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Remembering André Leon Talley, a titan of the fashion world

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, in for Terry Gross. We're going to remember the influential and larger-than-life fashion editor Andre Leon Talley. He died Tuesday at the age of 73. An enthusiastic champion of fashion, he was the first Black man to hold the position of creative director at Vogue magazine. He worked there for much of his career, first as fashion news director and later as editor at large. At 6 feet 6 inches tall, often wearing capes and caftans created for him by some of the world's top designers, he was an unmistakable sight.

Talley grew up in Durham, N.C., in the Jim Crow era. His grandmother, who raised him, was a maid who worked for Duke University. The fashions he was exposed to came largely from what people wore to church on Sundays until, at age 9, he discovered Vogue magazine. After getting a scholarship to Brown University and a master's degree in French literature, he moved to New York, worked at Andy Warhol's magazine Interview and was mentored by former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland.

Terry Gross spoke to Andre Leon Talley in 2018, when he was the subject of the documentary "The Gospel According To Andre Leon Talley."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Andre Leon Talley, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with, how were you introduced to the world of fashion?

ANDRE LEON TALLEY: Well, from an early age, I discovered fashion through the pages of Vogue. I went to the public library in Durham, N.C. And I was about 10 years old or maybe 9. And I discovered this magazine called Vogue. And in those days, it came out on the 1 and 15 of every month. And the editor was Diana Vreeland. And this was my escape world when I was a young boy. I grew up in my grandmother's home in Durham, N.C. - a modest home. She was a maid at Duke University. And it was just my grandmother and myself. She was an extraordinary woman. She was a frugal woman. And she was - she watched her budget. She had a bank account. And we had a wonderful life because I never knew anything but love - unconditional love.

GROSS: So you're a 9-year-old boy, and you're totally fascinated by these fashions that adult women are wearing. So what...

TALLEY: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Captivated you as a 9-year-old boy about the world of Vogue?

TALLEY: The world of Vogue meant more to me than what the women were wearing as models. The issues of Vogue captivated me not only for the images of the fashion spreads, but it was the magazine itself that turned me on to a world that I did not know, had not been exposed to. It was the world of literature, what was happening in the world of art, what was happening in the world of entertainment. It was my - a gateway to the world outside of Durham, N.C. It wasn't just the fashions. Of course, I love the fashions. I loved the beautiful images. And I related so much to the images and then the written words, the captions, the articles.

So I was living through Vogue as an escape hatch, but reading every single page, loving every single detail. I mean, they had a men's column called "Men In Vogue," and that was very fascinating to me. And it was a world that I internalized and I kept to myself as a young man because no one was interested in Vogue or fashion other than I. Then I was ripping pages out of Vogue, putting the pictures up on my wall in my room with thumbtacks, and I just had a room wallpapered from head to ceiling - floor to ceiling - with images from Vogue.

GROSS: So just to set the scene, while you're entering the world of Vogue and very much wanting...

TALLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...To live in that world of fashion and literature and music and art...

TALLEY: Art, art.

GROSS: Yeah. So describe the actual house you were living in.

TALLEY: My grandmother's house was very modest. It was a house of four rooms - a kitchen, living room, two bedrooms and one bath. And we did not have central heating. I remember we had coal heating when I was very young. And then we converted to gas heating. We had a gas stove in the front bedroom where I slept, and then we had a gas stove in the kitchen, which heated up my grandma's bedroom. But this house was a house of immaculate cleanliness. My grandmother was a great, great housekeeper. She gave me the chores of scrubbing the front porch, scrubbing the floors. I had to scrub the floors once a week. I also learned to polish the woodwork in the living room with Johnson's paste wax, CRA (ph) paste wax. That was hard to - so I get the floor to shine. And I did this as a young man.

And all the time, my grandmother was going to work to be a maid. She'd come home at 3 o'clock every afternoon, make supper. We sit down and look at the one little TV we had. My father had bought the TV for me from Washington, D.C. We had a black-and-white television. And we - I remember - in the house - the stove was a very great memory for me in the kitchen because of - the smells from the kitchen were wonderful. I remember my grandmother making wonderful lemon pound cakes and the smell of vanilla extract - McCormick's vanilla extract...

GROSS: Oh, yes (laughter).

TALLEY: ...The color of the vanilla extract. And the smell was amazing - still lingers in my memory.

GROSS: So were you bullied when you were in high school?

TALLEY: Of course I was bullied. I was bullied and beaten up and everything.

GROSS: What was your defense?

