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So What Do You Do, Andre Leon Talley, Editor-at-Large, Vogue?

Vogue's influential editor on having Anna's ear for two decades

- September 10, 2008
There's no shortage of colorful characters in the fashion business, but Andre Leon Talley stands head and shoulders (literally -- he's 6'7") above the pack. Raised in Durham, North Carolina by his beloved grandmother who instilled in him a "love of luxury" (a relationship he lovingly detailed in his autobiography), Vogue's editor-at-large has led a fascinating life in fashion, mentored by two cultural icons: legendary style empress Diana Vreeland and Andy Warhol, who opened up the live action version of Interview to him and launched his extraordinary career.

Over the past 25 years, Talley has remained a consistent presence at Vogue. He survived the headline making-transition between former editor-in-chief Grace Mirabella and current editrix Anna Wintour, rising through the ranks to become one of the industry's most recognizable figures -- all without having ever appeared on a reality show. Talley prefers his slice of the pop culture pie served up with a soupcon more style. He's been a commentator on the Oscars' red carpet and shared the big screen with Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City: The Movie. But his influence is most strongly felt in the pages of Vogue. These days Talley writes its "Life with Andre" column, where his encyclopedic knowledge of the business is in full view. A true fashion historian, he's never lost his enthusiasm for the glamour -- or the grind -- that goes into creating the magic that first lured him into its "escapist" world.

Rare is the front row where Talley, frequently sporting some outrageous couture coat or hat, is not seated beside his current boss and good friend. Of his decades-long tenure at Vogue, he says: "Listen, if Anna Wintour wasn't there, I wouldn't be there."

The man that has Karl Lagerfeld on his speed dial and really knows what Anna Wintour thinks met with us recently at his favorite (and decidedly unfashionable) diner in White Plains, New York not far from his country home ("I don't cook, so when I'm up here I have all my meals here") to weigh in on New York Fashion Week, bemoan the lack of quality television (save his current obsession, Mad Men), and explain why any fledgling fashionista looking to follow in his Manolo Blahnik footsteps faces a tougher road than he did.

Name: Andre Leon Talley
Position: Editor-at-large, Vogue
Resume: Joined Vogue as fashion news director in 1983, creative director from 1988-1995. After living in Paris for several years, returned to Vogue in 1998 in his current position. Penned his autobiography, A.L.T: A Memoir (Villard) in 2003; author of A.L.T 365+ (Powerhouse, 2005), a photo book of images taken with hundreds of disposable cameras. Got his big break working with Andy Warhol at Interview.
Birthdate: October 16, 1948
Hometown: Durham, North Carolina
Education: Brown University, M.A. in French studies
First section of the Sunday Times: "The op-ed pages, because I really want to know what Maureen Dowd is saying. The two people I read the most are Maureen and Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal. I think [theirs] are brilliant minds."
Favorite television show: "The McLaughlin Group. That's my favorite show on Sunday mornings. My second favorite show is Mad Men. I love Don Draper and Betty Draper. The costumes are fabulous. I love what [costume designer] Miss [Katherine Jane] Bryant has done -- particularly how she has transformed Mrs. Draper from the first season into the second season, when we've seen her in the stable in the cashmere coats and her riding habit. The details are wonderful. I'm totally obsessed with that show. It's great entertainment."
Guilty pleasure: "Charvet. Wildly expensive but beautifully luxurious men's ties, shirts, underwear. A Charvet handkerchief is 50 dollars at Bergdorf Goodman. You've got to really want to buy that handkerchief."
Last book read: "I've just read two books that I couldn't put down. Fascinating biographies. The last one was Snowden: The Biography by Anne De Couray that Karl Lagerfeld gave me in Paris. I was reading it during the couture collections in Rome and I simply could not put it down. I got off the plane, left it in the airport. Half way to Rome, I screeched to driver to go back -- thinking no one would pick up a book in an airport today -- and there was the book on the chair where I had left it! You learn so much about how Princess Margaret lived. This weekend I was reading Nureyev: The Life, Julie Cavanaugh's book. You can't put it down because it goes into fascinating detail on his life -- how he became this famous star and how he died under miserable circumstances. I love to read biographies."

What kind of closets do you have? They must be extraordinary.
I use extra bedrooms with no beds as closets. [Laughs] I have a closet for the linens and the household stuff. I have a closet for my clothes. I have a closet where I store things out of season. The closets are organized by season -- suits and coats in one place, dressy clothes, black tie clothes -- but not in a clinical sterile system.

