André Leon Talley was 73 when he passed away on January 18, 2022, but his experience, groundbreaking achievements, and love for life, family, and fashion seemed expansive enough to span several lifetimes. The first Black male creative director for Vogue and a glamorous fashion icon who partied at Studio 54, hobnobbed with Andy Warhol and Karl Lagerfeld, and authored two books, A.L.T. and The Chiffon Trenches, Talley was also a reverent, contemplative man who grew up in Durham, North Carolina, going to Sunday church with his grandmother. The theme connecting his different worlds was fashion, which he discovered when he came upon an issue of Vogue at his local library. As a young boy in the Jim Crow South, the glossy pages featuring Black models like Pat Cleveland and Naomi Sims represented a totally different world, one that seemed to celebrate diversity — “an escape from reality,” as Talley would later put it.
After earning a Master of Arts degree in French literature from Brown University in 1972, an apprenticeship with Diana Vreeland at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art led Talley to jobs at magazines like Interview, W, Women’s Wear Daily, Ebony, and eventually Vogue, where he started as the fashion news director in 1983 and then became the creative director from 1988 to 1995 (he would later return to Vogue as editor-at-large from 1998 to 2013).
Throughout his career, Talley influenced designers and celebrated shows that featured diverse models. In Chiffon Trenches, he describes his surprise when attending a 1978 Givenchy show; the designer featured only Black models on the runway. “Mr. Givenchy was a real French aristocrat; he created the little black dress on Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Talley wrote, marveling at the designer’s “audacity.” “And now to show in Paris with all black models? No designer had ever done such a thing!”
Talley himself would go on to play a more active role in promoting diversity and subverting the status quo. He engineered a bold, shocking Gone with the Wind-themed fashion shoot for Vanity Fair starring Naomi Campbell as…