André Leon Talley, a Durham native and former editor-at-large of Vogue magazine, died Jan. 18, 2022 from complications of a heart attack and COVID-19. He was 73.
He will be remembered for his over fifty-year career in fashion journalism, working at some of the most famous publications alongside the biggest names in the industry. For his extravagant style and his widespread influence, André Leon Talley has been — and will continue to be — regarded as a fashion icon. Looking back on his roots in Duke’s own backyard reveals how this beloved icon came to be.
Talley was born Oct. 16, 1948 in Washington, D.C. to mother Alma Ruth Davis and father William C. Talley, but spent his childhood living with his grandmother in Durham, N.C. — the heart of the Jim Crow South.
Talley’s grandmother, Bennie Francis Davis, was a cleaner for Duke University’s West Campus men’s dormitories. Talley shared in a Washington Post interview that his grandmother centered their weekends — the only time she had off to recover from her long, demanding days of work — around preparing for church and attending Sunday services. It was through growing up in a faith-centered Durham home and in his Southern Black Baptist church that Talley first noticed style — and defined what it meant for himself.
Whether it was the subtle blue wash in his grandmother’s silver hair or the bold Sunday best of his congregation, Talley lived his childhood around great flair and panache, absorbing all that he could. It even became a ritual for him to walk over to the magazine stand on Duke’s East Campus — undoubtedly, the white side of town — twice every month to purchase his favorite fashion magazines.
Talley never seemed to notice that his trip to the magazine stand brought him to an area that young Black men, such as himself, were not welcome — citing in that same interview that he had “tunnel vision” for Vogue, and Vogue only — until one day when a group of Duke students driving by threw rocks at him.
“I was reading Vogue at an earlier age, and Vogue was the escape moment for me,” Talley said.
For Talley, the world he found in these fashion magazines, in the content on every single page, was an escape from the racist, segregated community that he was confined in during his most formative years.
Talley went on to graduate from Durham’s Hillside High School in 1966 and from North Carolina Central University in 1970 with a Bachelor of Arts in French literature. After earning a scholarship to Brown University, Talley received his Master of Arts in French literature, as he initially planned to teach the language.
Talley knew that he was not meant to stay in Durham; he did not want the tobacco town to contain him. So, he left for bigger and better things in Paris, New York and everywhere in between. His later visits home were meaningful, but generally few and far between.
Connections made in college led Talley to apprentice for Diana Vreeland, then former editor-in-chief at Vogue, at the Museum of Modern Art. Afterwards, Talley went on to work for Andy Warhol, then became the Paris bureau chief of Women’s Wear Daily, wrote for W magazine and New York Times, and finally ended up at Vogue, where he served as the magazine’s first African American male creative director.
Sitting the front row at countless runway shows and attending a myriad of high fashion events, Talley always stood out. Not only for his signature lavish capes and custom caftans, but for more of his physical presence as the rare Black man — standing 6’ 6”, no less — in a heavily white-dominated field.
Talley’s legacy is heavily rooted in the work he did to support all other people of color in the fashion industry. His advocacy for more diversity and representation first manifested itself in fashion shows — he consistently pushed for more Black runway models, most notably during the big Fashion Weeks — but soon came to infiltrate all aspects of the fashion world he was a part of.
In any way he could, Talley worked to further the careers of POC designers. LaQuan Smith, a Black designer who specializes in luxury womenswear, has crafted several of tennis star Serena Williams’ red carpet looks thanks to Talley’s mentorship and support. Talley introduced Michelle Obama to Taiwanese-Canadian designer Jason Wu, who ended up making her gown for the 2009 inauguration and many other ensembles over the years. He also served as a close mentor to supermodel Naomi Campbell and photographer Dario Calmese, the first African American to shoot the cover of Vanity Fair.
To honor his outstanding legacy, Karla F.C. Holloway, professor emerita of English and Law at Duke, attempted to nominate Talley for an honorary degree from the university. However, soon after Talley’s death, Holloway expressed disappointment in a tweet that this nomination ultimately went unrecognized. Though she alluded on social media to have more to say about this process, Holloway declined request for further comment.
The Chronicle reached out to a representative of Duke’s Committee of Honorary Degrees — Carolyn Gerber, special assistant to the vice president for public affairs and government relations — to find out more about Talley’s nomination and why an honorary degree did not come to fruition. Noting that the deliberations on the Committee are to be confidential, Gerber cited the extreme selectiveness of this distinction — which André Leon Talley apparently did not meet their standards of. But musician John Legend, the 2021 commencement speaker with no public ties to Duke or Durham prior to his selection, evidently did.
While the Committee of Honorary Degrees failed to recognize Talley’s close ties to the university, his groundbreaking work in fashion journalism and influence on diversity in the high fashion industry is remembered fondly by the Durham community which he so profoundly impacted.
When Talley visited Durham in 2019, then-mayor Steve Schewel gave him a key to the city and issued a proclamation for Feb. 15 to be recognized as “André Leon Talley Day.” Talley was also honored with the Alumnus Legacy Award from Hillside High.
His favorite teacher from high school, Wanda Garrett, reflected on her relationship with Talley and his outstanding legacy in an interview with the Raleigh News & Observer.
“Anybody who took a note of Andre knew that he was special … I think his willfulness led him to be the fashion icon that he became today. You can have all the talent in the world, but perseverance is what makes people reach their full potential,” said Garrett.
Beyond the people he knew and the lives he personally touched, Talley influenced everyone that looked up to him through all avenues of art and ways of creative expression. Talley has been an inspiration to countless people across many generations — and will be for many generations to come — thanks to his being bold and vulnerable in his work and in sharing his own stories.
Through his own art, others’ fond memories of him and countless admirers across the globe, André Leon Talley will be remembered as the Durham native that forever changed Vogue — the world’s fashion Bible — and the fashion industry at large that we know today.
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