Anna’s Act

The next Met fashion exhibition has been themed. ‘Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty’ might just be Anna Wintour’s personal tribute to her “brilliant friend”

Chanel has been Anna Wintour’s go-to label for the Met Gala. From top left, in 2010, in 2017, in 2018, and in 2019. Photos: Getty Images

In the biography Karl Lagerfeld: A Life in Fashion, Anna Wintour stated that the ‘Kaiser’ “often said that when he died, he wanted to disappear”. She quickly added, “Well, that cannot happen”. With the next spring exhibition at the Anna Wintour Costume Center (AWCC, formerly the Costume Institute), the Vogue editor will keep to her word. Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty is the next theme of the Met’s annual show and opening-night fete. Although it sounds like the exhibition spin-off of the book, it would be, as it was in the past years, the work of Andrew Bolton, the head curator of the AWCC and its fashion exhibitions, and the life partner of the designer Thom Browne. Mr Bolton told the media at the press conference to announce next year’s theme, “I’m not sure Karl would approve of the exhibition”, echoing Ms Wintour’s own sentiment. In all likelihood, the monographic show was initiated pushed through by the woman whose name precedes the Costume Center.

It is no secret that Anna Wintour is Karl Lagerfeld’s ardent supporter in not only what the designer did for brands such as Chanel and Fendi, but also in her continual wearing to the Met Gala the Chanel haute couture gowns that Mr Lagerfeld designed, sometimes just for her. Both of them were thought to be close. In a tribute, titled ‘My Brilliant Friend’, published in Vogue in 2019, after Mr Lagerfeld’s death, Ms Wintour wrote: “We were often in touch” and “the hours I spent with him at the (dinner) table make me feel luckier than any stroke of fortune I’ve had at my editing desk”. Both did not see each other frequently, but they had “a standing dinner date in Paris on the first Sunday of every Fashion Week”. Despite the suggestion of deep friendship, Ms Wintour did not reveal why “it’s doubly painful to have lost him”, as she wrote, except that “he never fell out of love with his work or with the world, and his death marks the end of the era of craftspeople who could do it all”. What did their relationship really mean to her?

“the hours I spent with him at the (dinner) table make me feel luckier than any stroke of fortune I’ve had at my editing desk”

Anna Wintour

It is hard to know if she was that close to Mr Lagerfeld. In a sort of postscript to his book Karl: No Regrets, the author/artist Patrick Hourcade, who knew the designer well since 1976, drew up a list titled ‘Fellow Travelers’. Anna Wintour is not under the subhead ‘The Closest’ (another Anna is—Piagi); her name does not appear beneath ‘In the Realm of Fashion’ (a familiar one, Ines de la Fressange, does). She is there in the final lineup ‘A Few Journalists’; her famous moniker at the end of the page, after Andre Leon Talley. It is not clear how Ms Wintour met the Chanel designer. Mr Talley, who knew Mr Lagerfeld and had met him much earlier than the Vogue supremo, in 1975, suggested that it was he who facilitated the acquaintanceship between the designer and the editor, even claiming in his second autobiography The Chiffon Trenches that his “role at Vogue was no doubt secured by my relationship with Karl Lagerfeld.” He was emphatic about their bond: “His importance in my life and career is without parallel.” Ms Wintour was never that forthcoming or sentimental.

Mr Talley even revealed that the Chanel dresses that she wore for her wedding to Dr David Shaffer—a psychiatrist—in 1984 was not acquired through her special friendship with Mr Lagerfeld then or connections with the couture house, but “through Joan Juliet Buck (the former editor of Vogue Paris, as it was known then) to gain access to the dresses”. Anna Wintour has loved Chanel from her early years in journalism, especially when she finally joined Condé Nast. Mr Talley shared that “she purchased her Chanel at Bergdorf Goodman”. But she would soon have an arrangement with Chanel when she became chummier with Mr Lagerfeld. In the 2005 biography of the EIC, Front Row, author Jerry Openheimer wrote that Ms Wintour was (likely between the mid to late ’80s) “wearing nothing but elegant, very discreet Chanel as her Condé Nast work uniform.”