Are you a collector? What's your biggest collection?
Everything. Shoes -- mostly Manolo Blahnik, Roger Vivier shoes; evening slippers, lots and lots of shirts; neckties, and coats. I love coats.

"My relationship with Anna [Wintour, Vogue editor-in-chief] is one where we understand each other. We can communicate silently."

It seems as if you must have always known you wanted to be in fashion. When did you first realize it?
In my early teens. I was reading Vogue magazine in high school when it came out twice a month. I was so naive, I didn't even think about a subscription. One of my joys was being able to go and buy it on the newsstand. It was something to look forward to. The visual escapism of Vogue always attracted me. The photographs were very important. I loved the idea that you could be in a world of beauty.

It's amazing that you've been at Vogue as long as you have -- quite an achievement given all that's gone on there. What's the secret to your longevity?
My secret is staying close to Anna Wintour, who is incredible as a boss as well as a friend. I wasn't introduced to Vogue by Anna. The first day I went into the office to meet the former editor-in-chief Grace Mirabella, Anna sent me a note saying, 'I'm so glad you're on board.' My relationship with Anna [Wintour, Vogue editor-in-chief] is one where we understand each other. We can communicate silently.

Why do you think people are so fascinated by her?
Because she's glamorous and people love glamour. And because she's always done a brilliant job. Not only has she done a brilliant job at Vogue for 20 years, she raised so much money for the Metropolitan Museum and she does so much work that goes unsung -- the work with CFDA initiatives. Seventh on Sale for AIDS. She spearheaded that whole thing when Princess Diana sold her gowns [at Christie's]. Then, another time, she did that thing with Natasha Richardson when they got the gowns from the Oscars. She's not only done a great job as the editor of Vogue, but she's done a great job as a humanitarian. Anyone at that point where they become that famous and is not a Hollywood star, people are fascinated because she's a woman who is obviously a great business woman. People are fascinated by how she continues to do it year after year and always on a high level. Somehow the British have a way of seeing the world of culture, art and society that just makes it so much more fascinating to the world.

When you first met Diana Vreeland did you have any sense that she would have such a tremendous impact on your life?
Yes, of course. I always wanted to meet her. When I was reading Vogue in high school in the '60s when she was the editor, I knew who she was. One of my goals in life was to meet her, and I achieved that my early on. I was lucky and blessed to have had Andy Warhol to introduce me to her. We just clicked. [When] I went to volunteer [at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art], she saw something in me. I was thrilled to be in her presence.

You've worked with these strong personalities in fashion and there's not too many people that can say they've done so as successfully as you have. You've built very strong bonds with people that are thought to be very intimidating. What is it about you that enables you to connect to these creative types and strike the right balance with them between colleague and friend?
I'm being me. I think I have an inner confidence about myself that allows me to who I am. I'm not pretentious -- although some people think I am -- I think people see me. Those two remarkable women and Andy Warhol -- they sense the kind of talent that I maybe didn't even know that was there. But I certainly was smart enough to put myself in their presence.

Have you heard about Showtime's new show 54 based on the days and nights of Studio 54? You could do a cameo. That era was so interesting because the most famous people in the world were accessible in a way that they're not today. Could someone do what you did back then now -- come to New York and find their way into that world the same way you did?
No. The world has changed. People are more insulated now. They're not into going out. The young generation today is into a different mindset. They're on their computers. They're blogging. People are more cocooned in their own environment. Our generation had Studio 54, and not many things since. I'm sure Bungalow 8 is great. I've never been inside and have no desire to go. The same for the Buddha Bar or any of those places. I don't think going out is what it used to be at all. Each generation has its moment, and with this generation, I don't know exactly what they do.

I recently interviewed Joe Zee and we talked about how there is such a different attitude among those just starting out in the business. We laughed about how when we were both starting out in fashion, we were just so excited to be asked to do anything. These days interns are putting requests in to go on shoots with Gwyneth. What do you think?
I think that comes with so much access to television and celebrity. All these young people today think, 'It can happen to me overnight' because there's so much of that on television.

"It took me forever to see The Devil Wears Prada. I waited until I could get it at Target at a discount for 10 dollars."

