Ada Fisher: Andre Talley — NC native was a fashion icon

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 26, 2022

By Ada Fisher

Reader’s Digest used to have a consistent feature entitled my “Most Unforgettable Character,” which denoted someone who left an indelible impression on you when encountered in life.

Such was the man, Andre Leon Talley, who rose from the home of Mrs. Bennie Francis Davis, his grandmother living on the other side of Durham, to the ranks of Vogue as the creative director under the infamous Anna Wintour.

For the nation and world, Talley was considered a fashion icon in his own right; however, those of us who knew him at Durham’s James A. Whitted Junior High School or in our Hillside High School Class of 1966 appreciated his style and class long before the world caught on. Whether in my brother’s civics class or later in Mrs. Wanda Garrett’s drama club, it was not unusual to see Andre’s 6-foot-6-inch frame strutting down the schools’ corridors in a throat-clenched ascot or a houndstooth jacket with his Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat. His fashion sense was always well-cut, clean, neat and timelessly classic.

Talley spoke articulately with an accent that was hard to place. He was very sure of what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go. During a school-approved trip to New York, he disappeared from the fold only to be found in Greenwich Village where the ranks of Andy Warhol frequented.

I could only marvel at his mastery of French under Mrs. Cynthia P. Smith since I, a French teacher’s daughter, struggled with the same. On the campus of North Carolina College, now North Carolina Central University, he continued with his French under Dr. Irene Dobbs Jackson, mother of former Atlanta Mayor Maynard H. Jackson Jr. This would come in handy on his fashion forays to Paris. It was in this fertile crescent of the South that the aspirations of Talley began to blossom when he ventured into a world in which few of us got a taste.

This towering figure of fashion appeared in shows and industry events as well as on TV as a guest judge on “America’s Got Talent” and 2017 documentary subject “The Gospel According to Andre.” Talley learned the blessings of working one’s way up by volunteering initially to get his foot in the door for many opportunities. He worked as a receptionist for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine getting to interact with such luminaries as Halston and Karl Lagerfeld. He worked at Women’s Wear Daily, joined Vogue in 1983 as news director and ultimately was promoted to creative director and editor-at-large before parting there in 2013.

Talley in 2007 was ranked 45th in Out magazine’s “50 Most Powerful Gay Men and Women in America,” which he commented during The Wendy Williams Show on May 29, 2018, when asked about his sexual orientation, stating, “No, I’m not heterosexual; I’m saying I’m fluid in my sexuality, darling.” Those of us who knew him didn’t expect him to say anything less because he made fashion inclusive for all people regardless of where in the rainbow they fit.

From his books — “A.L.T: A Memoir,” “Chiffon Trenches,” “Little Black Dress” and “Oscar de la Renta, His Legendary World of Style” — as well as his interviews behind all the glitz and glitter is an unappreciated story of the misogynism, racism and sexism which infects too much of the fashion world. It was reported Wintour distanced herself from Talley — finding him too old, too fat and too uncool — while others described his “outrageous looks including capes, hats and bold colors and patterns,” which probably reflected his attempt to find things that fit who he was. His favor was in a fashion sense tending toward classic, figure-enhancing designs expressing the best of our culture — not trashy, overexposed, sexual haute couture.

Talley’s Instagram account notes he was named artistic director of Zappos Couture in 2014 and has served on the board of trustees of Savannah College of Art and Design since 2000. Mr. Talley was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from France in 2020 and the North Carolina Governor’s Award for Literature in 2021. He was also a long-standing member of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church.

All God’s children have a robe and shoes. With Andre Leon Tally among the heavenly rank and file, capes, hats, robes, shoes or whatever is desired will be featured in every color imaginable. I’m so glad we had some time together.

Salisbury’s Ada M. Fisher served as N.C. Republican National Committeewoman from 2012 to 2020, was a medical director in a Fortune 500 company, served on the Rowan County Board Of Education and worked as a secondary education teacher.