The five-time Grammy winner looks back on his career, ahead of receiving the country's highest civilian honor.
As New York Fashion Week kicks off at Lincoln Center, Andre Leon Talley, Vogue contributing editor and editor-at-large of Russian style magazine Numero Russia, says he’s always looking for “unexpected surprises and the fireworks at the great guns.”
Raised in Durham, North Carolina, by his grandmother, Talley realized the power of fashion after observing the fashion sense of women in his family.
“Church clothes were our couture clothes,” he told Here & Now. “In the weeks they worked hard, they were domestic maids, and on Sundays, everyone had gloves, everyone had polished shoes and bags, hats, and everything was just fabulous when they went to church. And that’s where I got my first awareness of how powerful fashion was.”
The variety of people on the runway is lacking in many respects
“Not necessarily in that order, but those are the ones that always give me something that I find very, very strong. It’s a certain kind of woman that each designer dresses, but each designer has something that really pushes fashion forward for me,” Talley said.
While the Fashion Week pieces are priced well out of reach of most Americans, high fashion can be affordable, Talley said. Top designers have second lines and it’s not uncommon for designers to create “pop-up collections” for stores such as Zara, H&M and Target.
“I once saw a girl at a fabulous party and she was wearing a dress that I thought was so Audrey Hepburn from the ’60s — little black dress with a full skirt, no sleeves — very chic, very simple. I said, ‘Where did you get that dress? It’s extraordinary!’ And she said, ‘I paid $50 for it at Target.'”
Another disconnect between the runway and most Americans is weight — most of the models are rail-thin. But there is a movement to have not all the models look underfed, Talley said.
“There should be room in the fashion world for people of many sizes,” Talley said, noting there should be more racial diversity as well. “The variety of people on the runway is lacking in many respects.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW. New York fashion week kicks off today at Lincoln Center, and iconic fashion editor Andre Leon Talley will be there with a front row seat. Talley is a contributing editor to Vogue and editor-at-large of Numero Russia, a style magazine based in Moscow. He is well-known for his exuberant presence, his pronounced opinions and his flashy designer kaftans. He's 63 years old, was born in Durham, North Carolina, has worked with fashion editor Diana Vreeland at the Met's Costume Institute. He worked for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and became a staple on the Studio 54 circuit.
He joined Vogue and its famous editor, Anna Wintour, in 1983. Shoe designer Manolo Blahnik once said Andre doesn't have fashion. Andre himself is fashion. Andre Leon Talley joins us now from the studios of NPR in New York. Welcome.
ANDRE LEON TALLEY: Thank you very much for having me.
HOBSON: Well, first of all, let's just talk about Fashion Week. It's about to kick off at Lincoln Center in New York. What are you looking forward to this year?
TALLEY: Well, I'm always looking forward to something exciting in every collection of all the great designers and also the unexpected talents. I just recently left the studio of an Indian designer who's only had three collections in Lincoln Center, and his name is Bibhu. His first name is Bibhu. I can't pronounce his last name because it's very complicated, but it ends like Cleopatra. But he is Indian born, and he has shown three collections. And I took notice of his clothes, and he invited me up to his studio to preview his spring collection, and it's outstanding. So I'm always looking for unexpected surprises and the fireworks at the great guns.
HOBSON: Well, what is it that's so great, for example, about this Indian designer you're talking about? What has he's done that you're so impressed by?
TALLEY: First, I noticed him when First Lady Michelle Obama wore one of his dresses on Jay Leno. Recently, in the last three or four months, she went on Jay Leno and she was wearing his dress. I noticed the pattern, and I looked it up, and it was this man Bibhu. Then I called in some of his dresses for a shoot I was doing for Numero Russia, a little black dress, and he sent two or three down, and they were just outstanding. He went to FIT, and then he went to work for a designer called J. Mendel, the French designer, and he honed his craft there. And I always say for any young designer who wants to go forward in life, learn, don't be afraid to pick up the pins and be an apprentice to someone, and you'll learn the fundamentals of your trade, and he has done that.
