André Leon Talley Speaks Truth on Diana Vreeland, Fashion Curation, & President Obama


André Leon Talley Speaks Truth on Diana Vreeland, Fashion Curation, & President Obama


Oh, you know him. Would you look at that cape? Check out those shoes. He looks like he stepped out the middle of somebody’s… fashion news? But really, you know him. He’s that magisterial man seated next to Anna Wintour in the front row, next to Tyra Banks on the judging panel, next to Jennifer Hudson on the red carpet. He played himself in Sex and the City: The Movie, duh.

André Leon Talley is American fashion incarnate: gregarious, consuming, and consumptive, pulled up by self-sought luxury bootstraps, doused in Southern hospitality, yet still capable of ripping a wicked one-liner like his bestie, Karl Lagerfeld. A reality TV star (America’s Next Top Model), a quippy columnist (Vogue‘s monthly “Life with André”), a red carpet reporter, a museum curator. André is our American at large, braving it all in the elite landscape of fashion entertainment, and fitting in gracefully where other men could never. He is also the loudest—I’d say unofficial but you never know—spokesman for Ugg boots.

Raised in Durham, North Carolina, André once wrote that he was a, “true fashion convert by the age of twelve,” a calling he pursued first as a receptionist at Andy Warhol’s Interview in 1975, then as a Paris fashion editor for WWD, and (and this is where everything came together, where fashion met art) as volunteer at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art under the incomparable Diana Vreeland. André joined Vogue in 1983, where he has worked in various capacities for the last three decades. In October 2011, the André Leon Talley Gallery opened at the Savanah College of Art and Design Museum of Art. He was already a SCAD trustee and an honorary Doctorate of Humanities and the namesake gallery was a natural extension of that relationship. It is also why you are reading this. Because, at the André Leon Talley Gallery in Savannah, Georgia, our favorite American fashion personality is exercising his Vreeland-old passion of fashion curation.

The Little Black Dress exhibit, the second of a regular series of shows André will curate, opened at the SCAD Museum of Art in September 2012. The show closes this week, on January 27, 2013. It will then move, in a few months time, to the Mona Bismarck American Center for Art & Culture.

From the show came a catalog, an elegant coffee table book published by Rizzoli, with a foreword by Paula Wallace and texts by Maureen Dowd, Robin Givhan, and Gioia Diliberto. The book is, of course, “by” André Leon Talley and André-isms—quelle fashion parlance! (that’s French, he’s versed, for fashion speak)—salt the text. Like, “The zenith of elegance in any woman’s wardrobe is the little black dress, the power of which suggests dash and refinement.” This catalog and show is what brought us to the man, the man in Uggs, the man whose Wikipedia page shows a gum and gap-tooth smiling sir in bejeweled lapels with a pin of our present POTUS and First Family. So without further adieu, in honor of the LBD and Beyoncé lip-syncing ‘The Star Spangled Banner“, here’s Mr. André Leon Talley on Diana Vreeland, fashion curation, and our President reelect…

(I  do recommend, if you aren’t already familiar, that you YouTube André Leon Talley now. Get his particular rhythm and intonation easing through your mind. It’ll be to your benefit.)

I was hoping we could start off by talking about Diana Vreeland, who really pioneered fashion’s relationship with the museum, and if and how she informed your approach to the curation here at SCAD.
Diana Vreeland taught me how to see clothes, not only for their exterior, but for their interior. What clothes are. She taught me that luxury is usually a hidden pleasure, not necessarily a thing on the surface; it can be very minute, in the details, a subtle fabric, a personal touch. And I certainly learned from her how to approach clothes in a museum setting, that exhibition setting is narrative. There must be something that sustains the viewer, some sort of emotional dialogue with the spectator, something beyond just looking at a dress and a title card.

How do you think putting clothes in a museum—especially something as basic as an LBD—changes the way we see fashion in our everyday lives?
The museum informs you on the individuality of fashion and how important it is to look at something that someone may have worn, something that was designed. It makes you think about how many choices there are in and around us as subjects. The Little Black Dress is not a boring subject! It used to be considered the uniform. It was the uniform of social respectability, the country club uniform of a certain affluent segment of society. Now, a little black dress is something for everyone. It comes in every form: it can be in a plastic fabric with fringe; it can be a big dress or it can be a small dress; a short dress or a semi long dress; it has sequins, it can be two pieces, it can have a huge cape, it can be made of extraordinary jersey with a cape, as Tom Ford does! It’s a woman’s choice or a man’s choice, in the case of Marc Jacobs.

