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André Leon Talley Corrects the Record

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“I live on a relatively grand scale, because that’s the way fashion is,” André Leon Talley wrote in his 2003 memoir, A.L.T. “By its very nature, it is larger than life. It’s fickle, it’s flamboyant, and it’s fabulous.”

Though sprinkled with gossipy tidbits (Betty Catroux wore boys’ T-shirts beneath her YSL couture! Halston served dinner guests baked potatoes and piles of cocaine!), A.L.T. is less a book about fashion than a story of a sensibility and how it was forged. It’s a story of a black man from the South improbably rising to the very top of the systems of fashion and publishing—the intersection of money, influence, glamour, and power. It’s the story of queerness sublimated into taste: a reverence for indomitable women, luxurious objects, sensual (but never sexual) pleasures. It’s the story of the flamboyant and the fabulous. Now, 17 years on, Talley has finally got to the fickle, in his new memoir, The Chiffon Trenches.

THE CHIFFON TRENCHES: A MEMOIR by André Leon Talley Ballantine Books, 304 pp., $28.00

Yes, it’s more of the same—incredibly, Talley repeats the anecdotes about Catroux and her T-shirts and Halston and his cocaine. But the vantage is different, Talley more exile than insider. This is an account of his excommunication from the inner circle by his friend of many years, the designer Karl Lagerfeld, before Lagerfeld died in 2019. It’s a public reckoning with Vogue, his longtime perch, where he is now an emeritus presence. It’s the cautionary tale of a man whose influence has diminished in inverse proportion to his girth, for fat is a cardinal sin in the beau monde, which manages to be both hedonistic and ascetic.

If you know him only as the camp loudmouth on Entertainment Tonight gushing over starlets walking the red carpet there’s some useful context here. Talley was raised by a great-grandmother and grandmother who boiled the laundry and ironed the sheets. This fact may illuminate his kinship with Mrs. Vreeland (never Diana!), the legendary editor of Vogue who took Talley up as a protégé, with her closet full of Porthault linens. Talley did his master’s at Brown—his thesis: “North African Figures in Nineteenth-Century French Painting and Prose”—and a classmate’s father brokered an introduction to Vreeland, who had gone to the Metropolitan Museum of Art after S.I. Newhouse dismissed her from Vogue. Talley worked alongside her in the Costume Institute, an unpaid “volunteer,” then Vreeland sent him off to Andy Warhol, who hired Talley at Interview.

That magazine assigned Talley to profile Lagerfeld. “We spoke about the eighteenth century: the style, the culture, the carpets, the people, the women, the dresses, the way the French entertained, set a table,” he writes. You assume there’s exaggeration in Talley’s bluster, but it’s not difficult to imagine these two bonding over French carpets. The meeting ends with the designer beckoning the journalist into his bedroom, not for an assignation but to give him some bespoke hand-me-downs from Hilditch & Key: “silk crêpe de chine shirts in kelly green and pink peony, each with a matching scarf.”

Talley graduated to a gig at Women’s Wear Daily, working for the legendary John Fairchild. (“A kind of god,” Talley writes. “He could destroy a designer by refusing to cover them.”) Fairchild pushes Talley to see:

From him I learned how to embrace what was going on around me in 360 degrees. What makes a beautiful dress? Hems, seams, the way it’s put together. The ruffles. How’s the ruffle? How’s the bow tie? What’s the combination of colors, what’s the combination of fabrics? There’s Mounia on the runway, in what? What was Yves’s inspiration? What is the music behind her? And what is the chandelier behind her? And there are roses, why are they there? Why is she wearing that shoe? And what is the lipstick? What is going on in the mind of the designer?

Knowledgeable and outré, Talley thrived, charming the industry’s aristocrats like Oscar de la Renta and its arrivistes like Halston (queers from the provinces have always done well in New York; look at Warhol):

I glided through this world with extreme caution and my usual armor: my fashion choices. Banana cable knee socks and elegant moccasins. Or Brooks Brothers penny loafers. Neckties, my Karl Lagerfeld castoffs, and Turnbull & Asser shirts. I never spent a dime on drugs. My money was spent on luxury.

