In His Own Words: André Leon Talley on What It Meant to Be Black in Fashion

The fashion trailblazer made an immeasurable impact on the industry and leaves behind a lasting legacy

andre leon talley
Andre Leon Talley. Photo: getty

Like so many Black trailblazers, André Leon Talley, who died on Tuesday at age 73, accomplished a lot of firsts. He was a rare Black editor and journalist at the top of a field that has been known for its lack of diversity.

However, the famed writer and former Vogue creative director, who joined the publication in 1983 as the magazine's first fashion news director, had his own complicated view of his groundbreaking accomplishments.

Having grown up in Durham, N.C., where his mother often left him under the care of his grandmother, Talley dared to dream big, keeping his southern roots at the center of his career.

"Sitting on the front row in 1978 watching the YSL Porgy and Bess show unfold was one of the greatest achievements. I saw my first couture show I'd ever been, as the music accompanied the collection and the clothes — it was similar to my childhood... YSL was inspired by Black southern American culture. The chiffon scarves, reminded me of church dresses, church clothes, that is how it felt," Talley told PEOPLE in 2020.

Andre Leon Talley
Cindy Ord/Getty

After starting as a news director, Talley quickly rose to creative director and assumed a role as editor-in-chief Anna Wintour's right-hand — a position he held from 1987 to 1995. He left Vogue in 1995 and moved to Paris, where he returned to W Magazine after working at the publication earlier in his career.

He continued contributing to Vogue as an editor until he rejoined the magazine in 1998 full-time as the editor-at-large, writing the monthly column, Style Fax. He stayed in this role until his final departure from Vogue in 2013.

"My story is one Black man's experience in an insulated world," Talley shared withe PEOPLE in 2020. "I was succeeding because I had been trained to succeed. As a young, African American Black man, I was trained. I did not think of myself as a Black man succeeding, I thought of myself as a human being succeeding. I was smart."

He added: "As Judge Judy says, 'They don't keep me here for my looks.'"

"I had earned it. I had lived day by day, I did my job and it paid off."

Andre Leon Talley, Anna Wintour
Andre Leon Talley, Anna Wintour. Rose Hartman/Getty

Over his career, Talley also contributed to Women's Wear Daily, The New York Times, and Interview Magazine. He is also the subject of the documentary The Gospel According to André, which was released in 2018. In May 2020, he released a memoir about his life and career, titled The Chiffon Trenches, which chronicles his improbable rise from the front porch of his grandmother's home in Durham to the front rows of fashion.

Talley's impact is undeniable, and he has undoubtedly opened the door for several other Black voices in the fashion industry and beyond, many who have opened up about his impact since his death on Tuesday.

Andre Leon Talley - Life in Pictures

"I had never experienced such a prolific person serving up a rare mix of fashion 'fabulousness' and real down-home southern comfort love until I met @AndreaTalley," Tyra Banks wrote alongside a photograph of the late journalist on Wednesday. Talley famously joined Banks as a judge for a few cycles of America's Next Top Model.

"Being in his presence was so magical. He made me smile, laugh and was a masterful teacher — a generous, genius historian," Banks continued. "Scholar, colleague, effervescent spirit, legend…you are resting now, Dearest André. But your spirit, your 'je ne sais quoi', your VOICE - your laugh, your screams of effervescent, delightful joy…I hear it now. And will forever. We all will."

Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief of British Vogue, also paid tribute to Talley, sharing a sweet photo of himself smiling widely alongside Talley and Naomi Campbell.

"R.I.P dearest Andre," he began. "Without you, there would be no me. Thank you for paving the way."

Tracee Ellis Ross, who was honored with the style icon award at the 2020 People's Choice Awards, posted a slideshow of photos, praising Talley for being "grand and glamorous."

"André Leon Talley. You were grand and glamorous, complex and marvelous. Capes, caftans and style. A trailblazer. It was so exciting seeing you somewhere. I would run across a room to say hello. I am sad you are gone. You changed things and brought us all so much. A true original. Rest In Peace!" Ross wrote.

Designer Christopher John Rogers shared several throwback photos on his Instagram Story, adding a red heart emoji over a black-and-white snapshot of the late writer.

Kerby Jean-Raymond, founder of Pyer Moss, and Brother Vellies creator Aurora James also paid tribute to Talley, reposting powerful images of the former Vogue editor also to their Instagram Stories.

"To the legend of all fashion legends, I am eternally grateful to have known you and witnessed your brilliance in person. Rest in Peace King," wrote designer Carly Cushnie.

Renowned makeup artist Pat McGrath shared: "I was deeply saddened when I heard of the untimely passing of the legendary Mr. André Leon Talley. Irrepressible, intelligent and iconic, André blazed trails and opened doors. I send my deepest condolences to his family, friends and colleagues. May he Rest in Power."

Updated by Jason Sheeler
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