André Leon Talley, the influential fashion journalist and former editor-at-large of US Vogue under Anna Wintour, has died at the age of 73.
TMZ reported that Talley had passed away on Tuesday at a New York hospital, of an unknown illness. His death was later confirmed by his literary agent, David Vigliano.
A larger-than-life character – and six foot seven inches tall – Talley was a pioneering figure in the fashion world, as known for his biting comments and flamboyant presence as the statement kaftans, hats and robes he frequently wore. In a career that spanned six decades, Talley used his position to champion diversity on the runway and behind the scenes in the fashion world.
Designer and close friend Diane von Furstenberg was among those to pay tribute on Wednesday. “Goodbye darling André … no one saw the world in a more glamorous way than you did,” she wrote. “No one was grander and more soulful than you were.”
Playwright Jeremy O’Harris wrote: “For a little black gay boy who reached for the stars from the south there were few people I could look up to up there amongst the stars who looked like me just more fab except for you André.
“For a generation of boys André Leon Talley was a beacon of grace and aspiration.”
Born in 1948 and raised in North Carolina in the Jim Crow era, Talley was a lifelong advocate of fashion, recalling in his 2020 memoir The Chiffon Trenches how he would visit his local library to read copies of Vogue magazine, which came to embody a world in which “bad things never happened”. Speaking to the Guardian in 2020, Talley recalled students at his university stoning him as he crossed campus on Sundays to buy Vogue.
His career in fashion began with an internship for former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1974. Vreeland, impressed with his skills, introduced Talley to contacts at Andy Warhol’s Factory and Interview magazine, where he worked as a receptionist. He began writing for publications including W and the New York Times, but it was at US Vogue that he made his name, rising up the ranks to become the magazine’s news director, then creative director until 1995 when he left. He returned to the magazine three years later and remained the editor-at-large until 2013.
Talley’s long working relationship with Vogue editor Anna Wintour would become the big selling point of his second memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, in which Talley took unsparing potshots at his former boss. Talley felt he had lost favour because “I had suddenly become too old, too overweight and too uncool”. Wintour, he wrote, was incapable of “simple human kindness” and “never really passionate about clothes. Power was her passion.” In the book he also detailed the sexual abuse he endured as a child, and the racism and sizeism he encountered throughout his life.
He felt “at home” in the fashion world, he once told the Guardian, because “there were no victims, only high-octane egos”.
In 2021 he was softer on Wintour, telling the Cut: “She’s the empress. She’s worked hard. She’s gone through many battles. She deserves everything they give her. At 72, to have that job, is very, very, very impressive. I wish her all the best.”
Talley also served as a judge on America’s Next Top Model and, in 2008, became the Obama family’s fashion advisor. He interviewed Michelle Obama for Vogue when she stepped into the role of first lady in 2009, later calling her “the most fashionable woman in America”. But in 2020 he publicly criticised the Obamas for throwing a birthday party during the Covid pandemic, telling the New York Times: “I think the nouveaux riches Obamas are seriously tone-deaf … the Obamas are in Marie Antoinette, tacky, let-them-eat-cake mode. They need to remember their humble roots.”
Talley never publicly defined his sexuality, calling himself “fluid”. He had never been in a relationship, he once said, something he attributed to being abused as a child. “I gave it all to my career,” he told the New York Times. “Diane von Furstenberg said, ‘He was afraid to fall in love,’ and I guess I was. I guess I was afraid, and I guess I was repressed. I grew up in a very strict household. But being in this world, moving around with all these incredible people … it was enough for me to have the friendship of Karl or the friendship of Yves Saint Laurent or the friendship of Azzedine Alaïa.”
Talley wrote two memoirs and was the subject of the 2018 documentary The Gospel According to André.
When asked if he would have been happier working outside of fashion, Talley said no. “My story is a fairytale of excess, and in every fairytale there is evil and darkness, but you overcome it with light,” he once told the Guardian. “I want every person I come across – the stranger on the street, the church member in the pew next to me – to feel love.”