He was promoted and dispatched to Paris, where Lagerfeld took especial interest in him. “People thought I was Karl Lagerfeld’s lover,” Talley says. “I was not. Nor was I ever. Nor was I Diana Vreeland’s, as some people gossiped. There is always the thought that as I am a black man, it can only be my genitals that people respond to.” No wonder he needed that fashionable armor: “I depended on sartorial boldness to camouflage my interior vortex of pain, insecurity, and doubt.… I never wanted to look like anyone else.”

Paris was splendid but cruel. A WWD exec accused Talley of sleeping with every designer on the scene. “I was just a big black buck, sent to satisfy the sexual needs of designers, be they man or woman—I had no talent, no point of view or knowledge of fashion.” A friend told Talley that another fashion habitué had been referring to him as “Queen Kong.” “It’s the worst kind of pain,” Talley writes. Lagerfeld bought Talley a ticket back to New York.

These anecdotes made me wince, remembering Hilton Als’s 1994 New Yorker profile of Talley, a text I pored over as a closeted teen (like teenage Talley reading Vogue at the library!). The piece ends at a luncheon Talley organized during the Paris couture, the guests all lining up for a group photograph. Loulou de la Falaise—long a designer and muse at Yves Saint Laurent—complains, “I will stand there only if André tries not to look like such a nigger dandy.”

★★★

Back stateside, Talley interviewed with Grace Mirabella (Vreeland’s successor at Vogue, herself succeeded by Anna Wintour in 1988). Talley claims Mirabella said: “I remember you … sitting in the front row at Claude Montana, madly applauding the collection on the runway. And then I saw you at Thierry Mugler, clapping loudly. Why is that?” How could patrician Grace Mirabella, champion of Donna Karan’s commonsense chic, understand the provocations of Montana and Mugler? Her question contained a disdain for Talley’s exuberance, or really his queerness and blackness.

Indeed, fashion is perhaps his only expression of the former. “Sex confused and bewildered me,” Talley writes. “In respectable Southern black households, it was simply not discussed. Physical intimacy of any kind was kept to a bare minimum.” He writes of his sexual abuse at the hands of a neighbor, then a succession of local boys. It’s terrible, and the ramifications are clear to the reader even if they’re largely unexamined (on the page anyway) by the author. “Love has not been in my life in any degree,” he tells us. “I have had many emotional highs and definite lows when it comes to love and romance, and yet I am alone.”

The Chiffon Trenches has been much talked about for the promise of dish. There is that. It’s hardly illuminating (Karl Lagerfeld was a nut; Anna Wintour is dogged), though the specifics are delicious. Divulging what Talley has to tell will spoil one of the pleasures of the memoir, but the book is less interesting as gossip than it is as a correction of the record, the man insisting on defining his legacy.

He wants to have his say, even if that’s rude.Vogue was a culture of deportment, a culture of manners. This was all unspoken, yet it was crystal clear. Flowers were sent and thank-you notes were handwritten,” Talley writes. It’s a violation of that culture of deportment for him to tell all, but important to declare his life an accomplishment of blackness. He is right to. This is a man whose friend called him a “nigger dandy.” What must his detractors have said?

Talley knows that the world has changed (imagine Grace Coddington flying coach!) but cannot quite comprehend the betrayal. He assumed Wintour would choose loyalty to him over page views. He believed Lagerfeld’s largesse and Wintour’s loyalty made him rich and powerful as well. Talley is maddening, but he breaks your heart. The writer’s voice is like his body and personality: unruly. I kept fretting: André, girl, what are you thinking? Don’t imagine this book a burned bridge: You know that if Wintour beckoned, Talley would run to her.

Talley, now 70, writes wistfully of how, after her dismissal from Condé Nast, Diana Vreeland’s pals looked after her. I do hope one of the spoiled millionaires he spent his career trumpeting will return the favor and see to Talley’s care. As Hilton Als noted, Talley was the only one for so long—in Talley’s words, “the only black man among a sea of white titans of style.” British Vogue is now run by a black man, Edward Enninful. Another black man, Virgil Abloh, designs the men’s collections for Louis Vuitton, while LVMH has gone into business with Rihanna. Talley isn’t the only one anymore, the fruit of his years in the trenches.


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Inside The New Economy Where People ‘Buy Nothing’ and Give Everything

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Lorie Gassie misses the library. Since the pandemic shut down her local branch, the Queens resident has a pile of overdue books in her apartment that she cannot return.

That’s what brought Gassie to my stoop last week. I met her on Facebook, where we are both members of a Buy Nothing group aimed to create a little gift economy among its roughly 1300 members.  

