Meet Jason Riffe, André Leon Talley’s Protégé and Personal Photographer

For the past few months, photographer Jason Riffe has been following Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley everywhere, from movie premieres to CFDA confabs to studio visits with Zac Posen, Vera Wang, and Francisco Costa, among other luminaries. Riffe (sounds like “riff”) left law school in 2007 to pursue a career in fashion photography at the Savannah College of Art & Design, where he met Talley, who is on the school’s board of trustees. They exchanged e-mails, and after a bit of stalking Talley invited Riffe to photograph Isabel and Ruben Toledo in Savannah, and then New York. “He was living in Encino; I said where does that get you?” Talley told the Cut in an e-mail. “Move to New York.” “You can’t really tell André Talley I just want to hang out on the beach, I’ll come shoot for Vogue in four years,” Riffe said. “And it was my dream,” the 24-year-old adds. Talley tells us his protégé fits into the “diorama of fashion” — and that his lighting has improved under Talley’s tutelage. We sat down with Riffe to talk about André, bats, Anna Wintour, and more.

You enrolled in SCAD to meet André Leon Talley. Why him?
I knew when I left law school, if I wanted to be the next American fashion photographer, I needed to shoot for Vogue; I needed to work for André Talley. He is the definition of fashion for the world. Other than him, it would be Anna Wintour. I found he was on the board at SCAD, and that was the only reason I chose that school. I did whatever I had to do to go there, just so I could meet André Talley.

Didn’t all the students want to meet him?
No. Nobody even knew [who he was]. Even in the photography department, there’s only a handful who care about fashion photography.

You met André when he was in Savannah to give John Galliano the André Leon Talley lifetime achievement award at SCAD’s senior collection fashion show. What was your first interaction like?
I was halfway through the program, and it was this huge opportunity to meet André and Galliano and everyone else who would be there. Galliano didn’t show up [laughs], but André did. And I went to Bloomingdale’s and bought this whole new outfit [laughs], and he was sitting in a chair in the reception hall — he had on all red and one of his head wraps that he wears, and he said, “Hi. I’m André Talley.” SCAD President Paula Wallace, who invited me to the event, said, “This is Jason Riffe, he’s one of our students.” We exchanged e-mails, and I really borderline stalked him from there, for a year. Every time I did a shoot, I would send it to him, get his response.

You finished school in February and were going to bum around in L.A. How did André convince you to move to New York?
March comes around, André calls me — he says, “Come down to Savannah and follow the Toledos.” That’s the first thing that I actually shot with him, that he, you know, requested my services for. So I went down to Savannah and spent five days with all of them.

What was the first thing you published under André?
I went to New York and I shot the retrospective at F.I.T., and then from there it was one event after another. And that’s the first publishing he did, it was called “Isabel, Ma Belle,” and that was my work that he published on vogue.com, on the blog. And since then there have been three others, and it’s been a whirlwind. Like, I never dreamed I’d be in this position doing this work.

Riffe’s photos, from left: Isabel and Ruben Toledo, model Anna Cleveland, and Zac Posen in his studio.Photo: Jason Riffe

After your work first appeared on André’s blog, you got lots of e-mails and people contacted you. Did you hear from any major designers or fashion-world movers and shakers saying, “Hey, I liked your work”?
No, not directly. But I was privy to a few e-mail conversations, and I know that André as well as Anna Wintour have to approve all images that are published, even on the blog.

Have you met Anna Wintour personally?
At the last CFDA meeting at F.I.T., I had my camera, and Anna walked in and I said, “Can I get a photo?” And she stopped and I took the photo, and she started to walk by, and — this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be this close in a comfortable setting — so I was like, “Hi. I’m Jason.” And she said, “Hi Jason. Nice to meet you.” And kept walking. And I said, “Nice to meet you,” and that was the extent of our conversation.

What have you learned about André that most surprised you? Does he bake or like fishing or paint or tinker with cars on his day off?
Anything you want to know about André, just check his blog — it’s all there. His recent post about the bat in his house in White Plains, it’s hilarious. And that’s him on a day-to-day basis. You can sit with him and talk about bats, you can talk about politics, you can talk about anything.

André has talked in his blog about having custom-made clothing. He once wrote he had Miuccia Prada make him custom fringed capes. Do you have any of that stuff?
I asked him, let me borrow that. Of course he said no.

Does André ever critique what you’re wearing?
Always! I’ve never heard a bad critique from André for what I’m wearing. Obviously there are times when I ask him what should I wear. I’ll let him know what I have, what I can wear, and he’ll tell me what will go well, and that’s what I’ll put on.

Are other students jealous that André has sort of adopted you?
I don’t even know. It’s definitely a few years till I’m where I want to be. So with that being said, some of my peers and some of my, I guess, competition, can’t really see the vision that I have, because they just want to work, they just want to shoot models. Now, a year from now, then maybe they’ll be jealous, I imagine.

Meet Jason Riffe, André Leon Talley’s Protégé and Personal Photographer