He then went on to describe what was dubbed ‘The Chanel Affair’ (also the title of the chapter), quoting Cristina Zilkha, the wife of Michael Zilkha, a business partner in the New York music company ZE Records that represented US New Wave groups such as Kid Creole & the Coconuts. Mrs Zilkha, who did not think Ms Wintour liked her, recounted: “Michael said to me, ‘You know, you’ve never had a Chanel suit, so I told Anna that when she sees Lagerfeld to get you something… because she gets fifty percent off.” When the parcel arrived, “it was half a suit of a really nasty pale yellow with a puce undertone—a Mr-Livingston-I-presume double-breasted safari jacket with thick, huge gold metal buttons, each of which had a huge CC. It was vulgarity one couldn’t believe and something Anna would not have been caught dead in”.

Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld. Photo: Glamour

For herself, Ms Wintour was always immaculately fitted in the brand with the double Cs. At the Met Gala opening parties, Ms Wintour has almost always been in Chanel. There were, of course, regular attendees who wore the French brand, but none so routinely as Ms Wintour. In her Vogue tribute to Karl Lagerfeld, she readily admitted that his designs “expressed who I was and what I hoped to be”. Yet, in the recent video editorial Vogue’s 73 Questions, she commented that her style is “safe, verging on extremely boring”. Did she mean now, as opposed to then? How amaranthine the Chanel style is is reflected in her choosing of the brand. According to Amy Odell in Anna: The Biography, the editor “often wore Chanel couture” and when she attended the shows, it “was always opportunity for her to shop”. Ms Wintour admits to the frequency in which she picks Chanel : “I’ve worn Karl’s beautiful clothes during the most important, emotional moments of my life: at my wedding, at my children’s weddings, when I received a damehood from the queen, at Franca Sozzani’s memorial service”.

Karl Lagerfeld appeared to appreciate the friendship and was very generous to her (as he was to others he held in considerable esteem, until no more). Glamour reported that in 2015 after the British Fashion Award, when Ms Wintour presented Karl Lagerfeld the trophy for Outstanding Achievement, the honoree gave the presenter a gift—a tennis court built on his Biarritz compound, described as a “ploy to get her over as a houseguest”. A thrilled Miss Wintour said, “Karl was trying to give me somewhere I could feel at home, where I could be myself. This was the first and surely the last time anyone has constructed sporting turf in my honor.” The next fashion exhibition at the Met would be her opportunity to construct something in his honour, even when Andrew Bolton had asserted, “Karl never tired of telling me that fashion did not belong in a museum.” But the exhibition would not be devoted to just his work for Chanel since, in 2005, the Costume Institute had staged a Chanel exhibition that went by the brand’s mononym and featured Mr Lagerfeld’s work. It almost did not open, as he had initially withdrawn support for it.

Next year’s Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty would not be the first exhibition at the Met dedicated to a single designer. In 1983, the year Mr Lagerfeld joined Chanel, the Costume Institute opened the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition, organised by the late Diana Vreeland. It was touted as “the first retrospective of a living couturier’s work”. Before her loyalty to Chanel, Ms Wintour wore a lot of YSLs. In Front Row, a friend recalled her cupboard in the Upper East Side apartment where she was staying: “I opened her closet and it was extraordinary—there was one Saint Laurent suit from ready-to-wear after another that she’d bought from Paris, all perfectly hung with the shoes above them.” No one needs to open Anna Wintour’s closet today to be able to visualise the row of Chanel clothes in there. What would, perhaps, be more fascinating is to know how many of them would be on load or donated to the Costume Institute to make the Karl Lagerfeld exhibition her line of beauty, too.