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Where To Buy The Best Second-Hand Designer Bags

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All products are independently selected by our editors. If you buy something, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The pull of a designer bag is legendary. There have been totes we’ve yearned for more than our sixth form crush. It’s totally legitimate to fall in love with an inanimate object, right? But even if you’re not about to pledge allegiance to a handbag, you’ve got to admit there is magic in a designer bag in the way that clothes can’t quite incite.

If you’re searching for a little something to treat yourself to, post lockdown (or even as something to make your house-bound hours more exciting) there’s nothing better than a new bag to beat the blues. Except it doesn’t have to be new. Resale sites are one of the fashion industry’s fastest growing categories and a second-hand bag is a brilliant way to save money. As we all try to shop more consciously, its also a brilliant way to shop sustainably. There is nothing more sustainable that something already in existence.

Some vintage bags are also proving to be safer investments than stocks and shares because bags are the accessory that appreciate fastest. Vintage preloved handbags have risen in value by an average of 8% per year over the last decade and also outperformed the price of gold. Kerching.

Despite those figures, if you’re looking to get involved with your favourite brand, preloved is still the way you can do so, at a bargain price. Designer bags play on the brand’s style signatures, which can make them easy to fake but on closer inspection you’ll be able to see what is real or not. Check the hardware, leather, stitching, authenticity cards and serial numbers and ask the seller to provide more pictures or more detailed history.

Charlotte Staerck is co-founder and retail director of Handbag Clinic, which restores worn bags (everything from styles chewed by dogs or burned in fires) and also runs a resale platform. She advises, “Ask the year they bought their handbag and check the digits in the serial number correspond to the production year.

If it’s outside of that, it’s definitely a fake. The hardware colour should match the logo colour on the inside of the handbag. Also, quilted Chanel handbags have 10 stitches per inch. It can sometimes be ever so slightly outside of that, but never by much, so if you count seven stitches, you know it’s not authentic.”

These are our favourite sites to browse designer bag bargains:

vestiairecollective.com – The biggest hitter in the preloved market with thousands of new items listed every week. Charlie Collins, founder of creativewardrobe.co.uk has tips to get the best bargains, “Use the app to set up an alert on your favourite bag and try the offer system to float up to 30% off with the seller. The longer items are on the site, the more you will benefit from reductions so create a wishlist to track your favourite items.”

VC arrange pick ups and anonymous listings for the French Vogue team, apparently, and offer thorough authentication services before your purchases are sent to you.

handbagclinic.co.uk – All of the bags here will have had a vigorous zhuzh at the in-house restoration clinic before going on sale to ensure they completely pristine. You could find bargains with up to 83% off. Charlotte Staerck also revealed that the original Prada Nylon bags are in demand. “We sell vintage 90’s small nylon Prada bags for around £150 – £350.” We’ll race you…

xupes.com – Founded almost a decade ago, and originally specialising in watches and jewellery, xupes.com have been selling bags since 2015 and date them all to the year of manufacture. At the time of writing there was a denim Dior saddle bag on the site for £299…

farfetch.com – As well as collating the coolest independent boutiques around the world, FarFetch.com also launched a resale channel last year, where verified designer bags from a handful of major names are up for sale online. Sellers get store credit and you get to save a bag from landfill. Win win.

bagista.co.uk – Specialising in designer bags, this is the site to browse if you’re a bargain bagaholic. In season finds are listed with their current selling price point, so you can see how much of a discount you could score.

uk.designerexchange.com – With discounts of up to 85% this site has over 100 designer brands and more than 5000 items for sale but they also have bricks and mortar stores around the UK (although currently closed die to Covid-19) which you can visit for an IRL encounter with any potential purchase.

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Opal is making a return

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With its technicolour palette, the fabled opal enchants designers who deploy their talents to do justice to its magnificent lustre.
The rainbow of iridescent hues has, for generations, been enthralling jewellery designers, including Victoire de Castellane. It is her favourite stone – ideal for one of the finest colourists in the business.

Opals have featured in nearly all her Dior Joaillerie collections over the past 20 years because, as she explains: “It’s a very poetic stone; an invitation to a fairy tale, to magic. When I look at it, I see the earth from afar, the oceans, the archipelagos, and the reflections of stars on the waves.”