TALLEY: I would get on a school bus, and I would say something, and they would just pounce on me because, also, I had beautiful clothes. I didn't have a lot of clothes, but my grandmother and my father would put me in the best clothes they could afford. And I had beautiful sweaters and trousers and beautiful penny loafers and quality shoes. And I didn't show off. I wasn't a showoff. I wasn't showing off. But I would just get on the school bus - and I was tall and skinny - and they just would beat me up (laughter).

GROSS: So was there a way you could defend yourself?

TALLEY: I only defended myself through silence and not being a disruptor. I didn't fight back. I didn't know how to fight back. And I didn't know how to articulate this to my grandmother or anyone.

GROSS: So I want to kind of collapse a period of your life here. So you move...

TALLEY: Collapse it, darling. (Unintelligible).

GROSS: (Laughter) So after you graduated high school, you go to college.

TALLEY: Yes.

GROSS: Then you move to Rhode Island to go to Brown University for your master's...

TALLEY: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: ...Your undergraduate and master's degree - both...

TALLEY: I got my undergraduate degree...

GROSS: ...In French literature.

TALLEY: ...In French literature. And I tell you, when I went to Brown and won that scholarship, the world opened. When I got on the train - I went to Brown on a train from Durham. My uncle went with me. He rode with me to Philadelphia. I had all these boxes on the train. It was the first time ever being away from home. So I went to Brown alone. I went to the campus alone. I navigated my way alone.

And I got to Brown, and the world opened up - the world of exposure, the world of literature. I discovered even more, the great, great poets - Baudelaire, Rimbaud. I discovered the beautiful paintings of Eugene Delacroix. I discovered Manet. I discovered the great worlds of art, things, music. Music had not been - classical music had not been a part of my upbringing - gospel music and church music. And in the world of Brown, I discovered beautiful classical music - piano music, Chopin, Clara Schumann.

Things like this were really new to me. And I was so curious about everything. And the people were so sophisticated at Brown and at RISD, the Rhode Island School of Design. So I just had the world open up to me in just ways that had never been opened to me before.

GROSS: You know what? I realized you are one of the few guests I've had who talks even faster than I do.

(LAUGHTER)

TALLEY: I'm talking fast, but I'm loving it. I hope that you understand it.

GROSS: I absolutely understand, and I'm quite enjoying it.

TALLEY: OK.

GROSS: So you get to New York after graduating from Brown. And you'd always wanted to meet Andy Warhol and the people...

TALLEY: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: ...Who he helped make famous. And you not only got to meet them, you got to work at his magazine, Interview magazine...

TALLEY: Yes.

GROSS: ...Which, I should say, parenthetically, just filed for bankruptcy...

TALLEY: And closed.

GROSS: ...And closed. Yeah.

TALLEY: It folded.

GROSS: So when you were there and got to see all of the, like, Warhol superstars and everything, what made the biggest impression on you in terms of your own life in terms of your own personal and professional identity? - 'cause you were - you know, you were in your early 20s, I imagine, at the time. And it's a very formative period when you're still, you know, shaping who you are and figuring out who you want to be. And you're looking at all these people who kind of remade themselves, who transformed themselves into something else.

TALLEY: Well, this is what I loved. I loved it. I loved the world. Now, the people that I met through Warhol were the people that I always wanted to know. They were not bullies. They did not judge you. There was unconditional admiration, if not love. People were free. People had made their choices. People were different. You know, some people perhaps had better clothes than others, but everyone was noted for their own worth, their own gifts. And I think that's why I felt so good because I felt at home. I felt that I was part of a special club at Andy Warhol's Interview magazine.

And they embraced me, and there was no criticism of me, as there would have been at home in Durham, N.C., you know? I was brought up in a very strict, modest home, but my nucleus, the nucleus of my family, was church. So being a Black man brought up in the African American Missionary Baptist Church culture meant that I had certain rules and certain ways to deport myself - through clothes and not only through my actions or attitudes about life. But when I got to meet Andy Warhol and people were walking around in jeans and blazers and sometimes Rive Gauche and sometimes not Rive Gauche, the world came to the doors of the Factory and Andy Warhol. Interview was the gateway to the world for me.

GROSS: Well, another thing about the Andy Warhol crowd is that there was a lot of gender and sexual fluidity.

TALLEY: Gender and sexual fluidity. But it wasn't rampant, and it wasn't overt. People went into the office, and there was a deportment about going into the Factory. You had a certain culture of the office at the Factory, which was very correct, very traditional, yet very relaxed and casual. There were all kinds of people. There were lesbians. There were gays. There were straight. There were drag queens. There were artists. But everyone was equal. So everyone mattered, and no matter who you were, it mattered. You mattered because you had individual gifts and talents. And that's what Andy admired.

