In honor of André Leon Talley—the fashion journalist and former creative director for Vogue, who was raised in Durham, an icon and incredible writer in his own right— who died this week in a hospital in New York after contracting COVID-19, I want to share some profiles of the man, some remembrances, and some of his own writing.

But first, here’s an excerpt from the Washington Post’s obituary that touches on Talley’s early life in Durham where his grandmother, Bennie Frances Davis, raised him:

André Leon Talley was born on Oct. 16, 1948, in Washington and grew up in Durham, N.C., where he was raised from the age of 2 months by his maternal grandmother, a widow who supported herself and him cleaning dormitories at Duke University.

“Bennie Frances Davis may have looked like a typical African-American domestic worker to many who saw her on an ordinary day,” Mr. Talley wrote in his 2003 memoir “A.L.T.” “But I, who could see her soul, could also see her secret: that even while she wore a hair net and work clothes to scrub toilets and floors, she wore an invisible diadem.”

Even early in his youth, Mr. Talley was attuned to clothing and style, taking note of the Sunday best that fellow congregants wore to services at his Baptist church. As he grew up, he discovered fashion magazines and ventured to a newsstand on the White side of town to purchase the latest edition of Vogue and other publications.

Once, he recalled, Duke students threw rocks at him from a car. He endured ridicule when he began experimenting with the capes that later became his signature look. He did not speak of the matter in detail but said he was sexually abused as a child.

“Fashion in Vogue seemed so kind,” he told the New Yorker. “So opulently kind. A perfect image of things.”

Transfixed by the glamour of the Kennedy White House, Mr. Talley modeled himself on first lady Jacqueline Kennedy to become a Francophile in his teens. He received a bachelor’s degree in French literature from North Carolina Central University, a historically Black institution in Durham, in 1970 and a master’s degree in French studies from Brown University in 1973.

The father of a classmate helped Mr. Talley find his entree into New York fashion, writing a letter of introduction to Diana Vreeland, the former editor in chief of Vogue who at the time was mounting fashion exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. She and his grandmother, Mr. Talley often said, were the defining figures in his life.

This funny and sad 1994 New Yorker profile of Talley by writer Hilton Als titled The Only One captures, in a heartbreaking kind of way, the loneliness of being, at the time certainly, “the only black gay male” in the fashion world and the searing racism and discrimination Talley had to deal with.

Indeed, loneliness was a feature of Talley’s life, as he told NPR’s Terry Gross in a Fresh Air interview in 2018 about living in “a gold-plated hell:”

I was afraid to fall in love. I was afraid of the rejection. I was afraid of emotional commitment and … I was emotionally afraid of people, so I did not want to get close to people. I did not want people to touch me. I did not like to touch people, so that’s just a part of who I am. …

I regret to this day [that] I have difficulty responding to physical emotion and it’s based on a childhood experience — I don’t know what it is, I can’t think about that now — but I do regret not having that relationship.

I regret not having siblings and I think about it almost every day, because as I get older it’s very, very lonely. … However, I’m not going to say it’s the worst life; it’s been a wonderful life.

Here is Talley’s memorable Vogue profile of Michelle Obama from 2009.

Here’s some INDY coverage of Talley returning to Durham in 2018 to “sift through memories both poignant and painful” as captured in Kate Novack’s film The Gospel According to AndréAnd here’s an amazing photo of Talley by former INDY Week photographer Jeremy Lange, captured on the grounds of the church on the edge of Duke Forest.

And in case you want to read more, here’s a piece from Garden and Gun on Talley’s deep Southern roots, a thread from culture and entertainment journalist Tre’vell Anderson who interviewed Talley several times,  the New York Times’ obituary, and the LA Times’ obituary.

Talley was a giant in the fashion world, but also a giant in the world—creative, brilliant, trailblazing, and utterly unique. RIP.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post mistakenly stated that Talley was born in Durham; in fact, he was born in Washington, D.C. 

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