather than to fit in. His efforts to make the fashion industry less exclusionary and more inclusive of people from various backgrounds contribute to his powerful legacy. Talley’s avant-garde robes, unwavering authenticity and voice for diversity will forever impact the world of fashion.