Read: The Chiffon Trenches

There was the Gospel, now the Gossips. André Leon Talley’s second memoir is the fashion industry’s most anticipated read—bursting with tit-bits of fashion tattle alongside unrequited loves that, at the end, stir little pity for the man himself

 

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Warning: contains language and description that might be offensive to some

With a dust jacket photo of a face not exactly beaming with kindness, André Leon Talley’s second autobiography The Chiffon Trenches recounts the ways of an unkind fashion world to which he once belonged. By the time we received our copy (via Amazon, that came with a longer-than-usual delivery time of more than a month), we have, frankly, heard to death that Anna Wintour had left him with “scars” because “she is not capable of kindness”. If you hope for dirt to be dished on this woman—aka Nuclear (a force of energy not associated with the quality of being friendly and considerate) Wintour—there are some, but not nearly as much that her haters can then delightfully hope that her days at Vogue are numbered.

The Chiffon Trenches does not clearly explain why Mr Talley, once a fashion-week habitué and a front-row fixture, is so in need of affection—or sympathy—from Vogue, specifically the Devil Who Wears Prada, Anna Wintour. He didn’t require it in the beginning, not even at the time he learnt of his beloved grandmother’s death in 1989 (he was installed at the magazine only seven months earlier); he chose to be alone with his grief. As he wrote in his first autobiography A.L.T., “I told no one at Vogue. I just picked up my things and walked out the door…” When he learned of the death of his “spiritual mother” Diana Vreeland (having just returned home from “my first salon manicure at a Korean shop” (an odd, even flippant, detail to note while recalling the death of someone dear), there too was no one from Vogue to console him. Why (or how) it became for him a life of such emotional privation is still a riddle.

André Leon Talley is an uncommonly large man of fashion. In recent photos and him on stage, he is usually seated, which magnifies his largeness. Due to his size, he wears mostly muu-muu-like caftans that the media likes to describe as “trademark”, but it’s emblematic likely because of the little at retail that could fit his bulk. Mr Talley admits that he uses “the caftans to shadow the rise and fall of my adipose crisis.” Whether posing for press photos or delivering an address to Oxford students, or gracing a talk show, or hosting a segment (now no more) at the Met Gala, Mr Talley is nearly always on a chair or stool, and looks like a bell Quasimodo might have rung. Sometimes he forms a silhouette of a Renaissance cupola. This must not be taken as shaming; this is what has been seen. Which truly belies the fact that he was not, in the beginning, of a built that needed to be covered in such a startling yardage of cloth. Photographs of his early years, in fact, showed a trim, almost gawky man who stood out due to his impressive height of 1.98m—as tall as the late Kobe Bryant. Mr Talley even describes himself then as a “black American string bean”.

Stringy enough for Tina Brown to remember him—as she wrote in The Vanity Fair Diaries—“in a bespoke suit as thin as a number two lead pencil” at Andy Warhol’s memorial service. In his younger days, he must have cut a striking stature, if not a handsome figure. “I was tall, thin and adored by those who met me,” Mr Talley writes. Enough to tempt, earlier in his tenure at Interview, a looks-concerned Andy Warhol to molest him? In the pre-launch publicity of the book, the press could not resist mentioning how the pop artist had often and publicly placed his hands on Mr Talley’s crotch, to which the latter would merely “just swat him away”.

But what is perhaps more shocking (if anything still shocks) is Mr Warhol wanting to take a photo of his employee’s genitals. Mr Talley writes that his artist-boss said, “You could become famous, make your cock famous. All you have to do is let me take a Polaroid of you peeing on the canvas.” He politely rejected the request. But a guy pissing would oddly occur again in his life story. This time, with Loulou de la Falaise in a kinky, “but happening place in the Meatpacking District” of New York. As he describes it, “suddenly, a man stood on top of the bar and started urinating on revelers below him.” Additionally, he lets on—the world of fashion and pop music is so curious about and enamoured of black genitalia. “There is always the thought that as a black man, it can only be my genitals that people respond to.” Even Madonna, at their first meeting asked, after introducing herself, “do you want a blow job?”

