Op-Ed: Andre Leon Talley Was An Icon But Even He Couldn’t Escape A Heteronormative And Anti-Black Fashion World

April 22, 2022

Shortly after the fashion world was rocked by the death of the iconic Andre Leon Talley, a Facebook post by the New Society For Wellness’ “Chief Conspirator” Daniel Saynt went viral. While others shared photos, fond memories and their general sadness, Saynt showed up to hold the fashion industry to task.

“After decades of playing the proverbial ‘Black friend’ to a publication and editor that deemed ‘white, thin, and young’ the standard of beauty,” the post read in part. “Tally died loveless, fighting bankruptcy, facing eviction and feeling disposed of by people he made into millionaires.

“Talley’s life is a lesson in how the fashion industry takes and takes until you have nothing else to give, then forgets you and moves on,” Saynt added.

Talley was a fashion symbol recognized around the world

For the nearly 50 years during which he lived his life in the public eye, Talley imbibed an air of nobility. He was a mood long before we knew to call it that. Part of it was the haute couture of it all: along his journey to break barriers through sheer representation, Talley became as synonymous with high fashion as the design houses who clamored to have him sit in the front row at every fashion week.

But what drew many us to him was the always familiar aura of southern church elders, the very people who he says inspired his love of fashion. Raised by his grandmother as she worked as a maid at Duke University, Talley was imbued with that old-school sense of pride that urged one to always put their best foot forward… and by all means, keep your personal business off front street.

Maybe this is why the challenges in his life – from multiple bankruptcies to his relationship with frenemy Anna Wintour – could never eclipse the magnificence Talley exuded.

But the truth is that, as Saynt wrote, the fashion world never reciprocated the love he poured into it. 

Throughout his career, Talley was often the only Black man, and often the only Black person in many of the spaces he was able to occupy. 

“You don’t get up and say, ‘look, I’m Black and I’m proud,’” he once said of his unique purview, “you just do it and it impacts the culture.” And while he made it a point to set the tone and normalize the inclusion of Black queer people in non-fashion confirming bodies, the fashion industry never quite let him feel at home.

The unrequited love affair between Talley and the fashion industry 

His industry friends loved him enough to worry about his health, prompting Wintour to send him off to the Duke Diet and Fitness Center to help him tackle his weight… but not enough to avoid putting him on blast when he fell off the diet wagon, as writer Jennifer Weiner reminded her followers. His fashion friends loved him enough to help him buy or rent a mansion – depending on who you ask – but not enough to avoid evicting him from his home years later.

It begs the question, for all of the space he held for Black, queer men in high fashion, did Talley ever truly included?