HOBSON: And we should say, by the way, we've done a little Googling, and his name is Bibhu Mohapatra.
TALLEY: Mohapatra, he said it. It sounded like Cleopatra.
TALLEY: Yes, that's his name, Mohapatra. Wow.
HOBSON: Well, who is the quintessential American designer in 2013? Who is your favorite right now?
TALLEY: Well, I can't say there's one. I would say that there are four top designers in America that you always look to for excitement: A) Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, five, and Carolina Herrera. Not necessarily in that order, but those are the ones that always give me something that I find very, very strong and very - it's a certain kind of woman that each designer dresses, but each designer has something that really pushes fashion forward for me.
At the same time, I'm looking at the row (unintelligible) Olsen twins, you know the Olsen twins, the child stars who became designers?
HOBSON: You mean Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen?
TALLEY: Yes. Mary Kate and Ashley are very, very solid designers in the American mainstream of the fashion world. And they work hard, and they research. They're very serious about their craft, and it's about the luxury and the understated quality of what they do. It's not about fireworks. It's about a kind of classical American tradition of maybe a cable-knit sweater or just a - even a cashmere cape, you know, like a poncho you'd wear on a plane in first class.
HOBSON: You know, it's funny you mentioned luxury, because a lot of what we see at fashion week, this year and every year, is going to be something that's well out of reach for most Americans.
TALLEY: Yes. But at same time, you have second lines. All the top designers have second lines, and you can always go to the great stores - Zara and H&M - and you can get designer - spice from designers who design sometimes, you know, pop-up collections for those brands, as well as Target. I can always find something fabulous at Target. I once saw a girl at a fabulous party, and she was wearing a dress that I thought was so Audrey Hepburn from the '60s - little black dress with a full skirt, no sleeves, very chic, very simple. I said, where did you get that dress? It's extraordinary. And she said I paid $50 for it at Target.
HOBSON: Well, let me ask you this, Andre Leon Talley, all of the models that we see at Fashion Week are probably going to be rail-thin, and yet most Americans are not anywhere near that. How do you square that? Why is that the case? Why are all the models so skinny?
TALLEY: Well, if you know, recently in the past years, there's been an initiative to not have all the models that look underfed. I mean, the CFDA initiative and Vogue and - there's been a concerted effort to show perhaps models that are not anorexic and being thin as they were in the past, which was the norm for fashion and fashion magazines. I don't know if you will remember, there was a famous model called Sophie Dahl, who was the daughter of Patricia Neal, the famous actress.
Sophie Dahl was discovered in London, and she was plump and very voluptuous and, I would say, had a Jane Russell silhouette. She went on to have a great career. And she lost weight. But there should be room in the fashion world for people of many sizes, which I also think and absolutely do miss. The variety of people in the runway is lacking in many respects. I don't know if you're aware that in August there was a great, great article by Eric Wilson in The New York Times called "The Blind Spot" about the lack of diversity on the runways, which, of course, is always prevalent.
People think that they are showing diversity, and diversity also applies to size as well as color. But people do not realize that when they show just one model of color in a lineup of maybe six Asian models that that is not showing diversity, that it's unconscious - I don't want to say racism, but it's a deliberate kind of effort to show a sameness. And unfortunately, the fashion world sometimes is a fickle world and there are trends, and the moods go from, say, one season you may have, you know, Sophie Dahl.
Now, everyone looks the same, and there are girls who are very, very skinny. But I have also - if you go to Europe, you can find the cult of personality where designers do - great designers tend to seek out the girl who's beautiful, not just because she's skinny. She may not be a perfect size two. She may not look like the girl next door, but she has something that brings something to the plate. And I do think that all girls should not look like they're underfed.
HOBSON: Iconic fashion editor Andre Leon Talley. And after the break, we'll continue our conversation and ask him about the roots of his personal style. We're listening here, by the way, to the soundtrack from the spring runway show of the design duo Costello Tagliapetra(ph). The designers - Tagliapietra, I should say. The designers are showing their stuff today in New York. So tell us, who influenced you when it comes to fashion? You can let us know at hereandnow.org or facebook.com/hereandnowradio. We'll be back with Andre Leon Talley after the break, HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW.