Vague World

Or, when the contents of the Vogue Closet fell onto a street in New York

Serena Williams opening Vogue World with an uninspired stroll

On the Vogue website, there was a black-and-white digital clock that had been ticking for days, counting down to an event that the brand/magazine did not describe in detail, possibly so that curiousity about it could be kept burning. Even Anna Wintour was mum about Vogue World: New York, as it is called, only hinting in the recently shared video 73 More Questions with Anna Wintour that it would involve lots of clothes, so much, in fact, that it required the “Vogue army” to organised them. Not even the venue was disclosed (was it even an IRL event?). It did eventually happen last night (New York time) on a street in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, a now-“glamourous” hipster neighbourhood (its name gives you an idea of what it was before) that is sandwiched between Chelsea to its north and the West Village in the south. Much of the streets here are paved with cobblestones made of Belgian blocks. That Vogue would stage an event down here on streets that could be high heels’ enemy, rather than at some place glitzier and carpeted is perhaps indication that the magazine is making itself—and the brand—a lot more accessible.

It described Vogue World as a “first-of-a-kind event” and a “global” one. Although staged in New York, it was live-streamed to the rest of us nowhere near that part of the city. The show was also a celebration of the magazine’s 130th year. On account of that, it had to be big and boisterous. (And no one more so than Kanye West, who arrived late enough that, while walking to his seat, he was mistaken as a model.) The show was prefaced—somewhat inexplicably—by a group of runners exercising their legs in the dim light, some with what appeared to be flags flapping behind them, like capes. Then it opened with Vogue’s September-issue cover girl Serena Williams in Balenciaga cape and dress, who looked like she was not quite thrilled to be on the runway, sauntering while a voiceover of her saying how she wants to be remembered could be heard over the apt soundtrack of Arthur Russell’s This is How We Walk on the Moon.

‘Sports couture’ at Vogue World

Brooklyn Beckham and his wife Nicola Peltz enjoying themselves on the runway

Although Vogue World took place during New York Fashion Week, it was not quite a fashion show like the rest that were staged in the city at this time. This was a Chingay approach to fashion presentations. The carnival mood was unmistakable, with street-style performances between each fashion segment to pump up the revelry (the cultural part was there, too, when a trio of sari-clad girls came out to do their Bollywood number). The clothes, purported to show the trends of autumn/winter 2022, were not based on collections. They were single looks from many designers (name them and they were there), but you might not know or remember the styles unless you have an encyclopedic memory of what were mostly shown back in February and March. Who wore what was not identified for the benefit of viewers. Although Vogue had sussed out the supposed trends (there were five main ones, as vogue.com reported later), you can‘t help but feel that they were rather forced (gowns and boots!). And somewhat haphazardly grouped, rather luan (乱 or messy). Perhaps Lil Nas X’s performance (that began with the singer seated next to Ms Wintour) to wrap up the runway extravaganza was designed to play down that shortcoming.

Vogue World was not just a show. As it turned out, what the models and stars wore could be purchased, reviving the old see-now-buy-now model that brands introduced with enthusiasm some years back, but is now largely forgotten. You could go to the Vogue website and find the links to the items that caught your attention and shop away. If you need to try before buying, an AR element, conceived by Snapchat, allows you to virtually put on the clothes no matter where you are. Like its print form, this is to push purchases for their advertisers. Is vogue.com then also sort of an e-store, and did we see additional revenue streams for the multi-platform title? Is the site now into live-stream selling, minus an ebullient host? According to Vogue’s creative editorial director Mark Guiducci, the show is a reflection of “all the ways in which fashion is changing. It comes at a moment when designers have become multi-disciplinary creators, innovating how we engage with fashion—even virtually.”

Shalom Harlow, one of the many ‘supers’ in the final segment of the show

Lil Nas X starting his performance while seated next to a delighted Anna Wintour

Vogue World could be seen as a big-budget, celebrity-endorsed, brand-building exercise. It reminded us of the eponymous Fashion’s Night Out (also launched in New York), the just-as-flashy, get-people-shopping-again initiative that was launched on 10 September 2009, twelve months after the doomed Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. The year 2009 also saw Barrack Obama sworn in as the United State’s first Black president and the perpetuation of the financial crisis and recession that hit two years earlier, in late 2007. Fashion’s Night Out was Vogue’s contribution to improving the grim retail climate then. It eventually spun off into international editions in different hub cities. Could Vogue World—presently linked to New York—too have other editions in cities where Vogue operates. There was, for example, a Fashion’s Night Out in Tokyo in 2008. In 2013, Fashion’s Night out in New York ended it’s increasingly disfavoured run. But in Tokyo, the event continued until 2020, but, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, took place as Fashion’s Night In—an online affair.