Dior et Moi black opal, emerald, red spinels, turquoise and lacquer earrings by Dior. Photo: Dior

Equally captivated by the opal’s qualities is Hong Kong jeweller Wendy Yue. “The characteristics of the stones provide endless amazing opportunities for me to create, nothing seems impossible or too far-fetched,” she says.

At David Morris in London, opals are one of Jeremy Morris’ favourite stones; as soon as he finishes a new piece it sells instantly. Opals are also the heart of Chopard’s floral jewellery, and a stunning 26.44-carat black opal ring (with blue-green flashes) circled by tiny yellow sapphire daisies, is being made in its atelier as part of the Exceptional Stones collection. Spectacular black opal specimens are set in Les Ciels de Chaumet’s collection as well, surrounded by diamond shooting stars.

Unlike other gemstones, the opal is non-crystalline and is formed from hardened silica gel that collects in the crevices of rocks or replaces organic material in fossilised wood, shell and bone. Its prismatic qualities fire off a myriad of colours that suddenly catch the eye.

Happy Floral brooch with opal. Photo: Chopard

They are also porous and quite fragile; the water in the stones makes them sensitive to dramatic temperature changes, and to see a carved white opal in the form of a coiled snake resting on a chunky gold ring in Gucci’s debut high jewellery collection Hortus Deliciarum (Garden of Delights) is rare.

Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele chose each of the stones for the collection, and many of the designs feature Gucci’s favourite mythical bestiary – tigers, lions and serpents.

Cartier uses a lot of the black and fragile white opal in its high jewellery, but a rare, large and spectacular matrix opal was a highlight of its 2019 Magnitude collection.

A polished earthy brown pebble, the stone’s veins flash with a tantalising pattern of blue and purple light, which Cartier enhanced with blue and purple sapphires.

The matrix opal is found in Queensland, northern Australia, and is a type of boulder opal attached to ironstone. Although 90 per cent of the world’s opals are sourced from Australia, only 2 per cent of that total is made up of boulder opals, which are considered the second most precious after the black opal.

Cartier High Jewellery Brooch with light opals and non-nacreous clam pearls. Photo: Cartier

It is not the first time Cartier has used matrix opal: a pendant in the 2014 L’Odyssée de Cartier collection had the pattern of reptile skin. As Pierre Rainero, the brand’s director of image, style and heritage, pointed out at the launch of Magnitude last year, the house has used ornamental stones since the early 20th century in its decorative objects.

“At Cartier, stones are part of a greater vocabulary that is not limited to just ornamental or precious,” Rainero said. “We transcend that nomenclature by combining them in our designs.”

Victoire de Castellane became riveted by them at the age of six, when she saw her grandmother, the aristocratic Silvia Rodriguez de Rivas, wearing a black opal surrounded by diamonds given to her by the heiress Barbara Hutton.

De Castellane describes them as “the strangest of stones with their different designs and ever-changing colours”.

Chaumet Bague Planetes black opal and diamond ring. Photo: Chaumet

Her Dior et Moi collection, unveiled in January, juxtaposes black opal with emeralds, red spinels and green lacquer, accentuating the opal’s iridescent colours in pendants and earrings.

Wendy Yue is similarly drawn to the unlimited shapes, colour and size of each individual stone whether black opal, pink opal or boulder opal. They have always been part of her design vocabulary.

“I am fascinated by how their play of fire interacts with other stones around it, bringing out their features and adding a new dimension to the piece,” she says. Her Owl of the Galaxy cuff blends black and shimmering milky-blue opals, while the Rosemania ring features the milky pink opal. “I like to focus on the colour and shape of each individual stone, creating pieces with a unique character and story behind it.”

Gucci carved light opal and gold ring. Photo: Gucci

The pink opal – milky or opaque pastel – is a more accessible hard stone, appearing in fine jewellery collections such as Louis Vuitton’s B Blossom and Fred, and in one of a kind pieces by Fei Liu and Brazilian designer Fernando Jorge.

Fire opals, meanwhile, are very different. They are an unusual variety of opal from Mexico, and a favourite of independent jewellers such as Eugenie Niarchos of Venyx, Lydia Courteille and Ornella Iannucci. Their colours range from yellow to rich orange and red, and are transparent enough to be faceted.

Welo opals from Ethiopia, discovered in 2009, feature an extraordinary inner flame. They are another example of why opals are some of the world’s most enthralling stones.

Note: This story was originally published on SCMP and has been republished on this website.

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