What an auction reveals about the latest fashion legend

If you’re in the market for a pair of size 13 snakeskin Manolo Blahnik evening slippers with a crimson satin ribbon trim, then February 15 could be your lucky day. At auction at Christie’s in New York the personal assets of André Leon Talley, the former creative director of American Vogue who died last year, could be yours for a reference price of £400. A silk fault opera coat Chanel’s navy blue can be had for around £3,000 (scattered ‘sun damage’ noted), while two extra-large Birkin bags look like a bargain at £4,000. There are no fewer than 29 Louis Vuitton trunks up for grabs (including one that made a cameo appearance in the 2008 film Sex and the City), along with a Prada coat in white crocodile and an orange-liveried Hermès bike that Talley never rode but kept. in storage at the Ritz in Paris.

When Talley died, the gaudy inventory of his possessions and tales of unpaid rent and painful exile at the hands of Anna Wintour seemed to paint a bittersweet, operatic portrait of an overdressed and overdressed figure. But Talley was a more creative, more interesting, smarter, and kinder person than all that. Growing up poor and black in the still-segregated South, he won a full college scholarship and graduated with a master’s degree in French from Brown University. He forged a pioneering path to become the first person of color to reach the highest ranks of Vogue, and his death at the age of 73 left a gaping void in the front row. And, in a stylish twist that Talley would have loved, it’s the lavish wardrobe in which he spilled his fortune that will serve to portray him in a more flattering light.

Proceeds from the sale of his property, expected to exceed $1 million, will go to two historically black churches close to Talley’s heart: Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York and Mt Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in his hometown. from Durham, North Carolina. The gift reflects Talley’s deep faith and generosity of spirit, which was not always evident in a lifestyle emblazoned with logos and monograms.

Scratch beneath the surface of the auction’s flashiest lots and you’ll discover a collection that speaks to her championing of black talent—a gold brocade caftan by influential Harlem designer Dapper Dan, which she wore to a fashion week show from New York by Carolina Herrera) and his love of art (a handful of Warhols, a portrait of former Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland by photographer Horst P Horst, and a signed portrait of Karl Lagerfeld by Helmut Newton). The auction is set to be a stylish farewell to a man who fervently believed in the transformative power of fashion.

Talley was a complicated and contradictory character. Cathy Horyn, the New York Times fashion editor when Talley was in his Vogue era, remembered him last year as “a mix of Southern front porch grandee … and Beaton-esque keen observer.” The grandson of a sharecropper, he was raised by his grandmother, Binnie Francis Davis, to whose high standards of elegance and aesthetics he credited sparking his interest in fashion. His clothes were boiled “in a big black iron cauldron in our yard,” he wrote in his 2003 memoir ALT, but “until I left home, I never used a towel that hadn’t been ironed.”

By the time he joined Vogue in 1983 and became a semi-public figure as Wintour’s longtime chief lieutenant, Talley was already a legend within fashion, his encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history kicking in seamlessly. with a brilliant apprenticeship backstory for Vreeland and clubbing with Karl Lagerfield.

Related: André Leon Talley: ‘My story is a fairy tale, and in every fairy tale there is evil and darkness’

When I started attending fashion shows in the late 1990s, Talley was in her prime: glamor on a giant scale, draped in fur the size of king-size bedspreads and with a Lauren Hutton gap between her teeth. He once told me that something he had written amused him, and I kept the compliment to myself for days.

For many years, Talley championed black designers in the pale pages of Vogue, featuring the work of Patrick Kelly, Kevan Hall, Stephen Burrows, and Willi Smith. Towards the end of his life, he was one of the first cheerleaders for designer LaQuan Smith, who has built a prestigious brand: that yellow trench coat Priyanka Chopra Jonas wears on the cover of this month’s issue of British Vogue is one of his. Talley recalled giving her $2,000 of his own money to “‘go to Paris…just seeing the light fall on the buildings will inspire you'”. In 2010, Talley persuaded her friend Serena Williams to help put Smith on the map by modeling in her New York Fashion Week show.

Highlights from the upcoming sale were sent to Paris for this week’s couture shows, where they were feted with a champagne reception. As both a Francophile and a connoisseur of the good life, Talley would have loved to be honored during couture week, said Deacon Alexis Thomas, Talley’s executor and close friend. “André loved fashion and he loved luxury. That was how he chose to live his life, and he did it beautifully, and this collection reflects that. But our hope is that it also reflects a holistic sense of who André was as an activist, friend and man of faith.”

Portrait of Kim Cole Moore by Talley. Photo: Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters

The party was packed, the champagne was flowing freely, the glamorous knick-knacks were endlessly entertaining: who knew Chanel made hot-water bottle covers? – But many of those present gravitated towards the portraits of Talley, rather than his possessions. In one, a large canvas by Kim Cole Moore, the artist borrows the pose of Pope Innocent X from Diego Velázquez for Talley, who wears rich white robes and a solemn, knowing gaze. “He looks so wise, so caring,” said Elizabeth Seigel, Christie’s head of private and iconic collections. “It captures the dynamic life and personality that we are trying to bring to life through these objects. It was always larger than life, but this is also intimate and meaningful.”

But it’s the Vuitton luggage that will draw most of the heat under the hammer, Seigel predicts. “It’s so fun. The closer the association with the individual, the more competition there tends to be, and luggage is as much your signature as it is a piece of fashion history. Some of them have his name and some have tags from his stays at the Ritz. It’s very charming.

In his 2020 memoir The Chiffon Trenches, Talley wrote about how he was underpaid, sidelined, and ultimately frozen out by Vogue and Anna Wintour. It is touching that he has preserved, in this library of prized possessions, an informal portrait of Annie Leibovitz de Wintour in her New York home of hers. The presence of several Andy Warhol originals, including a silkscreen print of a love heart signed as a Valentine’s gift, tells a contrasting story of a lasting friendship with Warhol, who Talley worked for early in his career and remained close to until his death. of the artist. A long and close friendship with Lagerfeld ended badly: Talley was apoplectic to be left off the guest list for the designer’s funeral, but several Lagerfeld sketches of the couple together speak, here, of happier days.

Life after Talley’s death as a benefactor was planned well in advance. “During his life, he was excited by the idea of ​​creating a fashion collection that would benefit the causes that were important to him,” Seigel said. The auction house will partner with the Abyssinian church for a celebration of his life with the church choir.

At Talley’s funeral in Harlem last year, Michelle Obama paid tribute to his “kindness, charm and electricity,” which, she said, “changed the world.” Perhaps Talley is destined to always be remembered for his piles of monogrammed luggage. But the stories of the young designers he helped and the generous legacy in his name tell a much more sophisticated story.

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