It is hard to say how Vogue World will pan out. The show might be enjoyable to those who were there to see it, but to some (perhaps more?) of us watching on our devices, it teetered discomfortingly close to blah. This was Vogue at its inclusive best. The community-arousing performance, with its strong street culture, would have won the approval of the late Virgil Abloh. But what else could we glean from it? Former British Vogue’s fashion director Lucinda Chambers, after she was “fired” by the then in-coming editorial head Edward Enninful in 2017, now considered the most powerful Condé Nast editor after Anna Wintour, told Vestoj in a revealing interview that “we don’t need any more bags, shirts or shoes. So we cajole, bully or encourage people into continue buying. I know glossy magazines are meant to be aspirational, but why not be both useful and aspirational?” And why not magazines’ promotional events too? This may be a Vogue World, but is it a new, better world?

Screen shots: vogue.com

Saluting Showy Excess

The next Met Gala would be in May, presumably. No one can say if the conflict in Ukraine will end by then. So it is unsurprising that many are appalled by this year’s theme: Gilded Glamour

Would any guest be choosing Schiaparelli’s on-theme spring/summer 2022 couture coat?

Vanessa Friedman of The New York Times excitedly shared on Twitter, two hours ago, a “scoop: and the next Met Gala celeb co-chairs are… Regina King, Blake Lively, Ryan Reynolds, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Honorary chairs Tom Ford, Instagram’s Adam Moressi (sic) and Anna Wintour. Theme is ‘Gilded Glamour.’ Point is: this one is going to be very dressed-up indeed.” About the same time, CNN online filed a ‘Live Update’ that said “recent drone incidents has (sic) amplified concerns Russia’s war in Ukraine could spill over into NATO countries”. Not long before that, we learned of the artillery attack on the Mariupol theater, where hundreds of city folks hid as the Russian military laid siege to the city. But, the show that is the Met Gala must go on. War is still on our minds, but some people will be thinking of getting “very dressed-up”? Are we wrong to believe that the upcoming Met Gala’s theme borders on the insensitive?

It is possible that Anna Wintour is unable to forget those who did not bother with last year’s theme. Did she not forgive Kim Kardashian for appearing in that black thing, head totally encased? Or, Troye Sivan in a low-cut tank-dress that could have been picked up at Forever 21 as he made his way to the museum. Or, A$AP Rocky swathed in someone’s grandma’s beloved craft project? And to prevent a shameful recurrence, she ordained that glitzy shall dominate the whatever-colour carpet! But we are not out of a pervasive pandemic. And there’s that niggling conflict in Ukraine that President Joe Biden has called “aggression (that) cannot go unanswered”. Yet, the Met Gala prefers to tune all that out. Gilded Glamour clearly has a better ring than Wartime Austerity.

This year’s theme is really a continuation of last year’s—the first of a two-parter that saluted the good ’ol US of A, In America: A Lexicon of Fashion. Gilded Glamour is homage to The Gilded Age, an era of unprecedented economic growth in the US, between 1870 and 1900. It was Mark Twain who coined the phrase “The Gilded Age” in his 1873 novel of the same name (co-written with Charles Dudley Warner). While prosperity pervaded America in those years, it was greed that guided (and gilded!) the politicians, the bankers, and the industrialists into a life of still-talked-about excess and opulence, all at the expense of the working class. Poverty and inequality were, unsurprisingly, widespread. As Mark Twain suggested: Gilded is only a patina; it is not gold. How the Met Gala exemplifies that.

Photo: Schiaparelli

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

So She Apologised

Before COVID-19, before Black Lives Matter, would Anna Wintour have admitted to “mistakes”?

