In a year that has been sadly lacking in red carpet events, The Chiffon Trenches: A memoir – André Leon Talley’s candid account (4th Estate, 2020) of life in the fashion ‘trenches’ – offers some much-needed glamour.
Starting his career as an assistant to Andy Warhol at Interview magazine in the 1970s, Talley quickly became a fixture in New York’s fashion scene. He became close friends with designers (and bitter rivals) Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent, and danced with Diana Ross at Studio 54 nightclub. He visited gay clubs with legendary ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, and tiptoed past a sleeping Mick Jagger to choose clothes from Bianca Jagger’s wardrobe.
Later, as style editor of Vanity Fair, Talley presided over one of the most iconic fashion shoots of all time – recasting Naomi Campbell as Scarlett O’Hara in a shoot inspired by Gone with the Wind (a movie that was temporarily removed from HBO Max earlier this year because of its ‘racist depictions’).
But it is arguably Talley’s intimate friendship with Anna Wintour, the long-time editor-in-chief of US Vogue, that is most fascinating. For 30 years, Talley was by the notoriously difficult editor’s side as she rose to the top of Vogue’s masthead. He accompanied her to everything from the Paris fashion shows to her own dress fittings and her mother’s funeral. Now, having been unceremoniously dropped by Vogue and no longer speaking with Wintour, it’s clear that Talley is deeply conflicted by his feelings for her.
Sadly, there is another underlying thread to this tale: how Talley had to overcome ingrained racism, malicious rumour-mongering and the sad legacy of his own childhood to not only survive in the fashion industry but thrive. The hope is that by becoming one of the industry’s most recognisable figures, it will be easier for others to follow in his footsteps.