The death of a public figure has a way of causing a unique sense of grief. Although you did not know them personally, you connected with their work. Their craft, contributions, or genius was one of those elements that brought a sense of joy in an otherwise comparatively mundane existence, and the cessation of their life means an end to new incarnations of their art for you to appreciate. The loss may often come with either a sense of feeling cheated if their death was untimely, or a sense of wonder that after a long, storied career, the art that they left behind will remain a source of delight for years to come.
For me, the death of André Leon Talley encapsulates both of these feelings. Upon finding out about his passing, I shed some tears and instantly felt a grief that felt familial in nature. It was as if I had lost a beloved uncle whose conversations I looked forward to, as I had been a fan of his writings and interviews since I was a teenager. I had seen him in pictures long before I ever read his work, and even then I was enthralled. With his wide smile, gorgeous clothes, and boisterous energy, he looked like someone I would want to be friends with, or at least meet for dinner. However, when I picked up my first issue of Vogue at age 19 with First Lady Michelle Obama on the cover (March 2009 issue, to be exact), it was his illustrative, engaging writing that made me a subscriber of the magazine. It was then that I began seeking footage of him, and upon hearing his voice for the first time, he truly sounded exactly as I had imagined: equal parts wise and jubilant with a hint of mischief. I followed him from the documentary The September Issue, watched his red carpet coverage of The Met Gala for many years, and even watched later seasons of America's Next Top Model, a show I had long abandoned, just to see his glorious fashion sense and hear his witty insights. His memoir The Chiffon Trenches and his documentary The Gospel According to André were my anchors when my life was turned upside down by the pandemic, a welcome escape away from the chaos that I still reference to this day.
In one way, it feels as if he wasn't done. With the world of fashion changing so rapidly and entering the metaverse at breakneck speed, I would have loved to have read and heard what he had to say about this exciting (albeit confusing) leap into this new world and how fashion would fit in. I wonder what he would have thought about fashion's budding relationship with NFTs, or how he would have taken yet another emerging designer, model, or artist of color under his broad wings, nurtured them with his priceless guidance, and watched them take flight. I even had this dream of finally making it to one of his fireside chats and quite literally sitting at his feet while he regaled the audience with his encyclopedic knowledge, fantastical stories, and incomparable wisdom. He had so much more to say, so much more to share.
Conversely, Talley had been in the fashion journalism game long before I was even born, and sustained his presence for six decades. When he began his career in luxury fashion journalism, Black men as storytellers were conspicuously absent from the conversation. For many years, he was the only Black man in the audience of a fashion show, let alone in the front row, wearing a sharply tailored suit or, in later years, a sumptuous regal caftan. However, he did not let the anomaly of his presence deter him from rightfully achieving his hard-won status as *the* fashion oracle. What is most admirable about this feat is that he didn't have to clang pots and pans announcing himself in order to get there. In his documentary The Gospel According to André, he states "You don’t get up and say, ‘look, I’m Black and I’m proud,’ you just do it and it impacts the culture." By being fully and unapologetically himself, his impact broke barriers for other editorial giants like Edward Enninful and Jessica Cruel to take their rightful places on the mastheads of the industry's most sought-after publications. It is undeniable that Talley's voice left an indelible mark on fashion, and his absence will leave a palpable silence.
For me, Talley represents the ultimate triumph. In spite of his humble beginnings, he managed to work his way into a space that had no intentions of making room for him and then fill up that same space with his presence. By standing tall in his six-foot-six frame armed with a wealth of knowledge and an impeccable eye for beauty, he infiltrated an industry that did not traditionally give him a seat at the table, only to eventually sit at the head of it. Even after his departure from Vogue, he was still considered a formidable figure in fashion and commanded the awe and respect of his contemporaries. If nothing else, Talley's legacy is this: no matter where you come from, you can always live your wildest dreams while remaining true to yourself.
Talley once said “I do believe there’s a heaven. I do believe that God has given me the resilience and the survival skills to withstand the chiffon trenches.” To this I say: not only did Talley survive the chiffon trenches, he thrived within them with a fabulosity and grit that will be hard to come by in the years to come. In my estimation, Heaven has gained a most marvelous angel.