What do you think of the democratization of fashion as a result of so much exposure in the media especially with shows like Project Runway, Top Model and now Stylista?
Anything that promotes fashion is good, although I don't watch any of these shows. None of them. I see them advertised constantly, but I never, never want to look at any of them. I think that fashion is one of the most exciting things in the world for people. I don't think fashion on television has been covered properly, but I do think there has been great moments of TV fashion. I saw something on television late at night where they're just going to bring someone to Europe to [air] runway shows and just run them from beginning to end. It's not the opinion of the people talking about fashion -- people can see fashion for themselves and are intelligent enough to pick what they want. I happen to think the democratization of fashion is great when you see a great Target ad. I saw one last night with two girls decorating their dormitory, and I loved it. I love Target because you can decorate a dorm room or you can find sheets. I love the size of the stores, the scale of them. You can go in there and get anything from a CD and DVD, buy Isaac Mizrahi sheets which I think are wonderful, or buy what you need. Fashion is a fabulous medium to enlighten people, to educate them about style in their lives.

You must have been approached at some point about doing a reality show at some point.

I would never want to do one. Never. I don't understand reality shows. I don't understand. Pamela Anderson. George Foreman. There are all these famous people with these shows. And what's her name… Spelling?

Tori Spelling.
Yes, and her husband. I don't understand. I did look at one because it was a train wreck. God bless her, she's deceased -- Anna Nicole Smith. Her show on E! was just extraordinary because she was just this one big train wreck. But I don't get it. I wish television would go back to a time when it was really something wonderful. That's why Mad Men is so great. It goes back to different time. It's not part of this era.

The depiction of fashion in movies has seemingly gotten better in the last few years. I have to ask you about what you thought of The Devil Wears Prada -- and what do you think of the work-and-tell genre?
It took me forever to see The Devil Wears Prada. I waited until I could get it at Target at a discount for 10 dollars. It was highly entertaining, and I think Meryl Streep did a superb job. She's a great actress and a brilliant woman. The tell-all book is something that our culture takes in. Is it a permanent thing? I don't know. However, [the movie] Sex and the City was a great thing because it's very positive -- and not because I had a cameo. It was a great movie, a great movie for women, a great movie about New York coming out of Candace Bushnell, who worked at Vogue and didn't write a tell-all book -- she created something original. She took her own saga of being the girl in New York and created something which is far more creative than The Devil Wears Prada. I didn't read the book. I did see the movie and it was not like Vogue. [Laughs] Not the Vogue I know.

Celebrities have long replaced models on the covers of fashion magazines. Do you see that continuing?
Yes, because everyone wants to have a red carpet experience. But back to television, the focus on celebrity in our culture can be detrimental. What's that show? TMZ? They stand there and say, 'I've got this on this person.' The focus on celebrities can be detrimental because people could be thinking of other things, but it's a part of the culture and it's what sells. The bottom line is Hollywood sells. Gwyneth Paltrow sells. Kate Moss also sells.

Speaking of celebrities, were you surprised by all the flak Jennifer Hudson got over her Oscar outfit?
I was not surprised. I still stand by that choice, and she does, too. She's one of my great friends, and I love her. It was a choice that she made and that I made, and she loved it. They had to pick on someone and they picked on Jennifer. I didn't make any sense at all. She looked incredible. The color was chosen for her. It was her first time going to the Oscars, and she looked dignified and appropriate.

"The cardinal rule is: Don't hold up your show for a celebrity because the editors are not going to be happy."

Let's talk about Fashion Week. What the best part of it for you?
The beginning and the end. [Laughs]

And the worst part?
The lagging schedule. By Thursday you're just exhausted. Fashion Week in New York maybe isn't as exhausting as going to Milan or Paris, but there are so many shows -- and you're going uptown and downtown. It's a little bit more organized than it used to be. Shows in the tents are preferred to shows off-site because it's one place and you know it's pretty much going to run on time. I always think Monday is fabulous, beginning with Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera. I look forward to going to Marc Jacobs' show. It's always exciting to get to the end of the week with Ralph [Lauren] and Donna [Karan]. Those are big shows. Fashion Week is exciting, and I look forward to it.

I'm always interested to know what someone like yourself who is there for the clothes thinks about all the people that are there just to be seen. What's going through your mind when you watch the frenzy that surrounds B-listers looking for photo ops and the hordes of hangers-on who descend upon the tents every season?
I always think it's fascinating to see these people who come in and are not working. In Paris, it's great to watch celebrities come in because they're treated like royalty. It might as well be Princess Diana because [the designers] have made those people feel so special. They have sent clothes to the hotels with assistants to get them dressed so they look fabulous in the front row. Liv Tyler looked incredible at Dior. Sometimes it can be chaotic because they've gotten body guards. In New York, you're fascinated by these people -- I don't know where they're from but people might have wanted to get an invitation to a show all their lives. Some dress up, some dress down. Some come over to you and say hello, and you've never seen them before in your life. But it doesn't wear you down because it's just part of the momentum. I do think that front row has gotten better than it was. About six or seven years ago, it was out of hand. You'd go into Michael Kors and those photographers were coming down the runway after the celebrities. That got to be a bit frustrating at times, especially if the show is being held up for a celebrity. The cardinal rule is: Don't hold up your show for a celebrity because the editors are not going to be happy.

