There’s so much surprising in the André Leon Talley book, which as the title suggests is all about the haute couture world, that temple of mainly French fashion, but also the world of the high priestess Anna Wintour. And then he deals with the rapidly declining media world because of the shift of advertising and of course all the personalities he mingled with daily. DIANE DE BEER hangs on to every word:
Pictures from the book
André Leon Talley’s The Chiffon Trenches (4th Estate)
Anyone who has even the slightest interest in the fashion world would at least have noticed this author at international fashion events.
He stood out –physically because of his size and his race in this almost lily-white world, but also because of his presence, his flamboyance, yes even amongst the fashion glitterati. He knew how to do that.
I’m not sure I would have read the book if one of my smartest friends didn’t gift it to me. She sussed that this might have more depth than simply chronicling the sometimes vacuous world of couture.
And indeed it does. If we have realised anything in this past decade if paying attention to America (and how can we not), it is that nothing when race is involved is as it should be. That was even true for this remarkable man, who made such an impact in the way he celebrated fashion.
There was really nothing he loved more. His own stylish entrance into this world, the way he found a way to work for Andy Warhol and form a decades-long friendship with Karl Lagerfeld. And finally at the tail end of his career, his working and more intimate relationship with Anna Wintour.
As part of the printed world, I was stunned by the revelations in this book almost mirroring what happened in our newspaper and magazine world when their advertising platforms started imploding.
I used to jokingly say that I would be switching off the lights, but not thinking for a second that the rarefied world I had been working in for most of my life would end almost with my formal career – and quite harshly at that.
Surprise then that even for those glamorous journalists and editors who are almost as much part of the story as the people they write about, life was not much different. When printed journalism’s problems escalated locally because of a dearth of advertising, it was happening worldwide. And the bosses there behaved as badly as the bosses locally.
“When Polly Mellen who had been at Vogue for thirty years, was forced to retire, they gave her a cocktail party in the basement of Barneys. I went, and remained utterly confused about it throughout the night. It didn’t make sense; it was undignified. They could have honoured her with a seated dinner, with guests of her choice. Or a golden watch, a Bentley, a Rolls Royce, something! She could decide to keep it or sell it, but a little cocktail bash in the Barneys basement? Ageism at its worst. They wanted to get rid of her at Vogue to make way for someone else. They booted her upstairs to Allure, and she retired soon afterwards. That was not befitting of what Polly Mellen had contributed to Vogue, nor of the decades for which she worked there
This might all sound a bit over-the-top. Who gets a Bentley when they leave the company? No one who can be described as middle class. But I suppose in this moneyed world where the journalists become as famous as those they’re writing about, it happenened.
What fascinated me was the business ethics which are on a par around the world. One thinks it is just in one’s little corner. But as Talley illustrates, this is the way the world turns and why we have the top 1 percent so far removed from ordinary lives that they can’t respond to their employees with any humanity.
It’s not all gloom and doom, however, not in the life of the larger-than-life André. Because of who he is and where he works, he doesn’t have to name drop, those are the people who are part of his immediate circle. From Lee Radziwill (Jacky O’s sister) to Karl Lagerfeld, Anna Wintour (whom he both admires and admonishes for her lack of warmth), and of course many others like the supermodels who reigned during his time as well as the different designers who would share their design secrets, their fears and their dreams with someone like André who had both power and empathy.
From the early days, long before Vogue, he established his own style. That’s what propelled him into this world. He could identify style, he could step into that world with grace and he could write about it with flair. He also became part of the fanfare which is part of the chiffon trenches if you really want to be part of that world. And he did.
His passion for couture and everything that represented is what dominated his life. And like any creative, he simply put his head down and found a way to become part of everything he most loved in this world.
Sadly, Talley (and of course Karl Kagerfeld) died early this year and that world has lost one of its most entertaining and flashy personalities. And as is often the case, he is really only appreciated now.
It’s a fascinating read, because of the man and the universe he lived in. No one is irreplaceable, but I’m sure even Ms Wintour must miss this valued eye who was both honest and honoured to be asked for advice on, for example, her outfit for a smart occasion.
But also his take on the world, his way of entering a room, what he believed his role was and how his whole being was thrown into his daily work. The chiffon trenches is where his heart and his passion lay.