Everyone loves an underdog story; from rags to riches, slums to super-stardom. When a story involves a certain level of kismet, it makes the journey seem even more magical – right place, right time, it was just meant to be. The life story of André Leon Talley, former editor-at-large at Vogue, is one such story, unlike any other, making it the perfect subject for director Kate Novack‘s latest release, The Gospel According to André.
Talley was born in 1949, quickly abandoned by his parents and brought up by his strict but stylish grandmother, Bennie (you can read Talley’s touching short essay about her here). With little money, Bennie made do, instilling a sense of pride and style in André, ensuring their clothes were crisp and clean and that he was well fed and looked after. Growing up in the South during the Jim Crow era, Talley was an easy target for bullies and racists – tall and lanky, black, gay. Segregation, rallies, violence – everyday life for Talley, his family, his friends, neighbours, fellow students. Despite the outlook seeming rather grey, Bennie encouraged Talley to push himself at school and college, earning a scholarship to Brown University and completing an MA in French Literature in 1972.
After landing a job at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, the only way was up for Talley, soon hired by Diana Vreeland, outspoken editor-in-chief at Vogue and consultant for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Writing for Women’s Wear Daily, W and the New York Times, André himself soon caught the attention of Vogue, working on and off for the magazine until 2013, when he stepped away from his editor-at-large role.
As a huge name and influence in the fashion world, Talley has worked with the cream of the crop – all the big designers, fashion houses and publications, friends with the best of the best, whilst wearing only the chicest designs from runways around the world. But, as the documentary explores through archive footage and stories from André himself, it wasn’t an easy ride to the top, with very few understanding the pain behind his power.
While looking back on his life, present-day footage focuses on the 2016 American presidential election, Talley convinced Hillary Clinton will win (how wrong we all were) and in the days leading up to the vote, we see André assisting a friend in choosing a dress for her invitation to former president Barack Obama’s final formal dinner, with the pair of them laughing and joking that ‘the worst will never happen’. But why this focus, why this particular moment in American history? It all makes sense when we discover Talley’s humble beginnings; having rocks thrown at him while walking through his town, sitting at the back of the bus, attending an all-black High School. It feels as if the free-spirited years of the 1970s and 80s, when André was building his influential empire, were a reward for him and his clique of misfits. With Talley reflecting on the surprise outcome of the election, the look on his face says it all – it feels as if the country is moving backwards, to the difficult times of his childhood.
Featuring interviews with a cast of glamorous friends and colleagues, several snort-out-loud moments of laughter, and many warm, endearing clips of André himself, this is a heartfelt look at the story behind the man – an origin story full of love, determination, and style.
The Gospel According to André arrives in UK cinemas from 28 September.
Photos by Dustin Pittman/Penske Media/REX/Shutterstock