AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Andre Leon Talley is best known for his time as a fashion editor for Vogue and for what he wears on his 6'6" frame.
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ANDRE LEON TALLEY: I'm wearing a kaftan and a shirt from Marrakech - Fil d'Or - from the souks of Marrakech. And I'm wearing a vintage scarf made out of two vintage saris, and it's made by Jeanette Farrier.
CORNISH: And the colors.
TALLEY: The colors the red, burgundy, gray, light pink. And that's my signature look for the day.
CORNISH: I spoke with Talley last May - a sharp, unflinching, fun conversation, one of my favorites this year. We spoke about a documentary about his life, "The Gospel According To Andre." It starts with his childhood in Durham, N.C., where he was raised by his grandmother. She was a maid at Duke University. Talley told me his love of fashion is firmly rooted in his love for her and how she dressed to go to church every Sunday.
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TALLEY: Handbags, gloves chosen carefully - my grandmother had the most beautiful wardrobe of gloves, calfskin gloves in the winter. You wore beautiful net gloves in summer. You wore beautiful cotton gloves. So all of that was very much ritualistic, and I loved it.
CORNISH: What was, I guess, the value of being able to dress in that way?
TALLEY: Well, as I said, this was Sunday dressing at its best. On the weekdays, we wore just normal clothes. But Sunday was given over to the best that she could afford - an elegance and restraint. It was nothing ever flashy. This was the way people were brought up in the South. They were inspired to put their best foot forward in church, you know? It was a wonderful, extraordinary place to grow up in the South in the segregated South because I think it gave people strength. I went to a segregated high school, and I worshipped those experiences.
CORNISH: How come? Why do you look at them that way? I mean, a lot of people would look back and say that's not ideal.
TALLEY: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Lifelong experiences, lifelong friendships were made at the high school. You can always go back home. And you can always go back to your roots and find these wonderful, solid, golden memories. And I think that that would not have happened had I gone to an integrated school across town, you know?
CORNISH: So you talk about being raised in a segregated community, and from there, you end up at Brown University in Rhode Island, which is not very diverse (laughter). You end up doing an apprenticeship with Diane Vreeland in New York at The Costume...
TALLEY: Institute, yes, yes.
CORNISH: ...Institute at the Met. You go from one extreme to another - right? - 'cause now you're going into very white spaces.
TALLEY: Very white spaces - extremely white spaces. But I think I was prepared for it because I was given unconditional love. So I could approach that space with confidence. I wanted to be in the world of Diana Vreeland's Vogue. That was the world that I loved when I was a teenager. I was always tearing the pages out of Vogue and putting them on my wall in my bedroom. So I wanted to see Naomi Sims. I wanted to meet Pat Cleveland. I wanted to meet Truman Capote. And I did. And he was a friend of Andy Warhol's.
When you worked for Andy Warhol, which I did - this was my first full-paying job - everyone came to The Factory. Not only did Grace Jones come to The Factory. Arnold Schwarzenegger would come to The Factory. Diana Ross would come to The Factory. Michael Jackson would come to The Factory. It was a melting pot of cultural diversity in New York at the right time. I got to New York in 1974, and I never looked back.
CORNISH: It is such a specific time and also diversity on the runways - right? - which has kind of come and gone over the last few decades.
TALLEY: Well, it began - it was really thriving in the '70s. It's dormant today.
CORNISH: You're being very generous when you say dormant.
TALLEY: Dormant - I am being very generous.
CORNISH: (Laughter) Right. Fashion is not exactly holding up its end of the bargain.
TALLEY: Fashion does not hold its end of the bargain up because people do not like to talk about race. And if you bring it up, people feel very uncomfortable. I always say, well, where are the black people in this show? Who are the black editors? I could have been an editor of a fashion magazine, but, you know, the glass ceiling did not rise that far for me. They kept me sort of shuttered underneath the glass ceiling, so I never crashed through it. And I do resent that in a way because I could have easily been the editor of a style magazine. I would never say I can be the editor of Vogue, but I could've been the editor of a stylish magazine.
CORNISH: I want to talk about that a little more because you speak frankly about how you felt you might have been perceived at times. You speak frankly about ways that you were insulted. Here is a moment where you talk a little bit about that.