And let's get back to our conversation with Vogue contributing editor Andre Leon Talley. Earlier this year, he became editor-in-chief of the Russian style magazine Numero Russia. And, Andre, before the break, we were talking about the fashion industry. But I want to turn to your personal style. You've said you started reading the pages of Vogue around age nine, and you would tear out your favorite pictures and pin them up on the wall. You grew up, as we said, in Durham, North Carolina. You were raised by your grandmother. How did she impact your sense of fashion?
TALLEY: Well, when I was very young and I was the only grandchild in my grandmother's house. And my great grandmother, her mother and my grandmother lived in this house with myself - we were three. So it was a special world. And when I was young, I used to remember sitting, watching my grandmother comb her hair and her hair was blue. It was like a periwinkle blue, and I thought God had blessed her with, you know, the special color of blue.
TALLEY: Until I grew old and realized that she was going to the hairdresser and her hair was being rinsed with blue rinse. And then, of course, when I got into the sophisticated world of high fashion with Vogue and Diana Vreeland, who was my mentor, and Andy Warhol, where I worked at the factory, and I would read everything and do a research and I realized that Lady Mendl - Elsie de Wolfe also was a woman of great style - and she blue-rinsed her hair. So I started with my grandmother and her blue hair.
Then we, as people - we're not wealthy people, we were humble people, middle class people. There was not a lot of money, but there was a lot of love. Sunday was the day that everyone put on their best clothes - church clothes.
TALLEY: And church clothes were our couture clothes. And so I had an awareness of what style meant. At an early age, by observing the women in my family church, how, in the weeks, they worked hard, they were domestic maids. And on Sundays, everyone had gloves, everyone had polished shoes and bags, hats and everything was just fabulous when you went to church. And that's where I got my first awareness of what fashion - how powerful fashion was.
HOBSON: Do you think we get our fashion sense from our family, first and foremost?
TALLEY: Oh, absolutely. I totally think that you get it from your childhood. You remember things in your childhood that stay with you. And there are designers such as the great designer Yves Saint Laurent - was always impressed by the - his dreams or his memories of his mother during the Occupied France, you know? And that became a permanent fixture in his aesthetics about women. And so in your childhood, as a Proustian Madeleine, you remember - and I remember so well, my grandmother - I remember her having very few clothes but very beautiful clothes and navy blue shoes with a navy blue handbag and drawers and drawers of gloves.
HOBSON: Well, let's talk about gloves for a second because I saw this quote from you in Vanity Fair. You said, the world has become too casual and people have become too lazy. There was a time when people went on the airplane with gloves. Why don't we wear gloves anymore and why should we?
TALLEY: Well, you know, there was a just a time, a throwback, when women didn't leave the house without gloves. And I remember some of the great fashion editors would tell us that when they went to Vogue in the '50s and '60s, they had to wear hats and gloves to work. Mrs. Kennedy was a great, great style arbiter and template, and people really followed her fashions. African-American women in all the urban cities and also in my church were aping - and that's with great compliments to her - her style. Pillbox hats, gloves, simple dresses, you know, a nuance of style. So gloves were just simply another kind of exclamation mark or colon to a woman's wardrobe that gave it a kind of finish or finesse.
HOBSON: Now, you joined Vogue in 1983 as fashion news editor. You were named creative director a few years later.
HOBSON: You worked with the famous editor, Anna Wintour.
HOBSON: And I understand you would sit next to her at fashion shows and never take notes. And afterwards, you would write these very honest letters to designers about your thoughts. Do you still do that, and...
TALLEY: Yes, I do. Very few - there are very few. It's a handful. There are not many designers that I really want to write notes to. And sometimes they're not notes now, they're emails. But those designers...
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
HOBSON: You got a call coming in. It could be Oscar de la Renta.
