A Met Gala In Memoriam: André Leon Talley
The Gilded-Age-themed 2022 Met Gala is tonight, not quite eight months after the 2021 Met Gala, which COVID-19 delayed to September from May. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour — the gala’s chair since 1999 — worked with the pandemic-skewed calendar by creating a two-part exhibition. Tonight’s gala celebrates Part 2, called “In America: An Anthology of Fashion“; last year’s Part 1 was “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.
It feels appropriate that tonight’s gala was preceded by Friday’s star-studded and chic memorial service for André Leon Talley — the longtime Vogue editor-at-large and Met Gala fixture who died at age 73 on January 18. Talley — aka A.L.T., per the title of his 2003 memoir — has often been referred to as a towering figure in the fashion industry. Not only was he 6’6″ (some said 6’7″) and partial to wearing flamboyant, couture caftans and capes after gaining a substantial amount of weight in his 40s, but, for decades, he was one of the few top-level Black figures in the very white business of fashion.
Talley’s opinions were as big and bold as his physical presence, and — although I haven’t seen tonight’s Gala fashions yet — I suspect he would declare his celebration of life to be the superior style event of the past few days. When Talley spoke to fashion journalist Amy Odell last spring for her Wintour book, ANNA: The Biography (out tomorrow), he reminisced about the days when the gala was “a beautiful evening, when people dressed up beautifully in white tie or tails” raising funds for the Costume Institute, rather than a literal fancy-dress event, at which singer Katy Perry, in 2019, changed from a chandelier costume into a hamburger costume. At that same “Camp“-themed gala, Lady Gaga unveiled four different looks on her way in, stripping from a neon-pink Brandon Maxwell gown with an ALT-worthy 25′ train to her underwear and platform shoes. Of that performance, Talley said to Odell:
“I love Lady Gaga, but when she unfurled in that cape into that bra and panty thing up the pink steps, I think it was a bit decadent. It was decadent, it was decaying — it was a decaying moment. That’s just me, it was a decaying moment. Actually, it was a death knell at that point, and then we had the pandemic.”
Notably, Talley didn’t attend that event, after Wintour dropped him as the host of the Met Gala livestream. Following a ruthless and decades-old Vogue tradition of abrupt firings — including that of Talley’s one-time boss, Diana Vreeland, in 1971 — no one bothered to tell Talley personally that he was being replaced with comedian and YouTube star Liza Koshy. In his score-settling second memoir, 2020’s The Chiffon Trenches, Talley speculated that he’d become “too old, too overweight, and too uncool.” But he still had the history and the knowledge. “What could this talented YouTuber offer?” he wrote. “Surely she didn’t know what a martingale back is to a Balenciaga one-seamed coat.”
Even so, Talley said, he would have understood if Wintour — his close colleague since 1983 — had just spoken to him. He wrote:
“If Anna had called and said, ‘André, we’re thinking of going in a different direction [for the Met ball], it’s important for our brand,’ I would have said, ‘Fine. That’s great.’ And I’d have come in my Tom Ford cape – I always wear Tom Ford – and enjoyed my dinner.”
The hurt lasted, and Talley referred to himself as “wrapped in neglect,” but by the time of Odell’s interviews, he said he and Wintour had been exchanging friendly texts. He admitted, “To this day, I still want the approval and the admiration and the acceptance of Anna Wintour.” I suppose Talley would be relieved to know that Wintour not only spoke at his memorial, but took off her signature sunglasses to do so.
