André Leon Talley’s highly anticipated second memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, just hit shelves on Tuesday and is already a New York Times bestseller. But the buzz built around the book’s supposed bombshells about fashion industry gatekeepers like Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld have arguably threatened to overshadow the larger-than-life presence that is Talley himself—as well as calling into question whether it’s simply sour grapes to dish on an exclusionary industry only after one has ceased flourishing within it.
“In The Chiffon Trenches, Talley lays out his grievances and earnest despair at an inconvenient time...But it is hard to weep for someone who over his career received a benevolent corporate loan—along with gifts of designer clothes, rooms at the Ritz Hotel, designer luggage, fur bedding, first-class flights, and lots and lots of kowtowing,” wrote Robin Givhan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic for the Washington Post, in a Tuesday op-ed titled: “What André Leon Talley says about fashion says a lot about how fashion has changed.”
“As the creative director of American Vogue, Talley was not among the few African Americans at the top of the pyramid; for decades, he was the only one,” Givhan later adds. “He was seduced by fashion’s hierarchical structure when he sat at the top of it peering down; he derides that very system when he believes it has dismissed him.”
For many, it has also been difficult to reconcile Talley’s place and privilege in the relentlessly Eurocentric fashion industry with the white supremacy its imagery and hierarchies subconsciously perpetuate, but as Talley tells W magazine, he’s never considered his blackness debatable or been in denial about the industry in which he ascended.
“I think my blackness was always very on the front, on the epidermis—you could see that I was black, no one could say I was aping to be white,” he says. “Predominantly, any black man who lives in this country and is successful is part of the white supremacy of America. President Barack Obama had to walk through lanes of whiteness to get to where he was to become the first African-American president. You have to. This world is a world of white redundancy, supremacy, and white terror.”
Though comparing himself to Barack Obama may seem a reach, the same question has been asked of both the former president and former editor-at-large of Vogue: Having achieved the pinnacle of their respective careers, were expectations that each swing the gates open wide to others who looked like them entirely realistic? Like Obama, Talley—a towering, gay, sometimes overweight, black man from the South—satisfied or at least entertained the white gaze, his encyclopedic knowledge of fashion and fluency in French and Italian fascinating and fostering goodwill in those who might’ve been inclined to consider him an anomaly in the black race; disassociated with those aspects of our culture they might find distasteful. But Talley, for whom the black church has played a central role throughout his life, disputes any debate over his identity.
“As far as blackness is a concern, I want to address this: my blackness is paramount to me as a man. My blackness is always uppermost in my life. I always have had a sense of blackness,” he says. “I think that when people try to write and analyze me, they perhaps think I’ve fallen short of being black, as a black man. I have not fallen short of being a black man. I’m aware of my blackness, I’m aware I’m a black individual who came from enslaved people from Africa, who was a descendant of great, great generations of talent and geniuses, and people of color who are great masters in fields of science, art, literature, politics. I think, as an individual, I have indeed given a lot. I have shown my blackness through my work, my individuality, my personality, and my quiet advocacy. I get a lot of criticism: ‘Well, you were the only person on the front row, you didn’t do anything to help others!’ I did do things to help others, by example,” Talley maintains.
To his point, it’s difficult to say representation matters in the fashion industry and not think of Talley’s decades-long presence on the pages of Vogue and in the front row of countless fashion shows as an example of what was possible; arguably as much as seeing black models and designers on those catwalks. Even to those who question whether tokenism contributed to Talley’s ascension, there is no denying his talent. The question they are really asking is: Was his presence alone enough?
“When I was hired and got to the front row, wherever I was seated on the front row, I was not hired to be an advocate of civil rights, I was hired to be a fashion editor,” Talley tells W. “People forget, I was hired to work in the institutions of white supremacy. I was there in the ‘70s and there was no way I was going to bring with me ‘pied piper-ness’ of blackness. My blackitude was prominent in everything I did, in my education, and in my articulation of my knowledge. I’ve always had this body of knowledge.
“As a black man, you have to be 500 times smarter than the white person sitting next to you on the front row, because you are black and because of the fact that you are black, you have not had the opportunities...I had overcome the odds to get to the front row of the fashion world,” Talley continues, later adding: “When you speak of me, you must speak about my talents and knowledge, and that I also shared that knowledge and experiences of my education through the fashion world...And I always was aware of my blackness. I would be ridiculously, almost pathologically insane had I not been aware of my blackness and what I could contribute to the world.”
We have no interest in debating the merits or depth of Talley’s blackness, except to say that having a seat at the table isn’t the same as owning it—and as Talley found out more than once, one’s invitation can be swiftly and inexplicably revoked. But again: Did he do enough to diversify the industry? And what would be enough, exactly? Perhaps only Talley knows if he did as much as he could with the privilege he earned. After all, even Givhan concedes:
By simply being present, Talley has done his share to make fashion better. (My brief tenure at Vogue overlapped with Talley’s and he could not have been more welcoming.) Has it been enough? To whom much is given, much is expected. Perhaps too much.