 

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Few would think that saying sorry is what Anna Wintour is inclined to do. But these are not the simplest of times. In the US (and many parts of the world), the confluence of COVID-19 and the ongoing protest against racism and police brutality is visibly and audibly shaking things up. Celebrities are mindful of what they say or do when taking a stand. Even when not. Given the known corporate culture of Vogue’s owner Condé Nast (just two days ago, it had to hold a company-wide town hall to conduct “studies” on diversity and pay equity), Ms Wintour is likely aware that she’s treading on shaky ground. A week earlier, she unexpectedly issued an internal e-mail to her staff, redressing past errors of judgment and the lack of remedial action.

For her, the stars have aligned. At first it was her former lieutenant Andre Leon Talley’s explosive autobiography in which he wrote that she is “incapable of human kindness”. In the course of the subsequent publicity, designer Ralph Rucci took to Twitter to praise Mr Talley and alleged that Ms Wintour conducts her work with a “satanic plan” and that he “will write about what (he) had to contend with concerning this very, very meaningless person”. Not long before Ms Wintour’s address to her team, the editor-in-chief of sister publication Bon Appetite Adam Rapoport, who reports to Ms Wintour, resigned after a 2013 photo of him in brown face for Halloween was shared online and charges of discriminatory work environment ensued. As it’s frequently said, everything happens for a reason.

There is suspicion among the cynical that Ms Wintour’s apology on race is a “fashionable” reflex action. Some said that her present acknowledgement of inattention to race issues is as belated as her embrace of black talents

 

Before something in the past comes back to haunt her, she reacted, even admitting to “mistakes”. There is suspicion among the cynical that Ms Wintour’s apology on race is a “fashionable” reflex action. Some said that her present acknowledgement of inattention to race issues is as belated as her embrace of black talents, such as the fact that it “took her 30 years to hire a black photographer to photograph the cover of Vogue… and Beyonce made that happen”, one Twitter user wrote. It is perhaps difficult to find her suddenly colour sensitive and sympathetic to those outside the world of fashion and celebrity when for most of her tenure at Vogue, she was associated with the wealthy and powerful. As Thomas Maier wrote in All that Glitters, “In building her power base at Condé Nast, Wintour showed high skill at courting the press and New York’s high society.” That is clearly distant from the present troubles of the world. It would be hard to layer wokeness over a foundation of elitism.

Cathy Horyn, when she was still at The New York Times, described Ms Wintour as “lacking mortal patience”. And this has been how many have seen her, augmented by being referred to as the “editrix”, and a demanding one. Although she has tried to soften her image by, for example, appearing on The Late Late Show with James Corden, playing a rather inane game, she has never really shed the “Devil” tag. Ms Wintour, who now also “teaches leadership and creativity” on MasterClass, has for too long excelled at being inscrutable. The signature sunglasses, even indoors, ensures that she is. If the eyes are windows to the soul, she’s certainly not letting anyone in. Yet, she wrote reassuringly in that e-mail, “I know that it is not enough to say we will do better, but we will—and please know that I value your voices and responses as we move forward.” Anna Wintour shall listen! Maybe she is capable of human kindness after all.

Illustration: Just So

A Dame On The Cover

In André Leon Talley’s soon to be released autobiography, he said he is “too old, too overweight, too uncool” to continue to be worthy of Anna Wintour’s friendship and professional appointment. Will British Vogue’s latest cover make the feared supremo look worse, and American Vogue out of touch?

 

Judi Dench Vogue May 2020

British Vogue has proudly announced their oldest cover model: Dame Judi Dench. This came shortly after the publicity surrounding the publication (and now early launch) of André Leon Talley’s autobiographical grievance The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir. Mr Talley’s book has generated so much interest following the release of advanced copies (or galleys?) to the media that it would now enjoy an early release after a postponement from an original date that was to coincide with the the now-also-postponed Met Gala.