There’s been a lot of commentary, both before and after Talley’s death, about whether his life was a luxurious tragedy — an object lesson in the myth that the people you work with can ever take the place of family, or that a lot of Hermes can make you happy. After being a sexually abused and bullied child raised by an adoring grandmother, Talley never had a real intimate relationship. Hadley Freeman, interviewing Talley about Chiffon Trenches for the Guardian in May 2020, told him “… it sounds as if he spent his life looking for mother figures; maybe he forgot that Wintour was his boss, not his mother.” Talley had earlier, in 2018, told the New York Times he was broke, though he could still play tennis in Louis Vuitton, and in 2021, the Times revealed that another one-time fashion friend, former Manolo Blahnik CEO George Malkemus and his husband Anthony Yurgaitis, were trying to evict Talley from a home in White Plains, N.Y. (Talley said the house was a gift, while Malkemus said Talley was failing to pay rent. Malkemus died at age 67, of cancer, last September, and the legal battle was settled by the estates of Talley and Malkemus this March.) Of course, as a uniquely noticeable Black gay man in fashion — a New Yorker profile of Talley in 1994 was titled “The Only One” — he endured both racism and homophobia. (In a 2018 documentary called The Gospel According to André, he said slurs included “Queen Kong.”) Some other Black creatives complained that his difficulties fitting in made him less, not more, likely to lend a helping hand to others who faced the same prejudices. Even during the good times with Wintour, she repeatedly held “interventions” about his weight, which topped 300 pounds … and, weirdly, led to my possession of an artwork that I have mixed feelings about.
I’ve included a lot of links in this post to articles on Talley, and you can use Poodle to find even more sad takes. I want, instead, to end this tribute with two lovely memories people shared about fleeting encounters with this complicated man. The first was a thank you left on the Times’ Talley obituary, pointed out by Evan Ross Katz.
CLICK TO READ THE THANK YOU ON INSTAGRAM.
The second was shared on Facebook by designer Gilda Su, who I first met nearly 15 years ago through blogging. She wrote:
“I met him at Chanel’s resort runway. He was one of the most famous people in the fashion industry, and probably also one of the nicest I had met. He said ok to anyone wanting a photo. He actually asked how I was doing, and complimented my outfit. He asked what I did for a living, and if designers are doing ok in Singapore. He looked away when the flash went off, and I didn’t realize it, but he did, and he actually said stop, let’s take another because I looked away. He asked his PA (or somebody) to take photos for him on his phone too. No one is ever this nice. Fashion lost a nice man today, and what a character he was.”
When someone famous dies, there’s an outpouring on social media, with people sharing photos of them with the deceased. In short order, other people chime in, but to slam the folks sharing photos for centering themselves. You know what? Fuck the haters. I love seeing the personal photos and reading the memories. Stories like that don’t make it into the big official obituaries, but they say something about the famous person who took a moment to be kind, and remind me how much people treasure small kindnesses. I actually got choked up over Gilda’s anecdote. (It reminded me how I special I felt when New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham spoke to me ever so briefly about vintage clothing.)
Even better, Gilda’s experience wasn’t a one-off. Talley was on the board of trustees of the Savannah College of Art & Design for over 13 years. In a tribute, SCAD president Paula Wallace said Talley “coordinated internships and job opportunities with major fashion houses, designers, film and television studios and gave insight to over 50 final collections in the annual SCAD fashion shows.” She also said that, after a screening of his documentary, Talley “held forth on stage for hours, taking selfies with at least a hundred eager students, making each one feel loved and seen.” That’s what it’s all about. That moment of connection, of feeling seen.
I’m not sure I would have searched out the SCAD tribute or been so attentive to Talley’s impact there if it wasn’t for the personal stories from the Times commenter and Gilda. So, when it comes to memorializing people on social media, I’m going with the policy declared by iconic NYC columnist Michael Musto.
For real, when I go, you have my permission to post all the best photos of me and tell the nicest stories you can think of. And while I’m still alive and kicking, I’m going to have to find a way to take Michael Musto up on his offer. I definitely need a photo with him to go with my tale about the time I called him at the Village Voice when I was in high school and, to my shock and joy, he was very nice to me on the phone. See? That stuff sticks — for more than 30 years, in my case — so I do love knowing that so many people have similar anecdotes to tell about Talley. I’m pretty sure that every time someone shares an ALT memory like that, a certain fashionable angel gets another voluminous cape (and matching wings).
P.S. Stay union strong, Vogue and other Condé Nast staffers!