Although Christie’s is calling next week’s auction “The Collection of André Leon Talley,” the sale will in fact represent only a fraction of what the style arbiter accumulated over the course of his remarkable career. Not only did he frequently splurge on luxuries and rarities for himself, he also regularly received extravagant tributes from his fashion-world cohorts.
A law unto himself, André, who died a year ago, was never bound by the same rules that proscribed other journalists from accepting swag—nor should he have been. A survivor of parental neglect and sexual abuse, he found in beautiful objects some of the security and comfort that was missing from his early life.
Even though everything André owned has by now taken on the aura of a holy relic, the mystique of certain items would have been heightened if Christie’s had more thoroughly researched the stories behind them.
For example, Lot 6, a Warhol screen print of Diana Vreeland portrayed as Jacques-Louis David’s equestrian Napoleon, was commissioned by Anna Wintour (when she was still Vogue’s creative director under Grace Mirabella) for André’s feature about the Costume Institute exhibition “Man and His Horse,” in the magazine’s December 1984 issue.
Every day, Wintour dispatched André, then Vogue’s fashion news director, and Isabella Blow, then her second assistant, to Warhol’s studio to polaroid the picture’s progress, as she did not trust the artist to meet his deadline.
André devised Lot 293, “Floral Chintz Upholstered Three-Panel Floor Screen,” out of yardage sourced from the gift shop at Vaux-Le-Vicomte, in France. He then used the screen as a backdrop for his memorable Zoom dialogues with the Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker, hosted by the Museum of Arts and Design in January and February 2021.
André adored this 18th-century-style tree-of-life fabric so much that he lamented he didn’t have enough to cover “a whole room with it à la Vreeland,” he wrote me in an e-mail, referring to his great friend and mentor’s flaming-red living room draped in so much tree-of-life chintz it resembled, she said, “a garden in hell.”
Perhaps André’s fans would also be intrigued to learn that Diane von Furstenberg selected for her friend Lot 407, the pair of Prince Dimitri steel-and-gold cuff links, and that Lot 16, the four hard-side black leather Vuitton suitcases, was a custom-made offering from Marc Jacobs.
Though Christie’s has continued to add (and remove) lots in the run-up to the sale, it is still unclear what has become (or will become) of the myriad other totems and treasures that André stashed in the Ali Baba–like recesses of his New York and North Carolina houses. Where is his gargantuan Vuitton mink blanket (another gift from Jacobs), his immense library of books (including Lee Radziwill’s Bible), the full wardrobe of bespoke hats, the sofa formerly owned by Truman Capote, the bed from Oscar de la Renta?
If some of Karl Lagerfeld’s lavish presents have gone missing, that is to be expected. The capricious designer had a habit of taking back his gifts to friends, including the 18th-century canapé that once graced André’s drawing room.
André wrote in his 2020 memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, that he would like to be “cremated in a caftan.” He also stated that the two institutions that became the major beneficiaries of his estate—the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and the Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina—were where he ultimately found what no object or individual could ever give him: “sanctuary and love.”
Whether or not he was swathed in a magnificent caftan for his final voyage, it might have become his legend more if André had exited the world like a pharaoh, taking with him his plethora of trunks, packed with gorgeous accoutrements for the afterlife.
“The Collection of André Leon Talley” goes up for auction at Christie’s New York on February 15 at 10 A.M. E.S.T.
Amy Fine Collins is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL.She is the author of The International Best-Dressed List: The Official Story