TALLEY: It could be Anna Wintour. No. Those designers are life-long friends who respect my point of view. They know that what I'm saying is solid. It's based on my own historical, curatorial references about fashion. You can't know fashion if you don't know who Rose Bertin was. Rose Bertin was the designer to Marie Antoinette, the first ultimate fashion victim. But Rose Bertin influenced all of European fashion of the period of Marie Antoinette in her heyday because Marie Antoinette had all her dresses designed by Rose Bertin.
You can't look at American fashion and not realize that Adrian, who designed the most extraordinary costumes for all the great movies, also had a collection at one time. So, you know, movies have really influenced America. And I don't think there's a design in America that has, at some point, not been influenced by Hollywood and the Hollywood films of any decade.
HOBSON: Andre Leon Talley, I know that, over the years, you have struggled with your weight. And I wonder...
TALLEY: Oh, God bless you for bringing this up.
HOBSON: Well, I just - I'm just wondering...
TALLEY: I just reduced.
HOBSON: ...whether fashion has helped you deal with that.
TALLEY: No, fashion has not helped me deal with that. I've been - I've struggled and I'm continuing to struggle. But I have great news. This morning, I went to my doctor, Charles Passler(ph), here in New York. And he's put me on a regime this summer. And in two and a half weeks, I've lost 11 pounds by mindfully eating in the real world, not by going to the Duke Diet and Fitness Center where I would go and spend - the first week at Duke Fitness Center, I could lose 17 pounds easily in a week because there's no sodium and no sugar.
Now I've learned, in two and a half weeks by Dr. Passler, to realize that I cannot medicate myself through food. I mean 64 years old, you know, it's never too late. It's like Diana Nyad who swam a hundred miles.
TALLEY: It's never too late to extremely - to reach your extreme dream. And my dream is to lose the weight and to be healthy. Fashion has not helped me do that because in silence often I would sit in the front row, feeling very uncomfortable, slightly obese, more than slightly obese, obese. I would have to say obese. And you know what I would do? I would just sit there in silence. And, of course, the way I dress - I have beautiful suits in my closet, and I have beautiful clothes, custom-made. But I started wearing looser clothes because, of course, they were subterfuge and camouflage for the weight.
But this summer, I had a wake-up call because I suddenly realized at one point - I was on a trip to Germany and I had gotten off the plane, and my legs were swollen and my feet. And I just thought, well, normally if you take an eight-hour flight, your legs puff up. They go down after you, you know, go to sleep. They weren't going down.
So I had a friend in Germany, Gloria, and Gloria took me to her doctor. And the two of them, these two strong German women, were over me in the examining room screaming, you're going to die, you're going to die, you're going to die. You will die tomorrow. And they said you've got to change. And it's not a diet, it's a lifestyle. Now Duke told me this many times. But I realized I had to stop sugar.
And so for the last three weeks, I have not had what I love, is chocolate cake, chocolate milk, jam, bread, pasta. I have to condition myself to realize that the value of life is not in a piece of chocolate cake. The value in life is to eat vegetables because you'll be healthier although the chocolate cake looks good.
HOBSON: Well, congratulations. Best of luck. And I know that...
TALLEY: And I've lost 11 pounds, so today I'm sitting here 11 pounds lighter.
HOBSON: Fantastic. And I'm sure that a lot of your friends who have told you about this in the past are very happy to hear this today.
TALLEY: Well, I hope so. I hope so.
HOBSON: Well, Andre Leon Talley, editor-at-large at the Russian style magazine Numero Russia, contributing editor to Vogue, thank you so much for joining us, and have a great time at Fashion Week.
TALLEY: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I enjoyed it tremendously.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
By the way, even though you can't see him, I have to say Jeremy is a well-dressed man as well.
CHAKRABARTI: But on our Facebook page, facebook.com/hereandnowradio, Alan Ripa(ph) writes: About time someone speaks up to the fashion industry. Tired of seeing size-zero models walking the runway.
HOBSON: You know, Meghna, once I interviewed fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, who I asked, do people, regardless of the clothes, look better when they are in shape, and she said yes. So the conversation that we had just now about weight and fashion, I think, is one that's going to resonate with a lot of people. We'd love to hear your thoughts at hereandnow.org. You can also go to facebook.com/hereandnowradio. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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