Directed by: Kate Novack
Produced: Andrew Rossi & Josh Braun
Cinematography: Bryan Sarkinen
Original Music: Ian Hultquist & Sofia Hultquist
Starring: André Leon Talley, Sean Combs, Divine, Tom Ford, Whoopi Goldberg.
The scene is a Paris show for the international fashion elite. A model in a lavish fur coat removes it to reveal an equally lavish fur bolero as she attempts to catwalk through a crush of bodies in an overcrowded suite of rooms. This documentary opens a window onto a world of dress-ups, where haute couture is an instrument to uplift the soul and the task is to remake the world into a more inclusive and light-hearted place. At least, that is the mission for André Leon Talley.
A tall black man. ‘A pine tree of a guy in fedora hat’. Could a more unlikely candidate be welcomed into the highest echelons of the international fashion scene in the 1970s, than a man who more than once has described himself as a manatee (a large sea mammal with flippers)?
Whenever I watch a biopic, one particular question always intrigues me. How did they do it? And when that question is asked of such an unlikely subject as Talley, the answer is even more compelling.
When he arrived there, New York was considered to be the centre of everything, and Talley found himself at the very epicentre when he worked for Andy Warhol at the Factory. Here, he met and became a lifelong friend of Karl Lagerfeld and, soon after, the legendary Diana Vreeland’s protégée. They met when he helped Mrs Vreeland set up one of her high fashion extravaganzas at the Metropolitan Museum. This, too, would be the beginning of an enduring friendship and eventually lead to a thirty year association with Vogue.
All this was a very long way from his early life. Talley was brought up by his grandmother in the Deep South, the heart of Jim Crow country. Not only did the Jim Crow laws define a particularly vicious type of segregation, but it also meant that lynchings occurred until as late as 1975. It is hard to imagine how frightened, disenfranchised and deeply angry Tally must have felt as thirteen-year-old taking a shortcut back from the newsagents when a car full of youths pulled up and they hurled rocks at him, all because he was a black person with the temerity to walk across the campus at Duke University.
Even so, those early years laid the groundwork for Talley’s future path in life. The Church as the bastion of southern culture was essentially a fashion show and introduced Talley to its unspoken language. He began with hats, since his beloved grandmother had one for every season and every occasion, but he soon learned to read with fluency and subtlety across the lexis of style: ‘two bracelets instead of one means you’re wealthy’.
André Leon Talley became so many things he wasn’t supposed to be. A long-time friend described him as, ‘A man with a pure cashmere heart.’ And he was ‘A man who achieved his dreams’, according to André.
For those who wish to take a peek from a fashion insider’s perspective as well as those who want to look closely into an unusual life and find out how he did it, I can recommend this as a sensitive portrait of the man and a captivating documentary of his times.
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