Film Review: The Gospel According to André

Entertaining doc about perhaps the greatest, most gigantic (in every way) fashionista who ever lived.
Specialty Releases

Of all the improbable figures in the history of the peacock world of fashion, whose number include the outrageously pontificating editrix-as-gargoyle, Diana Vreeland; Charles James, possibly the most eccentric and greatest couturier of them all, whose dresses were like precious children he refused to part with, even though they had been paid for and more than patiently awaited; Mr. Pearl, the famed corset designer who swans about in his own creations, and myriad other freaks, geeks and sacred monsters, none has been more improbable than André Leon Talley. Black, flamboyantly gay and standing 6’6” tall, with a massive, extremely well-fed body he himself has likened to that of a manatee, often draped in multitudinous yards of a trademark caftan or cape, and possessed of a huge personality and booming voice given to pronouncements like “Wear two bracelets! It makes you look rich!” Or “Fashion is not art. It’s hard work!”

What Talley is, in fact, is the Colossus of Vogue, where he was, quite literally, editor-at-large from 1998 to 2013, brought there by editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, she of the eternal sunglasses and Devil Wears Prada roman a clef fame. Unlikely as it seems for this Bible of the fashion industry, fueled by big bucks and the bottom line, to have someone like him so prominent on their masthead, Wintour sagely hired him because his inexhaustible knowledge of fashion history was a necessity, while hers was spotty.

Strong women like Wintour have always figured prominently in Talley’s life, starting with his beloved church-going grandmother in Durham, NC, who basically raised him singlehandedly, instilling a lifelong credo of cleanliness and a constant search for beauty in an already fashion-mad boy who would devour issues of Vogue and dream of being a part of that rarefied world one day. Brown University was his escape from the Deep South, until he heeded the siren call of NYC in the 1970s. The legendary Vreeland was instrumental in making his fashion dreams happen when she took on Talley, newly arrived in New York (and far slimmer), as her assistant on her landmark 1974 Metropolitan Museum exhibit, “Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design.” Talley then worked as receptionist for Andy Warhol at his Interview magazine and eventually became the Paris office chief of Women’s Wear Daily. He was an excellent journalist—witty, observant and fresh—and was at the epicenter of New York in an era he describes as the last great time of glamour and fashion, hobnobbing with all the glittering Studio 54 one-namers: Andy, Bianca, Liza, Yves.

Kate Novack’s The Gospel According to André is a loving, lively documentary look at Talley’s one-of-a-kind life, which is a powerful affirmation of “If you can dream it, you can become it.” It is liberally laced with diverting interviews with everyone from childhood Southern and college friends, all of them lost in admiration for the way he crawled out of the Jim Crow South to mix and mingle intimately with some of the greatest artists and designers of this and the last century (Wintour, Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Bethann Hardison, Norma Kamali, Manolo Blahnik, Fran Leibowitz, etc.). Growing up in bigoted environs, Talley was luckily kept in a protective bubble by his grandmother, but nonetheless suffered harassment in school, and to this very day must endure vicious gossip to the effect that the only way someone like him could have risen to such heights was by sleeping wh the influential (“Like I was some kind of black buck!” he indignantly cries). He is also well aware of a vicious nickname that has dogged him for decades, “Queen Kong.”

When you see him in action here, front row at the collection, fitting models and private clients in couture with the deftest hand and eye, palavering with the designers about their work and what it means in the context of today as well as historically, there can be no doubt that it has always been his mind and ultra-refined taste that have kept him relevant for so long in one of the roughest, ever-changing and most demanding and volatile fields there is.

Being the kind of indefatigable careerist whose work is inextricably bound with his life can’t leave much time for a personal life, and indeed Talley confesses to never being truly in love with anybody. There’s a wistfulness in his delivery, and you realize something of the price that must be paid, along with whatever deep-seated personal trauma may have gone into this state of affairs. The volatile tide of fashion—up and down, ugly/beautiful, grunge or glamour—must offer solace, in the sense that it allows little time for reflection or regret.

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