Now, there wasn't a lot of sexuality going on. I did not see people having sex rampantly at work or taking drugs because it wasn't that atmosphere. When I got to the Factory, it was long after Andy had an assassination attempt. So the rules changed, so people were chosen for their seriousness and chosen for their possibilities to become who they wanted to be. And I was allowed to become who I wanted to be at the Factory and with Andy Warhol.

GROSS: Right. So eventually, you get to Vogue. You were a man at Vogue. You were also an African American man at Vogue.

TALLEY: Yes, yes.

GROSS: So I'm sure you stood out. Did you feel like you were with your people?

TALLEY: I never felt bullied.

GROSS: Or did you feel like you were separate?

TALLEY: I felt that I was on top of the world. I felt that I was with the best people. After all, Vreeland had endorsed me. I had the full endorsement. It was like if you had a political endorsement. It was the full endorsement of Vreeland and Andy Warhol, who were, for me, the king and queen of New York. The empress fashion had endorsed me. I had proven to her - I had assignments and challenges she gave me for certain installations in her shows, and I had proven to her my worth. I never feared anything. I never doubted myself once. I am a deeply insecure person for many reasons. I never showed my insecurity. I just rose to the occasion. I stood up straight and tall, like a tall, tall sunflower, and I just radiated the light and the beauty of my mind in relationship to the world of fashion.

BIANCULLI: Andre Leon Talley speaking to Terry Gross in 2018. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARY BARILLEAU AND THE LATIN JAZZ COLLECTIVE'S "CARMEN'S MAMBO")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2018 interview with influential fashion editor Andre Leon Talley. The longtime editor at large at Vogue died Tuesday. He was 73 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So one of your contributions in terms of personal style to fashion is your capes and your caftans. How did you start wearing them? And I should say these are not ordinary capes. These are, like...

TALLEY: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Amazingly designed, like, sometimes out of fur or...

TALLEY: Meticulated (ph) fur and just thought out and processed with the great class - world-class designers. Well, when I went to Marrakech and saw that the men in North Africa, in Marrakech, in Casablanca walked around in caftan shirts and loose-fitting clothes all day, every day - they woke up. They put on their long-sleeved to the floor - ankle - shirts to the floor. They had caftans. And this is the indigenous dress of the Black man in Marrakech.

And this is - I decided I wanted to be like that. I want to wear that instead of a suit because it's comfortable. You're ventilated. You're roomy. You're cozy. And you can just stretch. And I'm not a tall stick anymore. I'm a big, big guy of great girth. And people think I look like - maybe my clothes don't look that important, but I have taken great time and fittings for my capes and caftans made by the great designers. So I will continue to wear these things to the rest of my life.

GROSS: Did your weight have anything to do with wanting to capes?

TALLEY: Absolutely.

GROSS: (Laughter).

TALLEY: Absolutely. My weight issue is an ongoing thing. It's an ongoing battle. I battled it. But I've had weight issues, and of course, my weight issues obviously go back to my childhood and the loss of love, and I considered - I associate food with love. My grandmother used to make me a pan of biscuits every Sunday morning just for myself. And you don't know how wonderful that smell is of those hot biscuits with butter and molasses. I have carried that throughout my life. She would make lemon pound cakes. At Christmas, we had fruitcakes, chocolate cake, coconut cake, lemon pound cake - four or five cakes, six pies, sitting, waiting to be eaten on Christmas Day for the family.

GROSS: But you were skinny as a young man, so something changed.

TALLEY: I - something changed when my grandmother died. It was when my grandmother died. I started eating for love, and I just don't know how to discipline. I'm sorry. Everyone in America is perhaps overweight, and I totally emphasize with people, emphasize. I did select caftans because the caftans create a stately, tall image. You can look great in them and look slim.

GROSS: So one of the things you mention in the new documentary about you is that you've never had a long-term romantic partner and that you were, you know, very preoccupied with your profession and loved your profession very much. Have you reflected a lot on why you think you never went in that direction?

TALLEY: Every day I reflect upon that. Well, I was - as Diane von Furstenberg, who is a dear friend of mine, said, I was afraid to fall in love. I was afraid of the rejection. I was afraid of the emotional commitment. And I was not deliberately making the - navigating through the shores and chiffon trenches of my career. It just wasn't a part of me. Because although I lived in a world of great promiscuity and libertine ways in the '70s - Studio 54, Paris - and I discovered the freedom of people embracing people for their individuality or not just their sexuality, that you could be gay, you could be quatrasexual or pansexual, as Janelle Monae says.

