As the fashion and entertainment world mourn internationally renowned fashion journalist André Leon Talley, who died Jan. 18, those who knew him in his hometown of Durham remember him for his unapologetic fashion style and confidence.
As a global fashion icon, Talley was a French-speaking 6’6” Black man from the Jim Crow South who wore custom caftans and extravagant capes. As a creative director and editor-at-large at Vogue magazine, he was always spotted in the front row of fashion shows, the rare Black man in a predominantly white industry.
But to many who knew him during his formative years in Durham, he had always been an outlier.
Talley, who was 73 when he died, was reared by his grandmother, Bennie Francis Davis, a cleaner at Duke University. He graduated from Hillside High School in 1966 and N.C. Central University in 1970.
Wanda Garrett, 88, was one of his teachers at Hillside High School and taught English and drama. She described her former student as “bright” and “willful,” two characteristics that helped him make such an impact on the fashion world.
“I think his willfulness led him to be the fashion icon that he became today,” Garrett told The News & Observer. “You can have all the talent in the world, but perseverance is what makes people reach their full potential.”
Garrett recalled taking a group of students, Talley included, in 1965 to Columbia University in New York City for a scholastic conference. She and the group’s other chaperone, Jeanne Hopkins Lucas (the first Black woman elected to serve in North Carolina’s state Senate), split up the students to visit two New York City landmarks.
Later that evening, Garrett and Lucas realized that Talley hadn’t seen either. He had snuck off to visit the Eighth Wonder, a dance club with house-music DJs and cabaret shows in Greenwich Village, after reading that it was a place that all fashion designers and models frequented.
“We didn’t panic because we both knew André and figured he’ll show up, but we were disturbed,” said Garrett. “In my own mind, I did not tell him that I had some respect for him taking his one opportunity and seizing it.
“He was ‘purpose-driven’ before that phrase even became popular,” she added.
Talley, who was born in Washington, D.C., wrote about his upbringing in two memoirs, “ALT: A Memoir” in 2003 and “The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir” in 2020.
“I can only write this book based on who I am and where I came from, this very humble beginning in a tobacco town of Durham, North Carolina,” he told Essence magazine when “The Chiffon Trenches” was published.
Talley called his grandmother his “mother figure” and his greatest influence growing up. He credited her with exposing him to the life of luxury that he desired — and eventually attained through the world of fashion.
She would allow him to take his quarters to Duke University’s campus and buy Vogue magazines as a child after church at Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church on Sundays.
Vogue served as his escape from the hardships he faced daily, including racism, bullying and sexual abuse. In the 2018 documentary, “The Gospel According to André,” he shared that white boy at Duke threw rocks at him as he walked across campus.
His grandmother, who died in 1989, also played a key role in his religious upbringing. In the documentary, Talley explained that church is where he learned about fashion by watching his grandmother and the congregation put on their Sunday’s best clothes.
“I think his grandmother is who he loved most in the world and their church was very important in their life. He was a very spiritual person,” Garrett said.
Keeping ties to Durham
After graduating from N.C. Central University in 1970 with a degree in French literature, he obtained a master’s degree at Brown University, also in French literature. His path eventually took him to New York City.
N.C. Central University Chancellor Johnson O. Akinleye issued a statement Wednesday, remembering how the university’s distinguished alumnus left “words of wisdom with us that will always be part of his distinguished legacy.” Akinleye recalled Talley saying, “Anyone can be talented, but confidence is needed to go out into the world and make a lasting impression.”
“This is certainly the way alumnus Talley lived his life and how he will be remembered forever,” Akinleye wrote in a statement.
Talley used his confidence to spend his career helping shape what fashion could look like for people of all shapes, colors and sizes. He used his wit to speak out while working under former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, Andy Warhol and then becoming the Paris bureau chief of Women’s Wear Daily before arriving at Vogue.
He spent much of his career at Vogue with famed editor Anna Wintour for two stints, leaving the magazine in 2013.
While his career took him all over the world, Talley returned home to Durham for memorable visits.
In February 2019, Talley visited Hillside High School during Hillside Legacy Weekend, where he was honored with the Hillside Alumnus Legacy Award. Former Durham Mayor Steve Schewel presented him with a key to he city as well as a proclamation that made Feb. 15, 2019, “Andre Leon Talley Day” in the City of Durham.
Later that weekend, he took part in a screening of “The Gospel According to André” and a Q&A session with proceeds benefiting his two alma maters: Hillside High School and the NCCU Foundation.
Hillside theatre director Wendell Tabb said it was a true honor to have Talley visit his students and spend time with them. The students even put on a play for Talley.
“It meant the world to be able to talk to someone as big of an international icon as Talley was,” Tabb said.
“He made it very clear to us that it was hard to break the barriers that he did in the fashion world, but he was true to his purpose and overcame those obstacles,” Tabb said. “And that really resonated with the students.”