It has been reported that in Mr Talley’s book*, he has expressed the view that American Vogue’s equally lauded and lashed out at editor-in-chief Anna Wintour is no longer chummy with him because the 71-year-old, (reportedly) 130-plus-kilo former colleague and front-row companion is “too old, too overweight, too uncool”. Whether that is true of the also-71 and (reportedly) 61-kilo Ms Wintour (a dame too) in this age of body- and age-positive communication and tolerance, we may perhaps never know for sure. But British Vogue’s latest cover featuring the 85-year-old stage and screen actress and Mr Talley’s indignant charge do not do anything to diminish Ms Wintour’s persistently cold image.

During this COVID-19 pandemic, when geriatrics are in the news, not for the life they had led, but its tragic end, and the staggering many that meet this fate, Ms Dench on this cover is, for many in the media industry, a smart move. She is not known for her fashion, which makes her Vogue cover debut all the more deserving of applause, especially when she could have, 21 years earlier, been front-page material after winning the Oscar for best supporting actress, appearing approximately eight minutes as Queen Elisabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. Indeed, those who grew up on Twitter and Instagram may only remember her as M in the 007 movies, but editor Edward Enninful, who chose her as the cover face, was canny not to train a telephoto lens on merely young, (still) Twilight-loving readers.

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In the interview, Judi Dench is described as “a kind of cultural tea cosy to be popped soothingly over the nation’s beleaguered identity in times of crisis”. Somehow, it is difficult—unthinkable—to imagine Anna Wintour as “cosy” and “soothing” after so successfully cultivating an image of such iciness that “cold” and “tough” are far more synonymous with her, as described in Thomas Maier’s All That Glitters. To be fair, Ms Wintour’s Vogue does cover or give coverage to women of a certain age. In 2017, she put Meryl Streep, then 67, on its cover (after a “first” in 2011 that saw Ms Streep, at 62, smiling under the recognisable masthead). In addition, there is the annual “Age Issue”, yet there hasn’t been on the cover a face with the happy wrinkles that say 85.

Ms Dench lives in her country estate in Surrey. For all we know, it just might be her Capri! While in self-isolation because of the lockdown, she acknowledges in the interview that although she is surrounded by lush greenery, she is “very aware of people who may not have a garden and are not as fortunate to be able to sit outside in the sunshine”. Empathy is presently very appealing, so is honesty. On aging, she shows less tenderness, more truth—perhaps for humour or editorial meat. She said that there is “nothing” about being 85 that she enjoys, and that age is not “an attitude; it’s horrible”.

In his Editor’s Letter, Mr Enninful wrote, “…the dame is not a fan of the term national treasure. But treasure her we do”. Which got us thinking: Who do we have that we can treasure? Here’s looking at you, Her World. We challenge you to put Jin Yinji (also known as jin jie or sister Jin, the Korean actress, who, at 74, is believed to be the oldest among Mediacorp’s still-performing sorority) on your cover. Or, perhaps not someone as silver. Say, the 67-year-old Ho Ching?

*Watch this space for a review of the book. Photos: Nick Knight/Vogue

 

Golding’s Going Places

Henry Golding with Anna & coPhoto: Tom Ford/Instagram

We weren’t going to talk about Henry Golding. Afterall, that movie he’s in has been receiving so much publicity that jelak won’t be adequate to describe the aftertaste. But now that even Vanessa Friedman mentioned “getting to sit across the runway from Henry Golding” at the Tom Ford show during New York Fashion Week, as if she was right in front of the most powerful sultan in the world, maybe we should also join the hulabaloo.

Here, in crazy rich (SE) Asia, the Malaysian media was quick to bask in the first-time actor’s glory of a front-row appearance, with the New Straits Times inferring that the seating arrangement is a “badge of honour” and, since Mr Golding was also placed next to Anna Wintour, “a coveted spot”. The man of that moment was also to the immediate right of Cardi B and a handshake away from Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson. This is the stuff of national pride—Malaysia Boleh high, an achievement Jho Low, despite his Hollywood ties and international fame, have not been able to bring to the people of Malaysia. This is the recognition our own Pierre Png, not quite leading man material, will for now observe with shrouded envy.