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TALLEY: They used to call me Queen Kong - a woman in Saint Laurent who used to call me Queen Kong. I was like an ape - King Kong, Queen Kong. They were saying I was a gay ape Queen Kong, and I knew this from very close friends. I never confronted her because these things I internalized and kept them bottled up.
CORNISH: Andre Leon Talley, what do you mean when you say you internalized that, and what was the price you paid for doing that?
TALLEY: This is the first time I ever spoke of that. The girl's name is Clara Saint. She's still alive. She was a public relations director of Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. And I thought it was the most racist, insensitive thing I ever heard. And then I realized that people can smile at you and backstab you at the same time, that the fashion world is not a gracious world. It has been very good to me, but it's not a world that is really open, you know? To go around making fun of me because I was black was racist, and it hurt. They don't keep me here for my looks, as Judge Judy says; they keep me here for my knowledge.
CORNISH: You know, I think the idea of you has become even bigger than who you are.
TALLEY: Thank you.
CORNISH: Like, everyone thinks that fashion editors speak like you...
TALLEY: Thank you.
CORNISH: ...That you bring your level of drama to things.
TALLEY: A drama and performance art to the front row.
CORNISH: But not everyone is backing it up with the knowledge.
TALLEY: With the knowledge.
CORNISH: I mean, you have a French history degree (laughter).
TALLEY: Yes, I have a master's degree, and I'm telling you the knowledge is important. You can't go forward without having knowledge of the past.
CORNISH: But what do you think of that caricature?
TALLEY: I think people see the surface of me and the performance in the front row, the armor of clothing expressing myself through individualism in clothing and my choice of clothes. But if you ever hear me talk, it's almost like - and I'm very, very pretentious here, pompous - I see myself as like an Oscar Wilde. I could go around the country and be like an Oscar Wilde on a one-man tour, show the film and get up and talk for 40 minutes, and people would learn something.
CORNISH: You talked about your own fashion, and I think in modern times, people most associate you with these flowing capes, which...
TALLEY: Kaftans - capes and kaftans.
CORNISH: Capes and kaftans.
TALLEY: Capes and kaftans.
CORNISH: And they are...
TALLEY: They're often custom-made.
CORNISH: They're custom-made by the designers that you are friends with.
TALLEY: They love me. Valentino made my first beautiful kaftans.
CORNISH: But they take advantage of your stature and size. Like, it gives you...
TALLEY: And they appreciate it. They appreciate...
CORNISH: ...A big like - almost like a deity (laughter).
TALLEY: They appreciate making clothes for me.
CORNISH: Is that what you're going for?
TALLEY: No, I'm not going for deity. I'm going for individualism. I'm going for the individual.
CORNISH: I shouldn't ask that of a churchgoing man, but still...
TALLEY: No, I'm not asking - I'm asking for...
CORNISH: It seems like you're going for something very grand.
TALLEY: I'm going for the drama of who I am. I'm going for what makes me feel comfortable. A cape suits me, and it's an honor to wear anything that these designers make for me - Tom Ford, Valentino, Karl Lagerfeld, Ralph Rucci - volumes of flowing, fluid, elegant fabric. It suits my stature and my frame.
CORNISH: You wanted to be a fashion editor from the time you were a little boy, and you've achieved that dream. You achieved it in a time when your grandmother was alive - right? - to see you.
TALLEY: Yes, yes.
CORNISH: Was it everything you thought it was going to be?
TALLEY: Yes, everything and then some. I've seen the best, and I've cherished the best, and I've lived in a world that gave me something that was very inspiring.
CORNISH: Well, Andre Leon Talley, thank you so much for speaking with us.
TALLEY: Well, thank you, Audie. I really appreciate you having me. Thank you very much.
CORNISH: That's our conversation with Andre Leon Talley last May. The documentary "The Gospel According To Andre" is available on Amazon, Hulu and other streaming services. And a note - we reached out to Ms. Clara Saint about the name Talley says she used for him, Queen Kong. Through an interpreter, she says, it is a fake story. I didn't create this name. I never used it in reference to him, and I am not racist. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.