Big, Bad André Leon Talley
Durham, North Carolina is known for a lot of things — City of Medicine, tobacco warehouses, basketball — on both sides of the track. But my home for the past 20 years is also known for producing one of the most well-known fashion visionaries of our time, André Leon Talley. The famed Vogue magazine editor was known in inner circles as the “pharaoh of fabulosity.”
"It was my gateway to the world, outside of Durham, North Carolina."
Talley loved Durham, but he also loved Vogue. That glamorous world was everything to this Black man — a six-foot-six fabulous fashion force. In 2018 on NPR’s Fresh Air, Talley explained his fascination with the iconic magazine.
"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 the world that I did not know, had not been exposed to,” said Talley. “It was my gateway to the world, outside of Durham, North Carolina.”
Talley, a graduate of Durham’s Hillside High School and North Carolina Central University, was honored with the Key to the City in 2019. In 2021, Talley received the state’s highest civilian honor, the North Carolina Award. He died last month in White Plains, NY at the age of 73.
When Talley wasn’t in New York, Paris or Milan, fighting to diversify the fashion world, he was often right here, in his Southern hometown spreading his knowledge of the world.
Talley understood his place in the world — without ignoring his race, culture and responsibility. In a popular quote from his 2018 biography, The Gospel According to André, “You don’t get up and say, ‘look I’m Black and I’m proud,’ you just do it and it impacts the culture.”
Andre Vann, the coordinator of university archives and instructor of public history at North Carolina Central, says many people influenced Talley. Vann wonders what wisdom Talley received from his Southern front porch.
“You just wonder, what stories that front porch could tell,” said Vann. “One just wonders about the imagination and what he must have conjured up to believe that he could go beyond this rural tobacco town.”
"We had a wonderful life because I didn’t know anything but love, unconditional love."
Vann says Talley’s fashion sense and flair were evident even as he walked the halls of Hillside High School or when he went to church. Talley was raised by his grandmother, Bennie Frances Davis, who made sure his clothes and sheets were impeccably starched. Talley told Fresh Air that his grandmother was a maid at Duke University, but so much more.
“She was an extraordinary woman, she was a frugal woman, she watched her budget, she had a bank account,” said Talley. “We had a wonderful life because I didn’t know anything but love, unconditional love.”
It takes a lot of love and confidence to produce something as bodacious and "extra" as André Leon Talley. There was a good chance — when he showed up at fashion shows and premieres around the world — all eyes were on him and his one-of-a-kind wardrobe. The capes, the caftans, the colors!
A fashion legacy
Talley reminds me of a fabulous woman I met who grew up down the street from Durham, in Chapel Hill. Mechi Holt is a celebrity stylist in her own right. She’s the CEO and founder of Heiress House. Heiress — that’s what she’s called by clients — remembers designing her first outfit.
“So, I took my 15-year-old self to my room, sat down on the floor and actually cut out a top and bottom silk pantsuit and I wear it to school the next day,” Heiress says with a smile. “And I am so embarrassed!”
"He’s such an amazing force that cannot be reckoned with."
But, Heiress says, amazingly classmates stopped her and said they loved it and if she could make them one. Her career was born.
Today, Heiress, who is African American, considers herself a wardrobe visionary and fashion stylist. She has clothed reality TV stars and celebrities for the Grammys and other red carpet events. Heiress says she has always admired Talley and thanks him for his reminding the world, Black is beautiful.
"He’s such an amazing force that cannot be reckoned with. I just have to put that out there,” said Heiress. "He’s just someone I truly admired so much."