In The September Issue, the 2009 documentary about American Vogue, André Leon Talley took a notable cameo. In a workplace notable for its lack of diversity, here was an African-American man in late middle age, his tall, broad frame wrapped in an array of extravagant capes, passing voluble pronouncements on the coming fashion trends. Well, now André – no longer Vogue’s editor at large – has his own documentary, The Gospel According to André.
The film isn’t perfect – its loose structure means that things drag despite the clipped 93-minute running time. But I don’t think it’s director Kate Novack’s fault that by the point the final credits roll I still wasn’t sure how to describe Talley’s job.
Journalist might cover it: as well as his role on Vogue, he wrote for Andy Warhol’s celebrity-chic title Interview in the 1970s, but Talley does the profession no favours with the fawning attitude he adopts to big-name designers. Sample from his interview with Karl Lagerfeld when the two met in the early 1980s (one of many archive excerpts here): “Do you feel you have some superhuman energy?” As questions go, this is as soft as a velvet cushion with a complimentary luxury chocolate on top of it.
If journalist doesn’t cut it, Talley isn’t a designer or stylist either. He is seen here offering advice to his female friends on how to dress for important events, in particular a final Obama ball at the White House that was approaching when the film was shot. Talley has a good eye, but his words of wisdom barely extend to anything more than a preference for one pairs of heels over another – and he has none of the originality of the makers interviewed here to pay tribute to André (the likes of Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford).
Maybe it’s so hard to categorise Talley because he’s carved out such a singular position for himself: friend and cheerleader to fashion top names; networker par excellence (check out the brazen way he uses a shopping appointment with an invitee of that White House ball to curry favour with the Clintons); style consigliere to fashion magazine editors over the years. Sticking closely to her subject, Novack captures Talley being Talley, a job he does with an enthusiasm that seems undimmed despite being slowed to a stately waddle by his considerable weight.
Talley has a good eye, but his words of wisdom barely extend to anything more than a preference for one pairs of heels over another
There’s something infectiously egalitarian about the range of Talley’s passions – I especially liked his ardent praise for Jaws 3 – but it is true that much of the film’s fascination depends on your interest in the exalted realms of high fashion.
What gives the film its more lasting poignancy is Talley’s discussion of growing up in an African-American community in North Carolina. Evoking the Jim Crow-era south of his childhood through atmospheric archive, the film sees Talley talk movingly about his grandmother and suggest his sense of style owes a lot to the fashion-parade exuberance of the black southern churches he attended as a kid.
André is mostly circumspect about the harsher realities of the legacy of these days, but at one point he talks about the racism he encountered, as an influential black man, at the very highest levels of fashion. He’s recalling all of this from the quiet of Vogue’s archive – but the election of Trump (an event that leaves the garrulous Talley speechless) would suggest such unpleasant episodes aren’t quite ready to be filed away as history. Unusually introspective and sombre, Talley concludes the interview by forcing a smile. Even to a style devotee like Talley, maintaining appearances isn’t always as natural as it looks.
The Gospel According to André is in cinemas and on demand from September 28