The book is peppered with such gossipy, not usually salacious tales, but they are often akin to snippets

 

While he was not amenable to having his member touched or photographed, or fellated, Mr Talley was not opposed to looking at someone else’s. As he recounts one bedtime investigation, relish somewhat intact, “…I, curious about the legendary size of his penis, pulled back the white sheet and exposed the family jewels…” Mr Talley often writes about his “Southern manners”. Were they not applicable in a shared bed? The victim of this big reveal was Victor Hugo, the Venezuelan artist who was Andy Warhol’s assistant and model at the Factory, and Halston’s window display artist and purported lover. This took place one night in Calvin Klein’s house on Fire Island. Curiosity assuaged, Mr Talley went back to sleep, “Victor on one end, and me on the other”. Penises have their rightful place in his collective memory. Further down, he spied with no hesitation “long-hanging fruits” at the pool of Karl Lagerfeld’s villa in Biarritz.

Friends, friends, friends

The book is peppered with such gossipy, not usually salacious tales, but they are often akin to snippets. Even his relationship with Betty Catroux, “one of the permanent icons in the pantheon of Saint Laurent androgynous style”, is recounted casually, and is barely supported by explanations to tell why he considers her a friend. He also writes of “a great friendship with Miuccia Prada”, but does not really say why. It is the same with Bianca Jagger, Paloma Picasso, Loulou de la Falaise, São Schlumberger (Anna Wintour was not the only person he went to the couture shows with), Amanda Harlech, Lee Radziwill, Anne Bass, Annette de la Renta, Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis; so much so that, after a while, it seems like just exuberant name-dropping.

Mr Talley, who has an MA in French Studies, writes of long “effortless” conversations with Mr Lagerfeld, including two to three-hour-long phone calls at night, but, curiously, not once did he say if both of them spoke in English or French, or a mix of both. They wrote letters to each other too, copiously. But, again, it is not known if the frequent correspondences were penned in which of the two languages both could speak and read and write (Mr Lagerfeld was fluent in French, German, English, and Italian). With Mr Saint Laurent, however, he did say that they conversed in French.

He likes to repeatedly give the impression that he was part of and moving between the inner sanctums of French couturiers—that only he and Paloma Picasso were able to navigate freely between the two reigning camps at the time he was in Paris, working for WWD: Karl Lagerfeld’s and Yves Saint Laurent’s. Both men were known to be rivals in business, stature, and the love of one man, Jacques de Bascher. For the purpose of maintaining peace, Ms Picasso had to have the two designers create her wedding dress—one did the day, the other did the night. “That level of diplomacy,” Mr Talley notes, “is exactly what it took to straddle the ice-cold pillars of fashion”. In that respect, it would appear that he did enjoy somewhat exalted status on hallowed grounds.

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André Leon Talley likes being praised and complimented. In the book, the contents are sandwiched between what could be good-luck tokens. Just after the front cover, as well as before the back cover, are strategically placed, almost trompe-l’œil, digital scans of written praises from “the great Delphic oracle” Diana Vreeland and Ralph Lauren respectively. He praises himself too: “I was at the apex of my good-looking young self”, “I had style and attitude. I could shine with the best of them in sartorial splendor and élan”, “My dapper and dandy appearance was paramount…”. Or how instrumental he was in getting John Galliano’s career launched (credit, as most know, went to Anna Wintour) when he helped organised (and even aided in securing the funds for) the autumn/winter 1994 show, held at the uninhabited hôtel particulier home of São Schlumberger. Not a chapter progresses without some self-acknowledgment or praise from others of how good he was. This might have worked in a biography, but for a memoir, it sounds like a long reference letter to himself.

