DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Andre Leon Talley, fashion journalist and style arbiter, has helped shape the look of several glossy publications like Vogue and Vanity Fair for decades. "The Chiffon Trenches" is Talley's new memoir about his 50-year career. He spoke with NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates about faith, fashion and race.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: A certain echelon of the media world anxiously awaited Andre Leon Talley's book. Leaked early passages of "The Chiffon Trenches" described risks with Vogue editor Anna Wintour and the late designer Karl Lagerfeld. But if people are looking for venom, Talley says, look elsewhere.
ANDRE LEON TALLEY: This is not a salacious tell-all. It's not a dishy, gossipy, bitchy book. It was not meant to be that. It's who I am. It's what feel and what I think.
BATES: And what he thinks as a majestically sized African American who is often the only black man in very elite environments is informed by his beginnings in segregated Durham, N.C. Talley's parents worked in Washington, D.C., and he lived with his grandmother, Mrs. Bennie Frances Davis. From his grandmother, Talley learned good manners, to make a tight bed and how to make their home's wood floors gleam with polish. These became valued life lessons.
TALLEY: And these things stay with you. Maintenance stays with you. Polish stays with you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW I GOT OVER")
ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) I'm going to sing hallelujah. Oh, I just might shout...
BATES: Style was on display every Sunday when Talley and his grandmother would meet other family members at church.
TALLEY: I saw style in church. I saw style in my grandmother's sisters. They were all beautifully dressed. Church was the nucleus of our lives church. Church-going was pivotal to our existence.
BATES: His happy childhood wasn't totally idyllic, though. For several years, Talley was abused by at least one neighborhood man. He remained stoic and silent.
TALLEY: I did not want to tell my grandmother because I knew, whatever it was, it was very dark; it was wrong - but that I would be blamed for it. And the other person, the perpetrators, would not.
BATES: He soldiered on, majoring in French at North Carolina Central University then won a scholarship to graduate school at Brown. After Brown, he went to New York where a classmate's father sent a letter of introduction to Diana Vreeland, the legendary fashion editor who'd gone on to curate exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE EYE HAS TO TRAVEL")
DIANA VREELAND: Style is everything, George. It helps you get up in the morning. It helps you get down the stairs. It's a way of life. Without it, you're nobody.
BATES: That was Vreeland talking to writer George Plimpton in the documentary "The Eye Has To Travel." Talley says Vreeland's rigour and insistence on standards reminded him of his grandmother.
TALLEY: They were from different backgrounds, but they were so much alike to me. And I was so lucky to have both of them in my life.
BATES: Later, Vreeland introduced Talley to Andy Warhol, and he went to work for Interview magazine, then on to W and Women's Wear Daily, where he became their Paris correspondent. This 6-foot-6 brown kid in bespoke suits, comfortably fluent in French, was an industry unicorn - and not everyone approved.
TALLEY: I was smart, and I showed it. It goes back to when people can't figure out who you are and are afraid of you - and as you boldly, with confidence, show who you are to the world, certain people just have the fear of seeing someone tall and black suddenly come on the surface.
BATES: There were whispered racial slurs from some. One white publicist sneered he was Queen Kong. A black New Yorker writer thought Talley tolerated racial insults because he wanted to remain close to fashion's powerful whites.
TALLEY: The person took it out of context to make his theses for that article seem as if I was an Uncle Tom.
BATES: Here are Anna Wintour and tally in the 2018 documentary "The Gospel According To Andre."
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ANDRE")
ANNA WINTOUR: I think that Andre had some ambivalence about talking about race.
TALLEY: You don't make a loud noise. You don't scream. You don't get up and say, look - hey, I'm loud. I'm black, and I'm proud. You just do it. And then it's recognized, and somehow it impacts the culture.
BATES: And it did. Those red carpet greetings at the Met galas here with Rihanna in 2015.
(SOUNDBITE OF 2015 MET GALA TELECAST)
TALLEY: Queen of the night. Break it up. It's not enough. It's not enough. Beautiful.
RIHANNA: Thank you.
BATES: Writing the profile of Michelle Obama in 2009 for the cover of Vogue's power issue, getting Jennifer Hudson placed on the cover as she was starring in "Dreamgirls," writing about the significance of Beyonce's choice of Tyler Mitchell, the first black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover in its 125-year history - Andre Leon Talley's artful advocacy helped these things happen in his half-century in the fashion industry. It wasn't always easy. But as he concludes in the audio version of his book...
(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE CHIFFON TRENCHES")
TALLEY: I think it is a true wonder that I have come this far.
BATES: And, he says, he was able to do that with faith, love and prayer - and a whole lot of style.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
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