“He’s the Nelson Mandela of couture.” While many inside the fashion world agree with will.i.am’s statement about André Leon Talley, he remains a mystery to many outside this exclusive world where models, designers, and runways abound. In the sixth week of its 2018 Spring Season, Stranger Than Fiction hosted the New York premiere of The Gospel According to André, a fascinating look at the man behind the persona that is André Leon Talley and the long and winding road that produced the man he is today.
The film opens with André proclaiming “I don’t live for fashion, I live for beauty and style. Fashion is fleeting, style remains.” While André’s sense of style is on display for much of the film, its beginnings spawned long ago, in Durham, North Carolina. Raised by a strict grandmother (whom he adored) in the Jim Crow South, André explains that while most of the local population spent their week in work clothes or uniforms, on Sunday, “it was a moral code to dress well.” Surrounded by family and friends in their Sunday best, André was transfixed. He saw Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge in the people of his community. And while he loved his neighborhood, he knew greater things were in his future. While the Civil Rights Movement swirled around him, he found that his “escape from reality was a magazine.” That magazine happened to be Vogue, and the roots of a fashion icon began to form.
André eventually made his way to Brown University, where this transformation truly began. “Brown gave me a liberation,” André explains. “I was inspired by people who dared to be daring.” He quickly made friends at Providence’s other renowned college, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). While Brown was more conservative, one of his classmates remarked that on RISD’s campus, “He was was spreading his wings and he could be anything he wanted here.” It was this gained confidence that eventually allowed André to create a gossip and fashion column for Brown’s school newspaper, detailing much of the Providence nightlife and making use of the keen eye for style he had developed back in Durham.
From Providence, the jump to New York was easy. André landed an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, assisting Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute. He saw immediate parallels between Ms. Vreeland and his grandmother, who both believed that life’s goal was “to give the world some kind of spark.” The work ethic his grandmother instilled in him made his services invaluable at the MET, at Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, and eventually inside the magazine he read as a child, working his way up along other famous names such as Anna Wintour. André quickly became one of her most respected colleagues, as Anna notes, “My fashion history’s not so great, and his is impeccable.” In the film, André attributes this success at Vogue to the outlook ingrained in him by Ms. Vreeland. “You have to see the world through the kaleidoscope eyes of a child, and just be in awe of everything.”
This success came at a cost, though. Near the end of the film, André truly opens up about some of the tougher moments he’s faced, including being dubbed “Queen Kong” by members of the Paris fashion circuit. Rumors surfaced of his sleeping with every designer in Paris, ones to this day that he vehemently denies. Those scars run deep, and they’re still healing. Whoopi Goldberg remarks that André “helped break down a lot of walls. He was like the black Rockette.” André follows her point by once again invoking his youth, recounting that people ask him “How do you put up with this world for so long? I do it through my faith and my ancestors.” He takes it one step further, saying that after success, “you must always look back on the place from whence you came.”
Director Kate Novack and producer Andrew Rossi expanded upon his point in the Q&A following the film. When Novack was asked about what drew her to André, she said that in other films, he’s “always talking about other people, commenting on other people, kind of the supporting actor, in a way. And his story is so interesting - and he was the only one, the only African-American at his level within the fashion world for so many years.” Rossi also explained that the filmmaking team attempted “to put together a film that’s not just a biography, but also a work of fashion scholarship. And that’s something that André, that I remember him and Ralph Rucci really being excited by. This is a document of all that cultural history.” In the end, though, Novack wanted to prioritize the connection between André’s past and his present. She explains that while shooting at the Conde Nast Archive, he became emotional, a special moment she was glad he allowed him to share. “Going from the works in Vogue that he had looked at as a boy, all the way through to that Michelle Obama cover, which he had written, really moved him.”
It’s clear the film - and André himself - will move audiences as it continues its theatrical run throughout the summer. The documentary is being distributed by Magnolia pictures and officially began its run on April 27th, 2018. Check www.thegospelaccordingtoandre.com for tickets at a theater near you.