A recurrent phrase in the book is “I was smart”. He says, for example, “People gravitated toward me because I was smart”—people includes Karl Lagerfeld and smart the synonym of intellectual prowess, rather than just learned inferences. This reminder to the reader that intelligence is a requite for a dazzling life in fashion seems to suggest that he needs to be validated, even if it is mostly self-validation. That he started at Interview, jumped to WWD/W, and scaled Vogue weren’t enough to parlay his keen mind and vast knowledge into a standing worthy of the “fashion elite”, some of whom did not graduate from university as he did, such as Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour.

He writes about his time at Interview; at WWD and W; and at Vogue, and even the one-year tenure at Ebony, but he did not once mention the (also one-year) employment at Numéro Russia, where he was hired as editor-at-large to launch the magazine in Moscow in 2013. Mr Telly left exactly a year after, reportedly because of Russia’s controversial position on homosexuality, after watching a Rachel Maddow report on the issue. Mr Telly has proclaimed his love for Russia, but made no mention about his time there. Yet, he spoke rather romantically of his first trip to Africa, when he was invited by Naomi Campbell to Lagos to participate in Arise, the Nigerian Fashion Week.

Intense insecurity

Mr Talley likes bringing up his childhood/teenage years in “segregated Durham”, a town North Carolina known for tobacco (although that was already well covered in A.L.T.), and contrasting that to his achievements in New York, and later Paris, and back to New York again. The insecurity and the stressing of that insecurity seem to be behind how he operates and how he dresses himself. “I depended on sartorial boldness to camouflage my exterior vortex of pain, insecurity, and doubt,” Mr Talley writes. That he, who earlier in his career was happy to accept cast-offs from Karl Lagerfeld and Halston, was able to don bespoke suits was a big deal and a visual validation. When caftans replaced suits, he too had them custom-made and would attribute them to the designers who made them. In fact, when describing what he wore, he fervently name-checks brands—even down to his gloves and the lining of his jackets—as an Instagrammer is inclined to by using tags and hashtags.

His insecurity was not only about his relationship with fashion folks. He was insecure about his work too. He likes to remind the reader of the importance of his editorial role and the significance of his output. Sometimes the need to repeat himself (or remind?) can be irritating. “Working for Vogue as the Paris editor was a serious job,” he writes. At the end of that paragraph, he adds, “Of course, the job came with great duties.” With each promotion at WWD, he does not speak of moving up the masthead, but “a massive jump”, which seems incongruent with the perceived humility associated with his early church-going years in the American south.

Courtier among couturiers

Two French designers professed to be influential in André Leon Talley’s life were Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent. Between the two, it appears he was closer to Mr Lagerfeld and dedicates considerable pages to the couturier. “His importance in my life and career is without parallel,” he stresses. By the time the designer debuted his collection for Chanel in 1983, Mr Talley had been an expatriate in Paris for four years prior, and both were fast friends. Mr Talley was then, back in the Big Apple, not working (he was just asked to leave the magazine Ebony), so Mr Lagerfeld flew him “from New York to Paris first-class” and paid for his stay at Saint James Albany, a hotel on Rue de Rivoli that overlooks the 456-year-old Tuileries Garden.

And there were gifts of money, too. He told Fashionista that when he turned 50, Mr Lagerfeld “gave” him $50,000 (this monetary detail is not mentioned in the book). Such generosity and the closeness between them, led to the rumour that they were lovers. Mr Talley flatly denied that they were, or that he had “been in and out of every designer’s bed in Paris”, as suggested by Michael Cody, one of his bosses at WWD, a charge that led to the editor resigning from the publication. If Mr Talley had been indulgent, it seems to be more sensual than sexual. He had already clarified this in A.L.T.: “I never slept with anyone to get ahead”.