That Henry Golding would be charming enough to secure Anna Wintour’s company at Tom Ford’s show is unsurprising. He has clearly won the approval of women who like their heterosexual leads with an affability that is decidedly old-fashioned, unforced, and, when imagined as boyfriend, easy to bring home to meet mom. And looking dapper in Tom Ford, which happens quite a lot for him these days, helps. So winsome he is that when he appeared on The View, all five hosts, including Whoopi Goldberg (who even took a photo with him off-stage, her arms around him!), betrayed their usual toughness to be captivated.

Henry Golding @ Tom Ford.jpgPhoto: Getty Images

Mr Golding has been on Asian television quite a bit before his big movie break, mainly hosting travel documentaries. Especially compelling was Discovery Channel’s Surviving Borneo in which he completed the bejalai—an Iban tribal rite of passage into manhood, usually performed before marriage—in his mother’s homeland of East Malaysia. But it isn’t until now that people are identifying him by race, with the Malaysian media certain to precede his name or glowing nouns with the adjectival specificity of Iban-English(!)—Malaysian apparently not enough. With torso-baring scenes in the well-hyped film, girls are now adding “hottie” to the geographical affirmation, which may now elevate the home of Dayak head hunters to husband-hunting ground.

To Mr Golding, acting wasn’t answering a certain calling. In the UK of his formative years, he was a shampoo boy after secondary school and worked his way up as a hairdresser before landing a job at Richard Ward Hair & Metrospa, a swanky London salon near the Saatchi Gallery and within walking distance from the Sloane Square Tube station. It was after his return to Malaysia in 2008, when the now-ousted Dato’ Seri Najib Tun Abdul Razak was just a deputy prime minister, that he found himself as a presenter for travel shows on television, including the BBC’s, well, The Travel Show. His telegenic presence did not go unnoticed, and PR types and marketing heads keen to come before his comely face were inviting him to many social events, thus augmenting his celebrity status. To us, Henry Golding recalls another Eurasian: the British-Malaysian ethnobotanist James Wong, who, too, has a certain magnetism on television, and has made a name for himself through TV series such as Grow Your Own Drugs and Countryfile, both shown on the BBC.

Before his debut movie could even consider life as a DVD release in Poh Kim Video store, Mr Golding will soon appear in another movie A Simple Favour, opposite the inexplicable Vogue fave, Blake Lively. It is expected to be released globally next week. Whether this will see Malaysia’s favourite son become a movie sensation or a front-row regular, no one is placing a bet yet.

Watched: Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker and The First Monday In May

Last week, two fashion films were screened at the Capitol Theatre as part of A Design Film Festival Singapore 2016. Both were as different as blouse and skirt even if they were, ultimately, about creative clothes

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By Mao Shan Wang

It is to be expected that at screenings of films about fashion, there would be more fashion students than industry folks. It is no different when Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker was shown recently. That is, of course, a good thing since it is often said that the young are learning from fast channels and what’s shared such as on social media than from long-form communications such as books and film. However, at the end of the screening, I wondered if the students were more daunted than motivated.

Part biography, part philosophical musing, Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker is a documentary that will crush the dreams of design students. Not long into the film, Mr Yamamoto extols the virtues of working and gaining experience, rather than fame. “After graduation from art school,” he said, “you cannot be creative. No, no, it’s impossible.” This is, of course, not a new refrain. Similar to what he told Business of Fashion’s Imran Amedin in May this year, “When I speak with young designers, I tell them, ‘Shut your computer, don’t look at the computer… if you really want to see real beauty, you have to go there by walking. Go there and touch it and smell it. Don’t use the computer. Otherwise, you won’t get real emotion.”

I am not sure if watching Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker is an emotional experience for my fellow film goers, many of whom could not tear away from their smartphone—the handheld computer—during the screening, but it was for me. “Creation is life’s work; creation is how you spend your life,” says Mr Yamamoto in his characteristically slow and deep voice—not unlike a monk’s. “You cannot divide life and creation; it’s impossible.”

