Film Review: The Gospel According to André

The Gospel According to André is the second major fashion documentary to premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, but while the subject of the first was deceased designer Alexander McQueen, this one tells the story of larger-than-life André Leon Talley, who compares the process of participating in it to open heart surgery. Illustrious moments from his career are revisited in vintage footage: his assistantship to Diana Vreeland in the Costume Institute; working with Andy Warhol at Interview magazine, hobnobbing in fluent French with Paris’s foremost designers of the 80s while reporting for Womens Wear Daily, his friendship with Karl Lagerfeld; his years beside Anna Winter at Vogue. But anyone who enters the theater believing Talley to be a two-dimensional cliché fashion character, who squawks “fabulous, darling” and “amaaazing” at every swishy turn, and waxes endlessly about style, beauty and “joie de vivre,” will undoubtedly leave in a different fame of mind. He is in fact one of a kind. Directed by Kate Novack, The Gospel According to André reveals just how much more there is still to know about the man in the Dapper Dan kaftan.

The man in the Dapper Dan kaftan

More than a powerful voice of fashion, Talley is a towering figure in American culture. Born in the segregated community of Durham, North Carolina, he tells of being pelted with rocks by boys from Duke University as he crossed the campus on his way to buy Vogue magazine, which allowed him to escape into what he saw as “a world of beauty, culture, poetry, music.” Southern culture and his grandmother who raised him left a lifelong mark, and he remembers fondly her storytelling, stacks of hat boxes, and the fashion show that was church on Sunday. At 6 feet 6, every inch of it bombast and flamboyance, Talley bumped up against what was acceptable in male black culture growing up. He mentions that even his mother wouldn’t walk into church beside him and asked him to enter after her. But throughout his career in what he calls “the chiffon trenches” of fashion, he admits he has had to let plenty slide. He recalls a top woman at Saint Laurent referring to him as “Queen Kong.” He never confronted her. Or the friend who gleefully surmised he must have slept with all the designers in Paris to enjoy such intimacy with them, the implication being that, for a black man, whoring was the only way to gain that access. These recollections still clearly hurt. He suspects he may have been “like the black page in the Russian court, but I had something to say.” But what of those things he might have wished he could have said? “Those things I internalized and kept them bottled up,” he says tearfully.

Film Review: The Gospel According to André

The gospel according to Andre

“You have to see the world through the kaleidoscope eyes of a child,” says Talley, and this is most evident in his connection to clothes which is almost primitive, instinctive. Clothes move him, make him quote Voltaire. He likens his relationship with Diana Vreeland to that which he had with his grandmother, and says both bonds were centered around unconditional love. He frequented Studio 54 every night but only for the dancing, the orgy of debauchery and drug-taking holding no interest for him. A monastic figure, still guided by his Southern Baptist faith, often eminently attired in capes or gilt kaftans (designed by Tom Ford and Valentino, or bought in Morocco) he says he has never been in love, and although he would like to be he now feels it’s too late. The idea that he devoted his best years to fashion casts him in a similar asexual light as beloved fashion photographer Bill Cunningham who also was seduced early by fashion and lived almost exclusively for capturing the ideal image of beauty.

In the Q & A after the premiere, Talley is asked if he knew then what he knows now, what would he do differently. “I would strategize,” he answers, immediately. He would make his name, his brand, more lucrative commercially. This is met with sounds of disapproval from his good friend Sandra Bernhard seated beside him who perhaps believes such concerns to be beneath him. Emphatically, he shakes his head at her and doubles down on his point, insisting he should have made more money. For all Talley’s innate bluster and boom, there is a prevailing sense of sadness throughout the film and he might just have hit upon the source of it. Despite being such an immediately recognizable figure, what he represents to fashion has not been so much overlooked as downplayed (not least of all by him.) When describing his unusual ascent in the predominantly white, highly elitist industry, he says, “You don’t just get up and say, ’I’m black and I’m proud,’ you just do it, and somehow it impacts the culture.” Talley is 6 feet 6 inches of courage, dignity and pioneering spirit but the film leaves us wondering if he has really been awarded the heights of credit he is due.

The Gospel According to André, distributed by Magnolia Pictures, opens in theaters in May.

Style editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Images: Magpictures.com