‘The Gospel According to André’ takes a look at roots of fashion’s most formidable deity
By: Hadley Passela
Indicative of the title, “The Gospel According to André,” there is no question that André Leon Talley is a fashion God. In the enthralling documentary director, Kate Novak brings to life a poignant and meaningful story of Talley’s life from beneath the grandeur of his signature capes. Appearances by the designers he has lauded for years, turn to give testimony to the exemplary talent he has contributed to the world of fashion. Life for Talley is made up of moments, many he has curated for others, but this one belongs to him.
Talley sits on his front porch in a pressed garden version of his famous ensemble, at his home in White Plains, NY. It is an image reminiscent of Southern living, as he narrates his story of growing up in the segregated South. Raised solely by his grandmother in Durham, NC, we see images of her in old photographs and their striking resemblance. It was her love and protection that insulated him from the dark days of the Jim-Crow-era.
Immediately, you sense that the vogue and grand persona that has appeared across the fashion pages and front rows for decades is tenderly rooted in his admiration for his grandmother and how she raised him. “It was aristocratic in the highest sense,” Talley says of the pristine household his grandmother kept polished and pressed to a luxurious degree they created for themselves. “You can be aristocratic without being born into an aristocratic family,” he says. Sunday’s when she would make him a pan of biscuits, and they would dress for church, were especially significant to him. The church is where they put forth their Sunday best to God and was the most important aspect of their lives.
Immersing himself in fashion magazines was a form of escape to another world, and he read everything he could get his hands-on: Vogue, WWD, and John Fairchild’s Fashionable Savages. With dreams of Paris, he focused on learning French by watching Julia Child, and we hear his command for the language very early on. Interwoven throughout the documentary is commentary from his closest friends from high school and college. They affirm he strove for excellence without excuses, “because you couldn’t just be good, you had to be better.” Visuals of a young Talley show him with as commanding a presence as he has now, always polished and flawless.
His acceptance to the Brown graduate program for French studies propelled Talley directly into the world to which he devoted himself. We see him navigate through the industry and his dreams materialize through his first position with Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. He ascends as a right hand to Andy Warhol and fixture at Studio 54, dancing with the people who were once taped to his walls, and alongside Karl Lagerfeld in Paris in his first editor position for Women’s Wear Daily. “People’s heads exploded,” friend Whoopi Goldberg, says, “because he was so many things he was not supposed to be.”
When you hear Talley speak throughout the film, even in his earliest years, it is clear he is a true fashion savant. He speaks a fluid language of periods and genres with descriptive inflection in ways you’ve never heard fashion vernacular assembled. Speaking to his knowledge, Anna Wintour confesses, “my fashion history is not so great, and his was impeccable.” Novak has brought to light what an extraordinary talent and pioneer Talley has been to fashion but does not clearly show that he receives the credit he deserves for breaking down walls and paving the way for other African American’s in the fashion industry.
In a tender moment in the Vogue archives, he speaks to some of the struggles he has faced but has internalized for the sake of his career. With his hand on the Michelle Obama issue he wrote for Vogue, he tenderly speaks about the impact the oppression of his ancestors has had on him, looking down at the cover he wishes aloud that his grandmother had been here to see it. It is apparent that beneath the armor of the fashion deity, Talley is beholden to an impeccable humility which has been the foundation of his remarkable success.