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Fashion journalist and ex-'Vogue' creative director André Leon Talley dies at 73


We learned overnight of the death of Andre Leon Talley, longtime editor at Vogue and, for many years, the most influential Black person in American fashion. Over his career, Talley worked for a number of fashion publications but most prominently Vogue. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch podcast is here to talk about Talley's life and career. Good morning, Karen.


ELLIOTT: So some people may have never seen Andre Leon Talley. You interviewed him a couple of years ago. What was he like? What did he look like, sound like? I understand he made quite an impression when he walked into a room.

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter) He did. Andre was hard to ignore. He was 6'6". And for the past few decades, he'd been in a constant battle with his weight. So he was tall and large with a big voice. And most, if not all, of his clothes were bespoke. He loved beautiful, well-made things, and he did even as a child.

ELLIOTT: He grew up in the South. Tell us how his early experiences there shaped his sense of style.

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, he grew up in a small house in segregated Durham, N.C. His grandmother, Mrs. Binnie Francis Davis, raised him. And Mrs. Davis did domestic work at Duke. She kept an immaculate house, and she insisted that Andre, whom she doted on, be immaculate, too. He says his first understanding of style came from his family and his church. Everyone dressed beautifully. He remembers one aunt in particular.


ANDRE LEON TALLEY: She would come for Easter Sunday services, and I remember she had on a lavender swing coat, and she had a lavender handbag and lavender high stiletto court shoes. And this is how I first saw style at its best.

ELLIOTT: He has some happy memories of his childhood but also unhappy ones that would end up haunting him throughout his adulthood, right?

GRIGSBY BATES: He did, Debbie. From about age 9, for several years, Andre was abused by a man in his neighborhood, someone he knew. And like many children, he was afraid to tell anyone, so he pushed that knowledge deep down for decades. And he told me he finally talked about it when he was 70.

ELLIOTT: Despite that, Talley did find great success in his chosen career - fashion - and really became a true icon.

GRIGSBY BATES: He spoke fluent French, and that got him an assignment from women's wear daily to cover important shows in France. He also worked at Harper's Bazaar, where the legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland mentored him. And he spent many years at Vogue with another legendary editor, Anna Wintour, who eventually made him creative director of the entire magazine.

ELLIOTT: Now, as a Black man in the upper echelons of the fashion world, did he talk about race at all and how it affected him?

GRIGSBY BATES: He said there were certainly slings and arrows from some who thought he didn't belong there. But he said he was always twice as prepared as his peers because he knew he had to be. Other than that, he said he just kept working hard.

ELLIOTT: How do you measure his influence in fashion, Karen?

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, because he was a first, his presence opened the door for others, and he was proud of the success of other Black people who came after. It's probably fair to say that, in some ways, he paved the way for Black men like Virgil Abloh, who died just a few months ago, at Louis Vuitton, or Edward Enninful, the very powerful editor in chief of British Vogue. He encouraged Anna Wintour to put people like Beyonce and Rihanna on the cover of Vogue, and he was very proud of writing Vogue's first profile of Michelle Obama. But, Debbie, he told me he wanted to be remembered for more than fashion.


TALLEY: What I hope that I can impart - something beyond the dress or the belt, something beyond the label, something that has more long-lasting value.

ELLIOTT: Andre Leon Talley died Tuesday. He was 73 years old. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch podcast, thank you so much for helping us remember him.

GRIGSBY BATES: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEB WILDBLOOD'S "MUSCLE MEMORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.