I just loved living the life that I lived, living through the world that I was exposed to on the front row from fashion. I was emotionally afraid of people, so I did not want to get close to people. I did not want people to touch me; I didn't like to touch people. So that is just a part of who I am. And I regret to this day - I have difficulty responding to physical emotion. And it's based on, I guess, a childhood experience. I don't know what it is. I can't relate to that. I can't think about that now.

But I do regret not having that relationship. I regret not having siblings. And I think about it almost every day because as I get older, it's very, very lonely. I have to live a lonely life. I live in my own gilt - gold-plated hell. As Tennessee Williams says, I know the gold-plated hell I'm going to. I have a beautiful home. I have beautiful books, beautiful furniture, beautiful art, beautiful music. I love movies. I have beautiful clothes. But I live in a gold-plated hell. However, I am not going to say it's the worst life. It's been a wonderful life.

GROSS: You know, you're talking about how you were quiet when you were growing up and alone. And you're so gregarious and so talkative and so easy to talk to. It seems like two different Andre Leon Talleys.

TALLEY: There is two different Andre Leon Talleys, as I said. Of course, there are two different Andre Leon Talleys. Because you - I have someone to talk to who is listening to what I have to say. And I didn't have that when I was growing up. I was very much a silent person. I was afraid of people. I went through high school thinking no one liked me. And then I realized people really adored me in high school. It's just amazing how I went through high school thinking I was an outsider. And I didn't discuss that with anyone; I had no one to discuss it with at home. Except for, you know, my...

GROSS: Well, people were beating you up, also. So you had every reason to think you were an outsider.

TALLEY: Yeah. Yeah. I was an outsider. I was an outsider with class and style. And I knew that I had style. I knew that I had style. I knew that I had style based on something very strong. I remember when I would see Ed Sullivan and the great talents he would have, like Tina Turner, Ike Turner, James Brown, those people impacted upon me. Tina - Ike Turner had a big belt and I wanted a belt just like that. I remember he was on the cover of Ebony magazine on 1971 May. And he had this big belt and a red sweater with no sleeves and plaid trousers tucked into boots. And I wanted to look like Ike Turner. I didn't want to be like Ike Turner, beating up Tina Turner, but I wanted to have that look.

GROSS: (Laughing) I hope...

TALLEY: And those looks I aspired to. I want to look like a pirate.

GROSS: When your grandmother died in 1989, did she have a clue how successful you'd become?

TALLEY: Oh, she was very proud of me. She was very - indeed, very proud, very proud. She had a great clue. She knew. She spoke to Mrs. Vreeland. She knew I was on the top of the world at Vogue. She was very proud.

GROSS: Did you dress her at all?

TALLEY: Of course, I did. You kidding?

GROSS: (Laughter) What were good grandmother clothes for her?

TALLEY: Well, good grandmother clothes were not necessarily the clothes. They were accessories. And on the summer, I would go to Garfinckel's when I was a park ranger in the government, a park - ranger at the Lincoln Memorial and a park ranger at the Fort Washington. And I would go spend all my money on gloves, Kislav leather gloves for my grandmother, to wear to church, black leather gloves. And I'd buy her beautiful Koret handbags - K-O-R-E-T. These are all the bags and things I discovered at Vogue. And then I would buy her sometimes shoes, but I was not big on shoes because I bought a pair of the very expensive alligator shoes once on a very high heel, a thick high heel. And I remember she did not wear them much. And she didn't want to hurt my feelings. She just didn't wear them much, and I realized that I made the bad choice because the heels were too high.

But she loved all the things that I bought her. I bought beautiful hats. And Karl Lagerfeld used to give me beautiful fabric from his collections at Chloe and I would take the fabric home, and she'd have beautiful dresses made. And those dresses are still in her closet. And then finally, when I got to be big at Vogue, I would buy Chanel suits from the ready-to-wear and give them to my grandmother to wear to church. And she loved them, and she was very proud - a navy blue suit and a pink suit.

GROSS: All right. It's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

TALLEY: Well, Terry, it's been a great pleasure talking with you.

BIANCULLI: Andre Leon Talley speaking with Terry Gross in 2018. The influential fashion editor died Tuesday at age 73. After a break, we remember singer Ronnie Spector, who died last week at age 78. And I'll review "The Gilded Age," the new costume drama series from Julian Fellowes, the creator of "Downton Abbey." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO-YO MA, JOHN WILLIAMS AND RECORDING ARTS ORCHESTRA OF LOS ANGELES' "AMERICAN COLLECTION THEME (EXTENDED VERSION)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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