In the end, he was dropped by Mr Lagerfeld like unwanted fabric on the atelier floor. Yet, he consoles himself by saying, after Mr Lagerfeld’s death, “I love him, and he loved me right back

 

His relationship with Yves Saint Laurent seemed to be conducted from a distance, while with Karl Lagerfeld, it was often right in the heart of the action. He recounts trips to Mr Lagerfeld’s various homes, but not Mr Saint Laurent’s private retreat-oasis in Marrakesh, the Jardin Majorelle. Mr Lagerfeld is no longer able to counter Mr Talley’s rather lengthy and detailed account of their time together, often spent amid considerable luxury. It appears that more paragraphs are devoted to Karl Lagerfeld than to Anna Wintour. Despite acknowledging that the Kaiser didn’t treat his close friends well, Mr Talley was totally captivated by the designer of Chanel, stressing repeatedly that he learned a lot from Mr Lagerfeld and referring to the designer and himself as “the Socrates of high fashion and his best student”. In the end, he was dropped by Mr Lagerfeld like unwanted fabric on the atelier floor. Yet, he consoles himself by saying, after Mr Lagerfeld’s death (they never made it up), “I love him, and he loved me right back.”

That could be the point of the book that readers may find hard to reconcile. Mr Talley has a weakness for “unconditional love” or what he perceives to be that, received from both designers, society ladies, and celebrities. And also those that others give to others—he says, for example, that Betty Catroux “loved Yves unconditionally”. Emotionally, Mr Talley did not seem to have suffered hardships of the heart since the attraction to two men that is mentioned in the book amounted to really nothing. So he seek emotional warmth—real or imagined—from those who seemed to be able to give it, such as Diane von Fürstenberg and Lee Radziwill, as well as from those not known to be emotionally radiating, such as Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour.

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Mr Talley wrote that “Yves wanted to be Betty Catroux.” On that note, it is possible that Mr Talley wanted to be all those women he adored: From Jackie Kennedy of his youth to Diana Vreeland to Loulou de la Falaise to the other Bouvier sister, Lee Radziwill, even possibly Anna Wintour. Or, at least, he lived vicariously through them, which may explain why he was so eager to attend couture fittings not his own. Even when things were no longer rosy with Ms Wintour, he still attended her couture fittings to the very last. He writes, “I continue to advise her out of sincere loyalty, no matter if she remains silent.”

After all the drama, his feelings for the editor-in-chief of Vogue sounds familiar: “Not a day goes by when I do not think of Anna Wintour.” This is hard to digest after he slams her for how she treated him. And then goes on to say that he received “a moment of grace” when, to him, she “verified my important role, or one aspect of it, in her life as editor-in-chief of Vogue” in an interview for the documentary on him, The Gospel According to André. He then goes on to say she “has disappointed me in her humanity,” hoping “she will find a way to apologize before I die.” It is rather hard to bear, reading about someone punishing himself in such a manner. Reacting to his podcast with Vogue being cancelled with no prior warning, he says, “She decimated me with this silent treatment so many times. That is just the way she resolves any issue. And I soldiered on, through the elite chiffon trenches”. Soldiering on, in the face of being so clearly ignored, deserves no pity.

In his publicity rounds, Mr Talley calls his book an “epistle”. Readers here may identify much of it as redress or even complaint. In the context of modern digital communication and life, this could be fashion journalism’s equivalent of revenge porn. And like porn, it’s an enticing read. This isn’t the front row, this is a get-back. The “even-though-someone-smiled-at-me, they-could-be-plotting-against-me-behind-my-back” variety. Mr Talley told NPR that The Chiffon Trenches is “not a salacious tell-all. It’s not a dishy, gossipy, bitchy book.” Yet, you do get tell-a-lot, dishy, gossipy, and bitchy recounting.

The book is a breeze to read, and with the fashion show-like pacing, easy to finish in a day or, maximum, two. It is not created to be a literary masterpiece—at best, a piece of Vanity Fair reporting in book length and form. André Leon Talley likes to repeat himself, as we mentioned, just as he likes to be thanked and appreciated, which becomes a little tiring after a while, tiring to read. He is a thankful person, which is undeniably a virtue, but there is no need to be effusive in gratitude (or to expect the same), which can be shown, not only said. A thank you offered once is as valuable as a sorry hoped for, if uttered.

Photos: Jim Sim

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