Does this ever get old? How do you keep it fresh?
No. There's always going to be something in someone's show you're going to relate to and have an impact on you based on your own knowledge and career. If you have chosen to go to a show, you're going to be able to spot something in that show that will have impact no matter whose show it is. Not the whole show, but it could be a shoe or a heel of a shoe, a bag, a belt, a hairdo. You'll find something. You can find pockets of beauty. I'm never bored. I always pay attention, although I never take notes. If it's meant to be remembered, I can remember it. If it's bad, I just erase it from my mind right there. I don't draw or sketch, but I can remember.

How do you get yourself in the right frame of mind of all that?
You just have to get there on time. I don't lay out clothes for the week. I just make sure my office gives me the schedule so I can get to the ones I have to go to.

Any time you've ever left a show because you got a bad seat?
No. That wouldn't be polite. I've sat down and waited for a show that was two hours late [Marc Jacobs]. I'd think if it was three hours late, I'd get up and walk out.

Do you think it's harder to break into the business than it was 10 or 20 years ago?
Yes. It's more competitive. There are more people, there's more designers, more magazines, more stylists and more reality shows. It's got to be tougher. It's got to be tough to even get an interview at a fashion magazine. It must be very frustrating to have gone to a fashion school and want to get into a house, even for internships. Designers don't have a lot of interns -- some do and some don't -- so to even get on the list to be an intern has to be tough. It doesn't mean you have to go to the Harvard of fashion -- whatever that is -- it means you have to have something that someone notices in you that is different from everyone else. And it's hard to get in the door and do that. I was fortunate in my day that I was very articulate about what I wanted to do and people helped me -- Mrs. Vreeland introduced me to Andy Warhol and that's how it started.

What did you learn in the very early stages of your career that's still relevant to what you do today?
Research is key. Have knowledge of what you're talking about. Read and be curious. Always listen. Be prepared when you're doing something. That's especially true in the fashion world.

What has been your greatest contribution to Vogue?
I can't say. I don't think of my own contributions.

What would you say has been your greatest success to date?
My longevity at Vogue and giving a point of view that is informative, entertaining and knowledgeable whatever it's about -- clothes or people or style that represents the highest standards of Vogue. I haven't done anything unique. Vogue has always stood for that. Mr. Conde Nast invented that, if you read about his world in the '20s and '30s. I think I embraced the standards that Vogue has always stood for. That's been part of my longevity. I say that with great clarity -- the standards of Vogue are very high. When I was in high school reading Vogue, I was obviously impressed by that. Vogue has always stood for the best.

I've done a lot of reading in life. The one thing when you get to be older is, you wonder about the futility of knowledge -- when you die, the knowledge goes with you. There's so much knowledge in the world and there's a lot I don't have, but I have a lot of knowledge about fashion and fashion people. I think that's important to share when you're talking about fashion, writing about fashion or looking at fashion.

What's been your greatest disappointment?
Not to have traveled as much as I'd like to. I wish I'd been to Africa and Greece -- Greece because of the Acropolis and Africa because of the culture. I've not been to India. I've not been to many places in South America. I've only been to San Paolo. I should have been to Rio.

How would you say you've gotten to where you are?
My faith in humankind. Getting up and appreciating every day as much as one can. You have to get up and soldier on. Some days are good, some days are not so good. Some days are really exciting. Some days are just tedious. You just have to get up out of bed. I had an uncle who was a barber, and he always used to say, 'Just keep getting up every day.' You just have to get up, get going, get cracking!

What's your motto?
Be kind. Smile. I read this somewhere -- if you smile, it means you are in control of your destiny. I think smiling helps people break a kind of tension. I will sit in the car on the way to a meeting and just smile. I really mean that. It helps you get through life. If you have nothing to say, smile. Look up at the sky and smile. Just be grateful. It sounds simplistic, but it's my mantra.

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY. She writes the 'Lunch' column.

Photo: Susan B. Landau

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