In Hilton Als’s at once heroic and damning 1994 portrait of then-Creative Director of Vogue Magazine André Leon Talley in The New Yorker, entitled “The Only One,” Als details Talley’s unwavering attachment to having “a moment.” “He finds moments in other people’s impulses (‘I can tell you were about to have a moment’), work (‘What Mr. Lagerfeld and I were after in those photographs was a moment’), gatherings (‘These people are having a moment’),” writes Als. “Darling, have you had a moment?” is the question Talley would also bombastically ring up fashion designers to ask. But, it wasn’t just high-end fashionistas. Als’s essay opens with a memorable scene of Talley, Als, and designer John Galliano at the palace of Times Square sleaze, the Gaiety Theatre. Here, Talley also found a moment (who wouldn’t?!): “When the dancers entered, one by one, Talley said, ‘This is a major moment, child.’”
Though perhaps not quite as intoxicating as watching go-go boys “swaying to loud disco music and against a backdrop of gold lamé,” I also recently had a moment while perusing André Leon Talley’s collection, on display for a short time last week at Christie’s in preparation for its sale. That sale, separated into two parts, has since raked in a whopping $3.55 million. And for a good reason. Slipping in the last day of its public showing, I was overcome. Partially by the sheer size of Talley’s “elite hoard,” to crib a phrase from a recent episode of comedian Bobby Kelly’s You Know What Dude podcast featuring fellow comic Jim Norton (Yes, I just brought this article back to the gutter where everything on Filthy Dreams belongs). Talley’s stuff spanned the entirety of the maze-like first floor of the Christie’s building in Rockefeller Center. Everywhere you turned: opulence, opulence, opulence! Monogrammed ALT Louis Vuitton suitcases. Gold brocade caftans fit for royalty. Grand dramatic capes and kimonos. Vibrant fluorescent Versace shirts and jackets. A Warhol portrait of iconic fashion matriarch Diana Vreeland as Napoleon. Ornate Louis XV-style carved furniture that looked as if it belonged in Des Esseintes’s living room. Not to mention, numerous portraits, both painting and photographs, of Talley himself.
When not completely overwhelmed by exquisite elegance, I felt woefully underdressed. After Talley’s passing in 2022, Roxane Gay tweeted that Talley was “a beacon of style for so many.” She’s not wrong about that, as evidenced by the mass of people visiting Christie’s last week. As opposed to my typical Downtown ragamuffin look, the Christie’s crowd featured some of the most stylish people I’ve seen in recent memory—mostly, a vision of Black excellence. Though I’m sure for some it was their everyday wear, a lot of visitors seemed to have put on their finest to pay Talley tribute (as Rihanna did earlier in her Superbowl performance).
Talley’s memory certainly deserved that show of respect (Apologies for my Converse sneakers). Born in Washington D.C., Talley was quickly sent to North Carolina to live with his grandmother, Bennie Frances Davis, who became his first style icon. After studying French at Brown, Talley gravitated towards New York City and apprenticed (unpaid, naturally) under Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1974. Through Vreeland, Talley also become one of the many underpaid assistants to answer the phones at Warhol’s Interview Magazine, picking up with a booming jaunty, “Bonjour!” Of course, most tributes to Talley usually rest on his pioneering role as a queer Black man in an industry dominated by white people or, as he said of himself: “The only Black man among a sea of white titans of style.” He became the first Black Creative Director at Vogue in 1988, after working as its Fashion News Director since 1983. He would continue to work at Vogue, including as Editor at Large, until 2013. Though trying to promote diversity within the magazine and the fashion world, it seemed to be a difficult balance if Hilton Als’s article is any indication, including the alarming but unsurprising conclusion with LouLou de La Falaise giggling and calling Talley the N-word. Like holy fuck, lady. I suspect it didn’t get much easier after 1994 either.
But even beyond his identity, Talley was a towering figure in fashion: “the last editorial custodian of unfettered glamour…” as Als described. And glamour has certainly only diminished in the decades since as fashion magazines like Vogue churn out the same clickbait written by recent underpaid graduates with little to no, at least observable, knowledge of fashion history. Like everything else in this country, fashion writing has turned to shit as mega-publishing corporations tried to figure out how to get more for less. Figures. Conversely, Talley knew fashion inside and out and could inform readers about trends and their antecedents, while knowing just when to add the well-timed biting comment. This isn’t to say that Talley himself wasn’t a complicated dude and likely a nightmare to work with, but he made reading about fashion delightful and enlightening even for slobs like me.
Reading Talley wasn’t the only time I had a moment courtesy of ALT, though. Sadly, after his death, a memory came rushing back. During the second semester of my freshman year at NYU, my roommate (soon to be ex-roommate) and I bought discounted tickets to see Martha Graham’s The Owl and the Pussycat at City Center. In this April 2004 production, Talley acted as the Storyteller, dramatically reciting Edward Lear’s poem. To be honest, I can’t recall much of the dance itself. I mostly remember Talley stalking the stage with a measured grace, dressed in, what I remember at least as, a caftan.
Talley himself would boast about being a part of this Martha Graham performance for years afterward. In an interview with Yale Daily News, Talley explains, “There are many things I’m proud of. I’m proud of my memoir. I’m proud of having been on stage with Martha Graham doing ‘The Owl and the Pussycat.’ Did you know about that? Did you do that research?” Well, I did. And it wasn’t until Talley’s passing that I realized just how formative that performance was to little 19-year-old Emily’s conception of style.
And Talley is still teaching us through his covet-worthy collection. Overall, the collection exudes decadence at its finest, looking like what you would wear if you were going to baptize yourself in the central fountain of the Arab Hall in Victorian painter Frederic Leighton’s house in London’s Holland Park:
Drooling over Talley’s stuff, I couldn’t help but wish these pieces weren’t going to disparate buyers, but kept together for some sort of Talley devotional shrine. We’re certainly starving for style in 2023 if my post-Christie’s subway ride was any indication. If only there weren’t so many security guards and well-dressed employees stalking around with iPads in Christie’s, I would have at least stroked a few kimonos to see if some of the opulence could rub off. Yet all I’m left with are these photos of some of my absolute favorites (well, that and the eerie sense of ghostly physicality that pervaded the space with so many mannequins in capes), which I thought I’d share here for the rest of you who too love decadence but cannot afford it: