For more than two decades, there was a familiar pairing in the front rows of fashion shows in New York, Milan, Paris, and occasionally London: André Leon Talley, an imposing figure swathed in voluminous gowns, wedged next to the physically diminutive, hugely powerful Anna Wintour. Fashion shows are generally tight on seating space, and Wintour’s restrained slimness compensated for Leon Talley’s mass. Both characters had deliberately eye-catching style. Like H.M. the Queen, they could always be identified at some distance. Visibility is a premium quality in fashion, which is about how things look. The problem comes when how things look gets confused with how things really are.
The Man of Mode
André Leon Talley, or A.L.T. as he is sometimes known, is a man whose life has been largely concerned with appearances, of every kind. His new memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, is a story of someone—and in this he is not unusual in the fashion pantheon—who seems to exist primarily in the reflected glory of others, and in particular of Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour. His raison d’être was bestowed by them. And then removed.
For anyone who judges the worth of a memoir by how prepared the writer is to dish on those around them, The Chiffon Trenches will not disappoint. So much so that now there is already a massive furor about how A.L.T. has treated his former boss in his telling of events. Did he or didn’t he intend to trash her? After reading, it would seem hard to conclude that he is innocent of that accusation.
His new memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, is a story of someone—and in this he is not unusual in the fashion pantheon—who seems to exist primarily in the reflected glory of others, and in particular of Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour.
Memoirs come in all shapes and sizes, just like fashion personalities. This one is a bumper edition of grievances about and glimpses into the personal lives of those who encountered the writer. Anna Wintour is one of the few famous people whom Leon Talley spent a great deal of time with who is still alive, and so the focus has fallen on his treatment of her. She has in public remained graciously silent. In private I would expect she has had much to say. The Daily Mail ran a piece last weekend describing The Chiffon Trenches as “a memoir so dripping with venom it’s left her glossy world agog.” WWD quotes Leon Talley as saying, “I am not sitting here crying, saying, ‘Woe is me. Anna Wintour has ditched me and pushed me to the curb,’ which I feel she has done.”
Allusions of Grandeur
It is, naturally, a mesmerizing read, and one which a reader unfamiliar with this febrile world might well imagine to be fiction. A fact Leon Talley acknowledged in his previous memoir, A.L.T.: “The truth,” he wrote then, “is that I live on a relatively grand scale, because that’s the way fashion is.... It’s fickle, it’s flamboyant and it’s fabulous.”
That he succeeds in becoming a player in this community is testament both to his early talent and to the drive that enabled him to forge a life for himself a million miles from the tobacco town of Durham, North Carolina, where he was brought up by his grandmother Mama and great-grandmother China. The local library was a haven from his family’s chief occupation of churchgoing, and it was there he discovered glamour in the pages of Vogue: Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball; Gloria Vanderbilt’s Fortuny silk dresses, coiled like snakes. A world where, he imagined, “bad things never happened.”
The local library was a haven from his family’s chief occupation of churchgoing, and it was there he discovered glamour in the pages of Vogue.
Driven by a fascination with all things French, he gained a full scholarship to Brown University to study for a master’s in French literature, spending his minimal cash on YSL towels and wearing a shade of Estée Lauder deep-grape makeup, finished off with Vaseline on his temples. This was when he wasn’t in full Kabuki maquillage, emulating one of his role models, Diana Vreeland. He immersed himself in Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and the values of the Belle Époque, like many fashionable aesthetes.
For all the inherent elitism of the fashion world, its major figures have often come from relatively humble backgrounds, driven by determination and skill: Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent, the Versaces. Leon Talley not only traveled far from the world of his upbringing, but his story is hugely influenced by how he feels about what it has meant to be a person of color. Throughout these pages, no matter how glamorous his days and nights, how famous the milieu, how well paid he might be, the issue of race is as visible as the color of his skin.
In 1978, while he was Paris correspondent for Women’s Wear Daily—then the most influential fashion publication in the world—he wrote an ecstatic review of a Givenchy couture show, where all the models were black. Immediately, he heard a rumor that he had stolen Yves Saint Laurent’s sketches and sold them to Givenchy. “This was the kind of racism I experienced in fashion. Subtle, casual jabs that white people inherently make toward people of color…. A black man is always getting accused of doing something egregious.”
The story says just as much about the pettiness of that community as it does about race. Leon Talley’s continual feeling of being hard done by—a feeling that permeates the book—is not just to do with the issues around race. His habit of getting suckered into and remaining in emotionally unhealthy relationships was certainly a contributory factor.
One such relationship was with Karl Lagerfeld, whom he met while interviewing the then Chloé designer for Interview magazine, wearing “khaki Bermuda shorts, a pin-striped shirt and aviator glasses from Halston, knee socks, and moccasin penny loafers.” (The author’s recall of his own outfit on any given day is nothing short of miraculous.) The pair hit it off, and Karl led him into his bedroom, not for any sexual encounter but to throw him a couple of crêpe de Chine shirts in pale green and peony pink. For a young man on the lower rungs of the fashion ladder, this was major. Far more important than sex.
And so began a friendship of sorts that lasted 40 years. Daily telephone calls, meals at La Coupole, being flown in on the Concorde for holidays at Lagerfeld’s country house, sharing Lagerfeld’s hand-wash laundry service. When Karl whistles, Leon Talley hurls himself over the hurdles wherever on the globe he might be.
The pair hit it off, and Karl led him into his bedroom, not for any sexual encounter but to throw him a couple of crêpe de Chine shirts in pale green and peony pink.
One day, Karl chucks him out of the gilded circle, just as he did many people who fluttered in the heady thermals of his atmosphere. Was it really, as Leon Talley imagines, because he made the mistake of suggesting that Lagerfeld, himself a photographer, should bankroll an exhibition of the recently deceased Deborah Turbeville’s photographs? Who knows? At any rate, he finds himself removed from the Chanel Christmas list in 2013.
The Coldest Wintour on Record
In its way, the high-fashion world was, and still is, as small-town in its feuds and allegiances as the community where André Leon Talley was brought up. He loves his clothes, cares deeply about the creative process, and is a brilliant cheerleader for talent. But overriding this is his concern with his and others’ standing and clout.
When, in 1988, Anna Wintour became editor in chief of American Vogue, she appointed him to the hugely important role of creative director, even though it seems he didn’t have a clue about what the job might involve. “In the world of fashion, things go unspoken,” he explains. “As I saw it, I was meant to be by Anna Wintour at all times and encourage her visions.”
Unsurprisingly, this vague arrangement didn’t pan out, and so she suggested he move back to Paris in a role that essentially cast him as her eyes and ears, with an all-expenses-paid lifestyle, including use of Lagerfeld’s preferred laundry service. “But my schedule was set around Anna Wintour’s fittings,” he writes, while much of his day-to-day role was to hang around with Lagerfeld and keep him on side with the magazine. Such was Lagerfeld’s omnipotence at Chanel that, for example, he was personally allowed to influence the company’s massive advertising spend. When I was editing British Vogue, we published an article by Alicia Drake, the author of the excellent The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris, a book Lagerfeld hated, about the Parisian fashion set, and he briefly succeeded in getting Chanel to pull all the advertising out of the magazine. (He also sent me an angry, handwritten letter about the hopelessness of my magazine.) I replied that, luckily, there were quite a few who didn’t share his opinion.
He loves his clothes, cares deeply about the creative process, and is a brilliant cheerleader for talent. But overriding this is his concern with his and others’ standing and clout.
Curious as Leon Talley’s role might appear to an outsider, Wintour clearly valued him. Over the years, she did a staggering amount to help him—securing cash from Condé Nast to purchase a house for his grandmother, staging an intervention and getting him into rehab for weight-related health issues, not once but four times—all paid for by the company. She might be having second thoughts about those kindnesses now. As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished.
Ultimately, though, to his mind, this was another relationship that ended in betrayal. When an American Vogue podcast he hosted was canceled in 2018, he found himself replaced on his perch as celebrity interviewer at the top of the Met Ball’s red carpet. What hurt him particularly was that on neither occasion did his mentor personally break the news. “[Wintour] decimated me with this silent treatment so many times…. And I soldiered on, through the elite chiffon trenches,” he writes, vowing to himself that this time he would take no more.
One hopes that he has been able to find a satisfying life outside the confines of Vogue. That he has been able to channel his talents in ways that bring him fulfillment and validation. But it has to be said that on this score things don’t sound too hopeful. In his final chapter, he writes, “I think today Anna still feels a kinship to me or she wouldn’t keep inviting me to her Chanel fittings.” I very much doubt that is still the case now.
Alexandra Shulman, the longest-serving editor of British Vogue, is the author of the new memoir Clothes … and Other Things That Matter