In an industry where careers can be elevated or extinguished with one searing review, André Leon Talley understands the power of what words can do.
Recent media coverage of his yet-to-be-released memoir “The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir,” has zeroed in on the author’s sharp-elbowed criticism of his former boss, Anna Wintour. That coverage led Talley’s publisher, Ballantine, to bump up the book’s release date to May 19 from September.
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While the ex-creative director of Vogue expresses an ample amount of animosity toward her, there are also numerous references to how integral Wintour has been to his career and his life. “I lived through the golden age of fashion journalism. Vogue gave me a great life, a great memory of richness. I saw the best in people, along with the worst, when you feel, you are no longer of value,” Talley writes.
As in any discourse, there are two sides to the story and the truth may lay somewhere in between. This, of course, is Talley’s story — in-depth — and it encompasses much more than his falling-out with Wintour. Talley told WWD that his memoir “is not a vengeful, bitchy tell-all.” It’s dishy, but the memoir also delves into racism, binge eating, weight discrimination, sexual abuse and ageism, among other issues. It takes a certain amount of humility to admit to unsuccessful Lap Band surgery under the alias of “Dolly Longstocking.” Talley is also unabashed in describing how totaling a rental car had left him with one concern — whether his Louis Vuitton luggage was OK.
If all of this sounds like a made-for-streaming series, well, one is in the works. Hulu and Amazon are said to be interested, according to a source. Declining to be specific about which parties he’s in talks with, Talley said Tuesday, “I’m aiming very high.” He also said he hoped Will Smith would play him in the series.
Raised by his grandmother, as was customary in Southern black households, Talley took a studious approach to fashion. After graduating from North Carolina State University, he earned a full scholarship for his master’s from Brown University and had embarked on a doctorate there before deciding to relocate to New York City. Volunteering at the Metropolitan Museum of Art under Diana Vreeland was followed by a job at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine with a $75 weekly salary. Talley later was poached by WWD and its Paris bureau before moving on to freelance, and then a stint at Ebony, followed by roles at Vogue, House & Garden, Vanity Fair and the Savannah College of Art & Design.
His book is not all about glossy high glamour, though. Talley recounts sleeping under a horse blanket on the floor of a fellow Met volunteer’s borrowed studio apartment on Christmas Eve in 1974 and devouring a can of Hershey’s syrup with a fine silver spoon. He details such escapades as a Betty Catroux-led shopping trip to Woolworth’s, where she liked to buy T-shirts — three for 25 cents — to wear under her Yves Saint Laurent suits. Or how he and his favorite stylist subject, Bianca Jagger, once tiptoed around a sleeping Mick Jagger in a hotel suite.
Here, some of the weightier highlights from “In the Chiffon Trenches.”
Racism in America
“Although great strides have been made, I’m still very aware of my being black in this country. I’m aware that a black man still has to work 1,000 times harder to live the American dream.…Racism moves under the epidermis as a constraint, constant reality. It’s part of the fabric of our existence. ‘We are a blues culture,’ according to Cornel West. We invent the blues every day when we wake up.”
The reaction to Talley’s review of Hubert de Givenchy’s summer 1978 High Chic show that featured only black models
“Soon after my ecstatic WWD write-up of Givenchy, rumors came back to me that someone at the house of YSL was going around saying I was stealing Yves’ original croquis (or sketches) and handing them to Givenchy for money. Nothing could be further from the truth. Their collections were not even similar. That was the kind of racism I experienced in fashion. Subtle, casual jabs that white people inherently make toward people of color.”
How asking Karl Lagerfeld to help honor late photographer Deborah Turbeville ended their 40-year friendship
”The guillotine dropped. After decades of friendship, I had finally made the list of erased, deleted personal and professional friends who were no longer of any value to Karl. The only people he never had a fight with were people of great power, like Princess Caroline of Monaco.”
Anna Wintour’s “X” factor
“Today, I would love for her to say something human and sincere to me. I have huge emotional and psychological scars from my relationship with this towering and influential woman, who can sit by the queen of England, on the front row of a fashion show, in her uniform of dark glasses and perfect Louise Brooks clipped coiffure framing her Mona Lisa mystery face. Who is she? Does she let down the proverbial dense curtain? She loves her two children and I am sure she will be the best grandmother. But there are so many people who worked for her and have suffered huge emotional scarring. Women and men, designers, photographers, stylists; the list is endless.”
Learning from WWD’s John B. Fairchild how to take the long view
”He taught me how to analyze the beat of fashion and the rhythms of the high rollers, the social doers and achievers of the fashion battlefield. ‘I don’t give a damn about the clothes, I care about the people who wear them,’ was a phrase he oft repeated. From him, I learned how to embrace what was going on around me in 360 degrees. What makes a beautiful dress.…What was Yves’ inspiration? What is the music behind her? What is the chandelier behind her? There are roses, why are they there…What is going on in the mind of the designer? That’s my role, as taught by Mr. Fairchild.”
”John Fairchild, the king of fashion journalism, the master of WWD, the inventor of W, could be cruel…WWD was considered the fashion bible by most, which therefore made Mr. Fairchild a kind of god. He could destroy a designer by refusing to cover them. Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent’s business and life partner, would pick Mr. Fairchild up himself at the airport when he came to Paris.…And Saint Laurent always gave Mr. Fairchild an exclusive private preview of his collection. For some (Bill Blass, Saint Laurent, Oscar de la Renta), Mr. Fairchild was a kingmaker. But many others (Geoffrey Beene, James Galanos, Pauline Trigère) had longstanding feuds with him, and their careers suffered because of it.”
Overwhelmed by grief after the deaths of his grandmother and Diana Vreeland in 1989
”I turned to food for comfort. I went into a major binge-addled diet. Some take to drink; I took to eating two packs of Fig Newtons every night. I binged and then suffered all the shame of self-loathing, and misery associated with overeating. The pounds soon started to find their way onto what had up until that time always been a slender frame. I didn’t tell anyone the depth of the depression I was going through.”
Championing a cash-strapped John Galliano in 1993 with Anna Wintour’s help
”’Galliano is a poet,’ I said. ‘He’s the Baudelaire of couture!’ ‘Do whatever you need to do to make Galliano happen,’ Anna told me. Vogue paid for Galliano to come to New York that Christmas. For three days, everyone at Vogue introduced him to all the important people he needed to meet.”
”…I still remained fiercely loyal to Tom Ford, who has continued to support me no matter my weight: After each of his shows in Milan, Paris and New York, I have always rushed home to dispatch an e-mail with my immediate thoughts on his collections. Some e-mails are streams of consciousness and wildly romantic, and some are quiet. If I don’t understand his message, I simply do not send one. This has only happened once in many years of friendship.”
“Naomi’s elegance permeates in so many ways. Her spirit is fierce. It’s her God-given gifts that astound one as she walks for the best talents of the world…ceo’s of Gucci listen to her every recommendation.”
The best advice his Uncle Lewis had to offer
”Just keep on getting up. Get up every day and just keep going.”
Advice André Offers
“Never give up on your dreams, and do your homework.…My great depth of knowledge is the number-one skill I possess and has carried me throughout my career to this day. Rivers deep, mountains high. All the people who mattered in my life approached me because of my knowledge. Throughout my career, designers like spending time with me because I studied, and I studied, and I resolved to learn as much as I could.”