His grandmother’s Sunday style impressed upon him the importance of dignity, excellence, and imbuing oneself with luxury others might attempt to deny.
Andre Leon Talley’s eye for glamor and panache steered fashion tastes in New York, Milan and other fashion capitals for over four decades. Elevated as it was, however, his personal style was still informed by the values of his upbringing in Durham.
At 6’5 and of solid, Southern bone structure, he never blended in with diminutive fellow editors and stylists on the front row at elite fashion shows. Nor did he try. Talley’s encyclopedic knowledge of textiles, fashion history, and world cultures led to very deliberate and empowering choices.
He favored rich hues, dramatic sleeves and boldly flowing robes reminiscent of judges or Roman cardinals – people who wield, as he did, the power to approve, reject, and set standards for the world to follow. He used fashion like a sword, his clothing an armor against racism, homophobia, and sizeism in an industry notorious for all three.
“Clothes were my armor of warfare,” he told an interviewer in 2020. “That’s how I got through life. I had to represent.”
It was a lesson learned early, at his grandmother’s house in Durham. Ms. Bennie Frances Davis raised Talley from a baby, working as a maid in the men’s dorms at Duke University. However, they were not poor. As he said in an address at Oxford Union in 2013, “We had everything, because we had love.”
Davis kept a meticulous home, in that manner of Southern Black domestics who refused to keep another’s house cleaner than their own, and encouraged Talley’s penchant for perfectly starched shirts. She delighted in his creative blossoming, from papering his bedroom walls with collages of Vogue Magazine to covering a bench in faux fur. And Talley learned the rules of style–as well as when to break them–watching her prepare for church each Sunday. She combined immaculately clean and well-kept clothes with contrasting colors and patterns of her hats, always from Saks Fifth Avenue.
This impressed upon him the importance of taking care with the smallest details. Much like the civil rights marchers of the era, who faced down water hoses and dogs while wearing white gloves, heels, and suits, the statement went further than fashion. It was about asserting dignity, telegraphing excellence, imbuing yourself with a luxury that others might seek to deny you.
This foundation of confidence and self love gave Talley the fortitude to step into a world that had never seen anyone like him do what he did. He trailblazed for himself and others, advocating for Black models and designers and leaving a lasting shift in ideas of who can embody elegance.