“The Gospel According to André”
A Life Devoted to Fashion
André Leon Talley stands out as a 6’ 6” African American man. He has a deep booming voice and has spent his life breaking down barriers. He was raised in Durham, North Carolina in the segregated south. He remembers the degradation of Jim Crow laws and watching the Civil Rights Movement play out. As a child, Talley had rocks thrown at him on a college campus as he was walking across town to pick up the latest copy of Vogue magazine at a news stand. Talley sought and found solace and refuge in fashion magazines and books. He read about fashion icons as he watched the pulse of modern fashion. In an interview with one of his high school teachers he recalls a grey Dior-inspired skirt she had some forty-plus years ago. Anna Wintour, a close friend of Talley’s and colleague at Vogue, admitted that her fashion history wasn’t strong when she started at Vogue and she relied on Talley for that knowledge.
Talley is something of a news junky and he tracks the progress of the 2016 presidential election throughout the filming of the documentary. The film ends in November 2016 with Talley and the rest of the world coming to terms with the results of that election. In most of the film Talley speaks about the way he was raised and the necessity of braking barriers in a matter of fact way. When he speaks about his grandmother, however, his tone and mannerisms change. She worked as a domestic maid in a dorm to support them and she gave him the freedom and courage to be what he is today. He and his friends talk about how there was a lot of pressure on the African American population to be the best and this was the only way that there would be upward mobility.
the greatest strength of director Kate Novack’s documentary is Talley himself, who when on screen performs wonderfully at whatever we see him doing. his own master of ceremonies, whether at dinner with friends, sitting on his front porch in White Plains, observing a fitting, or revealing some of the more painful details of his past. He possesses great ability to contextualize his experiences both past and present that makes Novack’s frequent shifts to other voices seem distracting. There are exceptions, such as Fran Lebowitz, who explains her time at “Interview” magazine with Talley through anecdotes but Novack keeps dragging her focus back to the industry perspective as a whole.
Talley’s youth in a lower-class African-American family is a “black superhero” story and his legacy helps redefine perceptions of black masculinity and power. Talley’s idea of fashion as an “escape from reality” is treated by Novack as a flight of fancy and not as the freeing of one’s mind from the constraints that separate upper and lower classes of wealth.
This is a straightforward documentary mostly composed of straight-to-camera interviews, historical footage, or on the street footage. But it is fascinating to watch because Talley and his life is fascinating. The clothes in the film are wonderful and we see many clips from fashion shows throughout the years along with fashion spreads from magazines full of beautiful clothes.
Talley admits to a few of his fashion mistakes over the years and most of the time we see him in draped in expensive coats or his colorful caftans and large jewelry (that have become his signature dress). He is nearly seventy years old now and the film takes a look at fashion throughout the decades and some the key signature pieces and designers. We see black women in the 1940s who used their weekly church trips to express themselves with their clothes and hats and go through the disco seventies and through 2016 when the film was shot. The interviews are made up “who’s who” of the fashion world, including Marc Jacobs, Manolo Blahnik and Isabella Rossellini.
Talley struggled to get to the top of the fashion world. After leaving the segregated south he had to work hard to get himself to a position of power. He used his intelligence, sense of style, and charisma to get him there. He tells us that he is offended when people say he slept his way to the top or did anything other than what he did to get his level of success. We see his strength and how he used it to get to where he is and that some of those cruel memories still are for him.
This is the story of one man breaking down racial barriers and becoming a success in a time when African Americans had few opportunities in the fashion world. Talley brought a new perspective to fashion and never backed down when people questioned it. He is loud, boisterous, colorful, intelligent, and funny. Beyond being a documentary about a fashion icon, “The Gospel Accord to André” is a look at how strong people dealt with great odds at a time of great division and racial tension in America. We get a whole new meaning on the expression ‘larger-than-life’. He is one of a kind and there will probably never be anyone like him in the future.