I love that you included that garment [the sheer black lace Commes des Garcons dress that Marc Jacobs wore to the 2012 Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute gala] . I thought he looked amazing. Was it an obvious choice to include that one?
It certainly was because he created such a moment. His arrival was thunderous, it was just thunderous. Quiet thunder. Everyone was in awe. People didn’t know how to respond to it but it was a perfect moment and a perfect choice for Marc. And it symbolized to me a kind of great evolution of Marc Jacobs’ freedom, his sense of achievement: he’s at the gym, his body is fit, perfectly buff. He’s incredible and he’s at the top of his game and it was a very, very, very wonderful choice which will help other men, and I think women too, have a sense of liberation about when they get dressed. If they feel good enough to go out with white boxer shorts with a black lace dress, which is a lace dress for a man, and look that good with a beard and a man purse and those fabulous shoes with the big buckles… everything was impeccable and everything was such quality. The luxury in that look for me was that the white boxer shorts were as impeccable. That to me was the in luxury brought to the
surface. I love that and I think it was a very easy choice. Once he wore it, after he wore it, maybe it took me three weeks to think that that has to be in the show.

It really pushed boundaries.
Yes it did.

I’m wondering, where else can fashion push? What would you like to see that inspire in people?
The only thing that fashion can give people is pleasure, hopefully, personal pleasure, choice, and selectivity, and a sense of liberation and expression of individuality. It doesn’t always have to make a statement, but it should express some sense of personal choice, a personal entity. I think that’s what fashion is to a person, a selection that they make in a given moment.

Your show is full of contemporary selections which surprised me a little bit. Why did you choose to show so many contemporary pieces?
Because I think that’s rarely done. I felt that for a university setting, it’s very important to include contemporary designers. Clearly Marc Jacob’s choice that he made in 2012, had I done a historical or chronological, I couldn’t have included that. Or Rachel Feinstein’s dress with the big fur hat from Marc’s Fall/Winter collection which she wore last May but is in stores now. For her to wear that huge fur hat in May to a big event like the Metropolitan ball, with a black silk dress, which was designed to be worn in Fall/Winter, that was amazing. So these are choices and these choices rang out to me a certain kind of message of personal style. It’s all about style in the end, it’s not about fashion.

That’s a very Diana remark.
Well, in reference to her, I would say she was accurate!

I wanted to go back to that issue of the contemporary, because I know that’s been a contentious issue for museum curators before. I know that the Met put a ban on showing designers that were still alive and they see it as somehow corruptive. What do you think about that?
I have no opinion about that because I think it doesn’t exist anymore. You know now, they had Miuccia Prada in the last year. That’s a moot question now.

Well that’s a way of curtailing it because they paired it with Schiaparelli. They still have a ban that says that Miuccia could not be in there on her own, which is shocking because the contributions she has made are absolutely museum worthy.
I think that every institution has a way of approaching its sensibilities and its boundaries. I think the Met is the absolutely premier museum in the world for these kinds of exhibitions and it has been and it will be for a very long time.

Tell me a little bit about the Rizzoli catalog. You had it shot in black and white…
The black and white photographs by Adam Kuehl, a Sav grad, are wonderful. He understood immediately what I wanted to convey and we worked as a collaborative team. For the essays, I have Maureen Dowd, a Pulitzer prize winner, Robin Givhan, a Pulitzer prize winner. A Pulitzer prize was invented for Robin Givhan for fashion observation. It had never been given in that category. I’m very proud of the catalog. I had a wonderful time doing it. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to work on something like that. I mean, I love what I do. I love clothes. I love the history of clothes so it just comes out the gutter of my head.

We’re coming up on the inauguration of Obama’s second term and I know that you and Anna Wintour and Vogue have been great supporters of Obama. I was wondering if there was anything that you were hoping to see happen in this term and how you felt about America getting another four years.
I just hope that America as a country is the greatest country in the world. I wish for Obama to be successful in all his achievements, in all his policies. I think that the best thing to happen to us in America was the reelection of President Obama. It didn’t seem like it was going to happen and then it was just a huge, huge, huge success. I was sitting on my fingers all night long but… in any case, it’s a great moment for our country that President Obama is still in the White House. It’s like one of the greatest that happened, for sure.