Review of "Gospel According to André"

 Photo of André Leon Talley and Anna Wintour by Bill Cunningham

Photo of André Leon Talley and Anna Wintour by Bill Cunningham

In the Gospel According to André, the documentary (directed by Kim Novak) takes account of the life of one of the fashion industry's most recognizable figures. André Leon Talley - born and raised in North Carolina, experienced his career birth in 1970s New York - as a one of a kind fashion editor flourishing amidst many of the most heralded artists, creators, movers and shakers of the age. A black man standing at 6'6 and now nearly 70 years of age Talley still strides through the 'chiffon trenches' (his pet name for the fashion industry) with a toothy smile, an Elizabeth Taylor meets Nina Simone vibrato of a voice and a probing editor's eye that dissects and cuts like a razor. For Talley it seems his life's mission was clear: walk through the world looking like you've got it on a string -- but with all the air kisses, parties and thousands of memorable clothes, editorials and people...the documentary bears witness to a great man that still is unfulfilled. 

Growing up mainly with his mother and his grandmother in Durham, North Carolina it is here that the viewer witnesses the foundation of the Andre Leon Talley we know today - influenced largely by his grandmother who according to Talley, '...was the only person to ever love him unconditionally.' His grandmother's shining sartorial moments occurred mainly on Sundays at church. And viewers witness the relevance of church (thus a holy place) in reference to Talley's respect for clothing and its power. Even as a maid, Talley's grandmother (and many of the people in his community) showed exorbitant care in the hats, gloves, shoes and other bits of finery they wore when attending Sunday service. Regardless of wealth or lack thereof Talley saw the grandeur in these acts and thus relished in these moments to also present and relish his finest self - there was simply no other time to do so. The church provided a haven for African Americans, not only as a space to find spiritual renewal but to shine aesthetically. Sundays meant not only dressing your best but feeling your best. This was a space where African Americans could be their full selves, where not long ago their country only regarded them as 3/5 human. The concept of 'Sunday best' is truly a double entendre in the grand scale of African American history, but also in Talley's personal history. In many ways his foray into fashion extended this holy space into a world in which he could soar and have absolutely no limit. 

Whereas the experience of growing up in the segregated south had many limits, and can be seen as the driving impetus that drove Talley into fashion. Lured by the pages of Vogue, Talley detailed having rocks thrown at him as he crossed the campus of Duke University to retrieve the publication and it seems the fantasy of fashion, proved to be a chiffon lined cocoon from the ugly reality where being a person of color in America meant being treated like a second class citizen. Talley's dreams of becoming a fashion editor were the perfect motivation for his escape from the South and soon he was off to Brown University to study French and later moved to New York to experience life as he never had before, and emerge on the scene with wings. 

 Andre Leon Talley, Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger by Bob Colacello

Andre Leon Talley, Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger by Bob Colacello

Moving back and forth through time the documentary recounts Talley's past and present comparing and contrasting his most pivotal moments in his career. From his beginnings as a receptionist at Andy Warhol's Factory to writing and editing at Warhol's recently defunct Interview Magazine. Soon after hitting a pivotal point: an apprenticeship with Diana Vreeland, editor of American Vogue of the early seventies. Vreeland snatched up Talley quickly, working together at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and creating inroads for Talley with the biggest creatives of the time. His allegiance to Vreeland never faltered, standing by her even as her health failed.  Always the southern gentleman, he still refers to her as Mrs. Vreeland, and equating her importance of their relationship to that of his own beloved grandmother. And it is here we see that Talley's most memorable moments are defined by the women in his life, affecting him even more so after their deaths. The film shares many eye opening truths like his rapid weight gain - brought on by his grandmother's death, his experience with racism throughout his career, and how he became friends with Anna Wintour, yet another woman that greatly affected his life and career... and arguably the most recognizable. It is hinted in that Wintour's lack of encyclopedic knowledge of the fashion history is what cemented their friendship and thus Talley's place as editor-at-large at Vogue, and why he was often seen sitting on her right at most runway shows around the world. 

The Gospel overall reflects the heart of the fashion world itself: very pretty but essentially devoid of real depth and meaning. Gospel bears witness to Talley's career as bold and dynamic - like the man himself. But as the film pans to the present day, over his visage looms a sense of the emptiness the industry is unfortunately known for, something I wished the doc dived into with more detail. While Talley continuously poured his whole heart in his greatest love's cup, he's only just realized, or perhaps only recently felt safe to publicly share, that his own cup of love was left empty. (While he does not explicitly share his sexual orientation he says clearly that he has never been in love or been in a relationship.) And now closer to 70 than 60, he sits in a home filled only with beautiful things and many of his greatest friends have passed away or disappeared from his life. See the film, and allow your eyes to be fed but recognize it will not substantially feed much else.