The legendary writer and fashion editor tells PEOPLE exclusively, “when I was 9 years old, I had to create my own world"

By Jason Sheeler
May 15, 2020 09:58 AM
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andre leon talley
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After more than three decades in the upper echelon of Vogue—much of that at the right hand of Anna Wintour— André Leon Talley has written a memoir. The Chiffon Trenches chronicles his improbable rise from the front porch of his grandmother’s home in Durham, North Carolina to the front rows of fashion. Yes, he does a good amount of “unpeeling the onion about her,” he says of his longtime boss and mentor, Wintour. (He’s very aware of how his book has been received but insists, “My book is in many ways as a love letter to Anna Wintour, pleading to her.”) But at the core of the book is a tragic story which ultimately propelled Talley toward fashion—then to the top of it.

Talley was raised by his grandmother in Durham, N.C. She worked as a maid at the men’s dormitories at nearby Duke University for more than 50 years. He went to live with her shortly after birth, when his mother left to pursue work. “She wanted what was best for me,” he says. His relationship with his mother would remain distant.

“I was the only child in the house,” Talley says of life in Durham. But he was not like the other boys in the neighborhood. “I had a ritual. I would walk across the railroad tracks to the campus of Duke. I would buy Vogue. I took them home and would devour them. I hung the pages on the wall—Naomi Sims, Pat Cleveland, the great African American models. I made my own world.”

He had to. He was in survival mode. When Talley was 9, he began to be sexually abused. “It was not one man, it was many, young adults, teenagers, or men throughout the neighborhood. It was painful. It was serial. And it took place in shame. In shaming places, in dark places—like the woodshed of my house, where they kept the wood and coal.”

andre leon talley and anna wintour
Credit: Eugene Gologursky/WireImage

While Talley would one day be the loudest voice in the room, he did not yet have the words to ask for help. “I was afraid to tell anyone. I was afraid they would send me away. I didn’t know at that time, that you could go to doctors. We didn’t have hotlines for sexual abuse or suicide. I did not know how to articulate this. It has lived with me until I wrote this book.” Fashion, he says, saved him. “I found a way to alleviate the pain, through the escapism of fashion and the world of style and, eventually, the pages of Vogue.”

Since childhood, Talley has gone to church every week. His early life was defined by the routine of worship and today he has returned to that safe space. These days, during the pandemic, he is finding peace through Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church weekly, which he attends via Zoom from his house in upstate New York. “All my friends are church people.”

“I am grateful for my life, but I am not happy with who I am,” Talley says. “I want to continue to try and be kind and not cruel. But I have had a difficult life.” He says he had the opportunity years ago to go to therapy for his sexual abuse and wishes he would have. “I have not been able to have any intimacy that is successful. I don’t have intimacy with men or women. I am afraid to be touched.” He pauses. “I still don’t know who to trust.”