Andre Leon Talley’s Memorial In New York
For many years, shortly after the flowers began to sprout, André Leon Talley would ascend the steps of a church on 84th Street and Fifth Avenue to pay homage to the gods of fashion.
This year, on Friday morning, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, the gods of fashion showed up to pay homage to him.
Grace Coddington, the former creative director of Vogue, could be seen in the center of the church, to the left of Karlie Kloss, one of the few people in the world who, in the era of microcelebrity, could justifiably be described as a “supermodel.”
Bette Midler looked down from the balcony.
Memorial services are always derbies, but that’s especially true of ones for men whose first question in life was “Whaat are you wearing?” and whose judgments could be effusive or withering, but never in between.
The winner of this morning’s memorial was the model Naomi Campbell, who arrived at the church in a grand, all-white, vintage Rolls-Royce and emerged in a heavenly, feathered Elsa Schiaparelli thing — like an angelic swan headed for a gospel brunch. It was a moment Mr. Talley might have art directed if he could have.
Mr. Talley got his start working for Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute in 1974, after which he became the receptionist at Interview magazine and a member of Andy Warhol’s posse. Yet it was through his work as an editor at Vogue and Vanity Fair in the 1980s and ’90s that he became truly famous. The title of a 1994 profile of him in The New Yorker was “The Only One.” Yet according to its author, Hilton Als, the role he played — waxing poetic about the genius of high heels and ball gowns as he appealed to the egos of fabulously dressed, fabulously connected women — sometimes veered toward stereotype.
At the same time, he seemed impossible to reduce to it. He was arguably the first real fashion pundit, yet there was a grandness to him, an element of camp without any sense of attendant tackiness. If he plainly worshiped not only God, but also the women in his life, he nevertheless fought with them constantly. The “opulence and arrogance of André,” as Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, put it in his eulogy, were in equal supply.
During the height of his fashion tenure, Mr. Talley spent much time at the side of Anna Wintour. But that relationship strained under the economics of the changing fashion business when he lost his contract with Vogue.
For a while after that he continued to be Vogue’s official red carpet interviewer at the annual Met Gala but was then replaced by a YouTube personality, Liza Koshy, in 2018.
He took Ms. Wintour’s abandonment as a form of “colonialism,” as he explained in “The Chiffon Trenches,” his 2020 best-selling memoir.
Nevertheless, Ms. Wintour showed up to the memorial and gave a speech without alluding to, much less acknowledging, their bitter end — although the pain of having lost him was clear in her voice. She plainly had not wanted to see him go.
She spoke at length about his exclamation point-laden and all caps emails, his “appreciation and distaste always high volume.” One of his better more recent quips referred to an unsatisfactory runway show as “fashion nuns meets ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’”
Ms. Wintour recalled him flying to England to be with her at her mother’s funeral and thanked him for the love he had shown for her children. She said he had taught her how to speak fearlessly.
Mr. Talley was a man with Southern roots and Northern aspirations, according to one speaker. He grew up in Durham, N.C., a gay Black man raised during segregation by his grandmother, Binny Francis Davis. She worked as a cleaning woman at Duke University but had a sense of unbreakable faith and immense dignity and style.
Her fashion extravaganza was church and André simply lived for her gorgeous white suits and oversize hats.
Long after Mr. Talley left for New York, he continued to come home regularly and remained a constant presence in the lives of his relatives, said Brian Nunn, his second cousin and another speaker.
“He wanted a lot and he gave a lot,” said Mr. Nunn, who recalled Mr. Talley’s 2 a.m. phone calls and utterly blunt questions. Among them: “When are you getting married? Do you have any baby mamas?”
By being, as Ms. Wintour put it, “impeccably self-created,” it was sometimes easy to lose sight of his serious scholarship. Numerous speakers recalled his extraordinary grasp of world history, his encyclopedic knowledge of fashion, and the boom of him speaking in absolutely perfect French. (He got his undergraduate degree in French literature from North Carolina Central University, then got a masters in it at Brown.)
Starting with Diana Vreeland, whom he apprenticed for at the Costume Institute, Mr. Talley was always helping a diva, yet he remained one himself. He was great at playing the victim when he didn’t get what he wanted and turned out to be enormously resilient if he didn’t get it. Not for nothing did Naomi Campbell say in her speech that what she really learned from Mr. Talley was how “to pick up the phone and get what I wanted.”
He was also the sort of friend, said Marc Jacobs, whose “approval and validation” were sought out.
There were costs involved with being “the only one.” Mr. Talley’s romantic life became nearly nonexistent, blunted perhaps by an outsize devotion to frocks and the very real threat of AIDS, and he turned increasingly to food.
“I was always someone who was kicking to be healthy, and he was always someone who was kicking to eat,” said Bethann Hardison, another speaker. Serious health complications ensued.
One of the last times Ms. Campbell saw him was when he came to Lagos, Nigeria to attend a fashion show charity event for Fashion for Relief, the nonprofit organization she founded. Ms. Campbell said that she visited him in his hotel there and found him in a wheelchair, but still looking utterly regal with a cape draped over him.
He didn’t tell many people how sick he was shortly before Covid 19 came along and took his life last January. “His transition was between him and God,” Rev. Butts said.
The weekend before the memorial service, Ms. Campbell and Diane von Furstenberg were among those who took his remains to North Carolina.
Ms. von Fustenberg didn’t bother with a conventional speech, but the one she gave toward the end of the ceremony would likely have been the one Mr. Talley declared “truly the most divine.”
It was a letter she wrote to him directly and then delivered to the audience.
She talked about the trees in bloom in North Carolina, the beautifully decorated house he’d bought for his beloved grandmother, “a mix of Diana Vreeland’s Park Avenue apartment, Cecil Beaton’s décor with a touch of Elsa Schiaparelli wit and Yves Saint Laurent clothes. I know how proud she was of you and how her guidance and love made you who you became.”
She acknowledged this person sometimes tried her patience.
“We fought sometimes,” she said. “You were not always easy.”
But with his “large reassuring hands,” his “even bigger heart” and his “capacity for love,” he was, she said, one of the most “extraordinary people” she ever met.
“Rest in peace A.L.T. Always loyal and always tall.”