Two weeks ago, as I eagerly waited for my copy of “The Chiffon Trenches,” André Leon Talley’s second memoir, my mother asked me, “Why are you so obsessed with André?”
For a second I tried to process her question and force a meaningful response, but instead I replied “Why wouldn’t I be?” That was a more honest answer than whatever I was concocting. I thought that my reasoning for diving into Talley’s life as if it were my own would be obvious.
I hail from Mississippi, while Talley comes from North Carolina (now my second home as a proud Tar Heel). I received my first lessons in style from my mother, and Talley’s love affair with clothes similarly began with the women in his life. We’re both African American men. Though Talley rejects the label of “gay,” we have both had “very gay experiences,” as he told Vanity Fair in 2013.
Beyond my superficial connections to the former creative director of Vogue, my admiration for Talley comes from the respect I owe him for existing in an industry that has historically had little-to-no room for men who look like me. However, what is even more important to me is Talley’s permanence as a cautionary tale about the whims and woes of the fashion world for Black people and, more specifically Black men.
Talley’s words make it clear that he is fashion, that he is the world of Vogue wrapped in a billowing bright caftan. The truths he reveals about how his world repeatedly wounded him are searingly painful to accept. But even though this pain is palpable, I feel Talley does not carefully expound upon the anti-Blackness he’s endured for over 30 years as he should have, and as he owes to himself. However, throughout his memoir, Talley offers repeated flashes that zero in on race that, truthfully, are piquant enough for a vigilant reader. As a Black person — as a Black gay man — like Talley, I had no option but to be a vigilant reader as I devoured his transition through pain, triumph and peace in two days.
The tone of “The Chiffon Trenches” is quintessential Talley, even if you’re only familiar with the click clack of his bellowing from YouTube videos. His words carefully detail episodes from his career that consist of him gallivanting around Paris with Yves Saint Laurent and his muse Betty Cartroux, and begging for Manolo Blahnik to put him down while at the wedding of Paloma Picasso. Talley is consistent in his detailed account of his outfits and those of peers from events that occurred more than thirty years ago. He discusses colors, fabrics and textures as if they were the children he does not have. The elegance in the recounts of his time in the fashion world is southern while positively posh. In “The Chiffon Trenches” Talley refuses to let you forget that he is the walking embodiment of style, even when discussing the painful connection between his childhood abuse and relationship with food. These articulations and details of his feelings and memories inspired me, but also made me question why his position on race has not been as distinct as his processing of fashion.
For years, both before and after the book’s release, there were many critiques of Talley’s position on race. Many speculated that Talley’s abuse from industry insiders resulted from his mindless relishing in the fact that he was the only Black person in fashion’s smallest circles.
“The Chiffon Trenches” clarifies that Talley understands the significance of his race and the impact of racism when he is its target. Reflecting upon the news that Clara Saint, YSL’s former publicist, called him “Queen Kong,” he says, “Comparing a black person to an ape is the worst, most institutionalized act of racism.” Yet countless other situations, some detailed in the book and some note, indicate that while Talley is cognizant of racism when it is a direct assault, he is unable to simultaneously recognize racism in its more insidious and systematic format.
A 1994 New Yorker profile of Talley by Hilton Als bolsters this opinion as it devastatingly ends with a description of Talley’s relationship with LouLou de la Falaise, who he is very kind to in “The Chiffon Trenches.” Als wrote that Falaise referred to Talley as a “nigger dandy” and that Talley simply roared in laughter with the rest of his luncheon table. Als titled the profile “The Only One,” which is a damning echo of Talley’s subconscious embrace of being alone and Black in an industry that is very crowded and very white.
Rebecca Caroll’s New York Times review of “The Chiffon Trenches” shames Talley for describing himself as “honey-colored” and believing that being “honey-colored” made him a favorite of Vogue’s infamous editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour. “Choosing a euphemistic description for the color of black skin has long been a way to make blackness less black to white people,” Caroll wrote. The observation can be seen as cold, but it’s correct.
Yet, while the majority of public commentary on Talley similar to Caroll’s has been rooted in justified concern regarding Talley’s actions — or inactions — when blatant racism rolled itself to the feet of his caftans, this commentary has also been lacking in scope. Talley is not blind to racism as much of this criticism implies, but instead the issue is that he oversimplifies it often as is evidenced by his too short consideration of how Scott Barrie, a Black designer who died from AIDS complications, could have changed fashion.
Talley writes “I often think about what the world would be like if Scott Barrie had lived,” a provocative thought. But even in an intimate setting, a memoir, Talley does not develop the very thoughts on race and fashion that he has introduced. Instead, Talley leaves gaps in such inquiries as if he expects for someone else to fill them in, and as if he is removed from the quandaries of race.
Thus is the hamartia of André Leon Talley.
Systemic racism is why Talley suffered being inexplicably removed from the steps of the Met Gala as a commentator, why he was paid only $500 an episode for Vogue’s short-lived podcast and why he has suddenly awoken to the nastiness of the fashion world’s chiffon trenches.
Certain dialogue about this memoir has declared that Talley’s acquiescence with his professional neutering by Anna Wintour and leash-like hold by Karl Lagerfeld during their friendship is rooted in his love for the material. Anyone who lines their suit with Hermès scarves must have an affinity for finer things, but for Talley, this affinity isn’t rooted in something shallow. I grasp that the material is not just for aesthetics to Talley, but that his taste for exceptional things has to do with their being tokens of his acceptance of himself and keys to a world he isn’t entirely convinced he belongs in.
Talley has always been vocal about falling in love with the fashion world because of the comfort he found in its escapism from a very young age and his general feelings of being an outsider. Frankly, I don’t think Talley ever escaped that escapism and, as a result, he fell deeper and deeper into a world that didn’t seem real. Even worse, he was blind to his own failures to bring Blackness to fashion when his Blackness was very clearly being repressed.
He felt safe being “honey-colored” and the “only one,” probably because at previous times in his life, he didn’t feel safe. There is a reason he is known to refer to his clothes as armour, as he does in this memoir.
What radiates from the book’s 281 pages is that Talley is aware that if he had been stronger in asserting his Blackness — regardless of what that means to him — with the same force that he asserted in his style and persona, things would have perhaps turned out differently.
So, “The Chiffon Trenches” is an apology and a sonnet of accepted regrets.
But this is not an apology to outsiders, Black or white, who find Talley’s persecution by the fashion world to have been avoidable “if only he had just—.” Instead, the memoir is an apology to the person that Talley finally understands matters the most: himself.
With this acceptance of the ebbing and flowing of his existence in the fashion world, Talley whispers to me personally that the most valuable asset I will ever have as a Black man, a Black journalist, is my self-worth. But it doesn’t hurt to throw in a nice shoe or two.