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Yohji Yamamoto examining the movement of a skirt during a fitting

Such is his certainty: the indivisibility of not just life and creation, but of conviction and craft, hand and fabric, eye and form. It’s like how some people can’t split love and marriage. In the film, you repeatedly see Mr Yamamoto squat during fittings to study his designs, especially of skirts and pants. A lesser designer might consider that an ungainly stance, but not Mr Yamamoto. The fitting sessions, in fact, truly shows the designer’s skill and mettle. It is here, where he is sometimes half-hidden behind a standing mirror, sometimes hunkered down as the fit models walk past, that I see a createur truly concerned with the 360-degree view and fall of clothes. His designs, from every angle, have to be perfect.

Perfection, I have often been told by design lecturers, is something students today do no pursue. The young are only keen on following fashion, to produce some semblance of fashion, not the epitome of it. Mr Yamamoto once said, in the 2011 documentary This Is My Dream, “I’m not interested in fashion generally; I’m interested in how to cut the clothing—dressmaking, clothing-making.” With computer-aided designs embraced by both designers and manufacturers, the rigours and the creativity behind dressmaking may be lost… forever. It is, therefore, heartfelt to see a designer working in the traditional sense of ‘designing’.

So much of what is shown at work is away from the digital realm, or at least the film does not dwell on the dependence on software and the like. This deep passion for craft enthralls if only because it seems so removed from our present world. Yohji Yamamoto | Dressmaker isn’t a fashion film in the vein of those that seek to glorify the visual excesses of over-the-top designers. The close-ups of Mr Yamamoto working tug at your heartstrings.  To paraphrase Tom Ford, who said in the 2015 documentary series Visionaries: Inside the Creative Mind, “you can feel rather than think.”

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From left, Anna Wintour, Andrew Bolton, and ex Mrs Murdoch, Wendy Deng

In contrast, The First Monday In May is about the dazzle and the glamour of New York’s major fashion spring event, the Met Ball. At the same time, it spotlights the one woman who pulls the two together—Anna Wintour. At the start of the film, she’s shown, in Chanel couture, with her back to the camera—drawing attention to her very creased elbow—before turning around in slow-mo like a movie star at a movie opening. Is the by-now over-exposed American Vogue’s honcho still so fascinating that she merits a film camera trailing her?

Sure, there’s a lot of the behind-the-scene toil, but even that seems glamorous. I am not sure if this documentary is really about the Met Gala (specifically last year’s China: Through the Looking Glass that shows Chinese culture’s influence on Western fashion), one night hailed by Andre Leon Tally as “the Super Bowl of social fashion events” or the glorification of an editor who has, like Diana Vreeland in the 1970s, positioned herself as the sole instigator of fashion as museum spectacle. Ms Wintour has not only made hers a notch more memorable (and deserving of a documentary); she has made them climb onto the category ‘blockbuster’.

the-first-monday-in-may-pic-2Andrew Bolton making last-minute adjustments to an Alexander McQueen dress before the start of the show

The film may have benefitted from the gravitas of Andrew Bolton, the Thom Browne-clad head curator of the Metropolitan of Art’s Costume Institute, but it still can’t escape from being fluff. Is it surprising, for instance, that Ms Wintour and her crew would have had a frustrating time confirming the guest list or seating those invited? Is it enlightening that an event of this scale would have experienced technical and logistical hiccups? Is it eye-opening to know that Rihanna would have cost a fortune if you wanted her to attend and sing? Who’s not aware: the audience or one of Ms Wintour’s bimbo-minions who said, “We can’t lose her, right? We just didn’t realise how expensive”?

What’s revealing, though, is that Ms Wintour is less attuned to the world outside fashion than we think. When she made a fuss about shifting a column to accommodate the tables she wanted and commented that “it’s only a column”, she had to be corrected by a museum staffer: “It’s a Tiffany column.” Is toughness an impenetrable façade to conceal the indolence of the mind? The First Monday In May is as much a celebration of clothes as getting as many glamourous, veneered people in one room to lend credence to the otherwise under-rated art of dressmaking. However strong the glamour factor, it isn’t moving.

Photo (top): Jim Sim. Film stills courtesy of respective film makers and producers, as well as A Design Film Festival