The thought of narrowing down André Leon Talley’s contributions to fashion feels challenging and overwhelming. Talley, a Black boy from Durham, North Carolina, came to New York and made his career in the 1970s. Over his 48 years in fashion — writing and editing for publications including Interview, the New York Times, Women’s Wear Daily, and Vogue — he pushed the boundaries on being Black in fashion with photoshoots like “Scarlett ’n the Hood,” which was published in the May 1996 issue of Vanity Fair, featuring Naomi Campbell as Scarlett O’Hara and Manolo Blahnik as her gardener. But it was his ostentatious personal style, in particular his wearing of capes and caftans, that redefined Black masculinity in fashion.
In the 2017 documentary The Gospel According to André, Talley discusses finding his first cape at a thrift shop in New York City. Although he had been in the fashion world since the ’80s, it wasn’t until the early ’90s that Talley’s style evolved from suits, ties, and the occasional neatly folded handkerchief sticking out of a jacket pocket to what became his signature look: floor-length capes, often by designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, and Ralph Rucci.
“Capes, for me, suggest a great moment,” says Talley in the film. “They are very formal and regal. When you are wearing a cape, you are going to behave differently; you’re going to stand differently and walk differently.”
In 2008, he showcased this while wearing a Tiepolo-red haute couture cape designed by Lagerfeld while accompanying Venus Williams to the Met Gala. He looked like fashion royalty and a superhero at the same time. (His signature caftan was even immortalized in virtual reality in Kim Kardashian West’s game app: His character is dressed in a caftan identical to the Valentino one he wore to her and Kanye West’s wedding in Paris.)
In a deleted scene from The September Issue, a documentary released in 2009 about the making of the September 2007 issue of Vogue, Talley shares how he treated himself to custom-made underwear from Charvet in Paris. Talley would routinely wear custom clothing, including capes and caftans by designers like Karl Lagerfeld and Dapper Dan as well as custom Charvet shirts resembling 17th-century nightgowns that he wore while lunching at Lagerfeld’s house in St. Tropez.
“In my youth, I used to have Charvet boxer shorts custom made,” he says in the scene. “Colors the same color as the shirt with embroidered initials just for the luxury of me having them.”
In this moment, and throughout his career, Talley shows us the power of personal style and how he used clothes to narrate how he wanted to be perceived. Clothes were his armor through the challenges he faced growing up in the segregated South and rising to the top in an elitist industry. He could look preppy one day — for example, in a photo taken in 1980 of him standing next to fashion editor Marina Schiano, he wore a pale-blue checkered jacket, polka-dot tie, tailored shorts paired with yellow knee socks, loafers, and a shoulder-bag briefcase — and the next, he could wear a look reminiscent of a Russian aristocrat in gloves, a fedora, and a shuba coat. It helped him get through life in a world where very few looked like him.
“Wearing clothes should be a personal narrative of emotion,” Talley says in a 2012 interview with CNN. “I always respond to fashion in an emotional way.”
As a young Black woman, this quote spoke to me. Talley took risks and embodied the fantasy and emotionality of fashion. Looking over some of his looks from the ’90s and the aughts, I was reminded by his theatrical approach that fashion can be fun and imaginative. Whether he was climbing the stairs of the Met in a Tom Ford–designed Gucci garment or seated front row at a fashion show reading a newspaper while wearing a fur scarf that falls to the floor, he always remained committed to his personal style.
“You have to be yourself,” says Talley in a 2015 interview with Garage. “They will accept you if they see that who you are is authentic.” And that, Talley undeniably was.