I am not a follower of fashion. I was a follower of André Leon Talley.
To fit into places never intended for us, Black people sometimes feel compelled to make ourselves smaller — to both be and not be. Don’t talk or laugh too loud lest you attract negative attention. Don’t be too opinionated or you’ll be viewed as difficult or, if you’re a Black woman, angry. Don’t carry your whole self wherever you go because that could make some white people uncomfortable.
Talley, who died Tuesday, ignored those restrictions. He carried himself as if every room he entered had been waiting for him to arrive. His life was a master class in entering — and owning — white-dominated spaces.
As Vogue’s creative director and an editor at large, he was one of the industry’s most influential figures. Talley wasn’t just the first Black person to reach such heights in an industry traditionally closed to those who looked like him. For years he was the only Black man wielding such power. A 1994 New Yorker profile of Talley was titled “The Only One,” a professional existence Talley described as “lonely.”
Yet Talley never contorted himself to fit in. Large not only in stature — he was 6-foot-6 — he was a boisterous and brilliant queer Black man with opinions and attitude to burn. He was confident in what he knew, and that illuminated all he did, whether it was as a journalist for some of the fashion industry’s most prestigious publications or in his 2020 memoir, “The Chiffon Trenches.”
While some dwelled on its dishy revelations, most poignant for some of us were his observations on racism.
“No matter what you do, who you are, what career you choose, as a black man, you realize every day that our country was founded on the misguided rules and conceits of racism and slavery,” Talley wrote. “Racism moves under the epidermis as a constant, constant reality. It’s part of the fabric of our existence.”
It was also part of Talley’s existence in fashion. In the 1994 New Yorker profile, Hilton Als wrote of a light moment that quickly soured when someone called Talley “a [n-word] dandy.” Als, who is also Black, wrote that while several people “laughed loudly,” no one laughed louder than Talley.
“But it seemed to me that a couple of things happened before he started laughing: he shuttered his eyes, his grin grew larger, and his back went rigid, as he saw his belief in the durability of glamour and allure shatter before him in a million glistening bits,” Als wrote. “Talley attempted to pick those pieces up. He sighed, then stood and said, ‘Come on, children. Let’s see something. Let’s visit the House of Galliano.’”
I can’t fathom how many times in his decades-long career Talley heard that epithet in the industry he loved. Whether spat out or spoken with a smile, it’s intended to leave a mark, levied as a kind of tax by white gatekeepers. It’s a barbed reminder for Black people to remember their assigned place.
This son of North Carolina would have none of it. Talley persisted. His inspiration reached beyond fashion, touching so many who must navigate unwelcoming spaces and keep our souls intact. Whenever I’m the only Black person in a room, I try to channel how I imagine Talley would handle the moment, one he knew too well.
In his memoir Talley wrote: “To my 12-year-old self raised in the segregated South, the idea of a black man playing any kind of role in this world seemed an impossibility. To think of where I’ve come from, where we’ve come from in my lifetime, and where we are today is amazing. Yet, of course, we still have so far to go.”
A self-described “custodian of style,” Talley held doors open for more models, designers, and creative directors of color. His legacy also thrives far from the runway for those of us who can’t tell Prada from Balenciaga. In wanting Black people to be celebrated, not just tolerated, Talley created an indelible design for how we should go not only where we’re allowed but where we belong.