During his five decades in fashion, editor and writer André Leon Talley has had a front row seat to the industry’s most important moments — and an invitation to rub elbows with its icons. His latest memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, out May 19, is filled with captivating anecdotes about his many adventures in fashion, spanning from his early days as an intern for Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute to his ascent to creative director at Vogue, where he worked closely with Anna Wintour before stepping back in 2013. (He is now listed by the magazine as a contributing editor.)
But Talley’s career has not been all glamour and style; while stories of glittering runway shows and parties with high-profile friends like Manolo Blahnik and Diane von Furstenberg abound, he also looks back with an unsparing eye on the fickle friendships, cruelty and self-serving nature of an industry often accused of exclusivity. While early coverage of The Chiffon Trenches has honed in on the buzzy details of Talley’s recent falling-out with Wintour, his memoir also reckons with harrowing allegations of discrimination, ranging from a colleague’s use of a racial slur as a nickname for him to one of his bosses at Women’s Wear Daily insinuating during a large meeting that he was having sex with every designer in Paris (the latter incident prompted Talley to resign in protest).
In a phone interview, Talley, who is social distancing at home in White Plains, N.Y., discussed how he responded to adversity in the industry, his favorite memory from Vogue and the most important lessons he learned from his mentor.
Your new memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, is about your decades as a fashion insider. You include many stories about glamorous events, but also many sobering accounts of racism and other kinds of discrimination you faced. Why was it important for you to show both sides of the industry?
As an African American man born in the United States of America, it was important for me to show the building blocks of my story, from my childhood to today. It’s simply a part of the fabric of society in America. Racism is always there, boiling on the front burners, evidenced during this pandemic in the terrible tragedy of Ahmaud Arbery, shot in Georgia in daylight.
Were you worried about being so candid?
I was not worried, or I wouldn’t have written the book. The book is a consequence of my strength.
For much of your career, you were one of the only black editors in the room, including for most of your time at Condé Nast. How did that impact you and your ambitions?
I may have been the only black person sitting in the front row, but blackness was before me in great counts of beauty, as in the black models, the wonderful black models at Saint Laurent, Givenchy. There were always blackness somewhere in the fashion world, so I never felt alone.
In my daily life, when I was at the apogee of my career, my ethnic color did not affect who I was. What affected me was the injustices, the racist statements that were made about me. I handled it by resigning from Women’s Wear Daily, because I had my own dignity. I am not made by the fashion world. I am made by coming up in the South in my grandmother’s home with great values of tradition, passion, education, religion and being properly decent. So when I confronted these moments of racism, I controlled my narrative by making choices. This is what people do to black men; they criminalize their very existence and they dehumanize them, even in the highest, loftiest world of fashion. But I did not become victimized. I simply soldiered on and did my work.
Did those pressures influence the work you wanted to do as a fashion journalist?
It did not impact what I wanted to do. I always respected my bosses and I did my assignments. Of course, I did creative things like an essay in Vanity Fair under Graydon Carter, who is a great editor. I called him from the phone from Paris and said, “I want to do Gone with the Wind, but I want the black people to be the aristocrats and I want the white people to be the field hands, the so-called indentured servants.” So Manolo Blahnik was a gardener, Naomi Campbell was Scarlett O’Hara and John Galliano was the house servant, cleaning the house and polishing the silver. This was one of the greatest things I’ve done in fashion, and it did have an impact. But I didn’t think about that every day, like, “How can I flip the switch?” My agenda was to do excellent work and to be perceived as a person who was talented and knew what he was talking about.
How do you think, on a more structural level, we can ensure that fashion is more diverse and more inclusive, not just in terms of the people who we see, but also the people in power?
It’s a consciousness. By being very conscious of diversity, by being able to articulate it to people in powerful positions, by perhaps being a person who is an influencer or considered an icon and who can impart to the world that diversity is, and should be, an aspect of progress.
What would you say to people who ask if you could have done more to increase opportunities for diversity in the fashion industry?
I would say, well, you try it. Walk in my shoes and see what you could do. … I didn’t have a bullhorn or a pulpit. I was brought up to be a quiet advocate for the injustices that have been going on for hundreds of years in this country based on the idea of white supremacy, which is really a vile, terrible thing. I hope that I’ve contributed something.
Diana Vreeland had a huge influence on you as a mentor, especially during the start of your career. What is the most important thing that you learned from her?
To be enthusiastic, to be curious and to have discipline. To help and be kind, to have decency and empathy. My advice to anyone [looking to work in fashion] is to never give up your dream. Do your homework — which is to say, do your research — and just keep the faith. Keep the faith, baby.
Is there a moment during your time in fashion that’s stayed with you as being the most significant?
The moment when Michelle Obama became First Lady and I had been given the honor by Anna Wintour to profile her for the March issue of Vogue. That was a great moment for Vogue and a great moment for me, to have been a part of that. I went to Washington in December to write the profile, and I got to participate in the inaugural festivities. I’m very proud of that.
You write very honestly about how some of your longtime friendships have evolved or ended, particularly with two very polarizing industry figures, Karl Lagerfeld and Wintour. How do you make peace with a friendship that’s run its course?
I soldier on and keep holding onto my faith in precious memories. I find a way to survive through the great moments — the gilded age of my friendships with wonderful, iconic and powerful people.
What have you been doing while social distancing? Are you still dressing up during the pandemic?
I’m not doing anything special besides reading a lot. I’m reading [Blake] Gopnik’s 900-page biography of Warhol and listening to music, watching old movies on TCM and a lot of Netflix. One of the greatest things I’ve watched in the last week is Michelle Obama’s Becoming, the documentary of her book tour, which is wonderful. I’ve watched it twice. And I don’t dress up. I wake up and put on the same thing I’ve worn for the last 10 years — a caftan.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.