The title of Kate Novack’s documentary gives you some idea of the reverence it holds for its subject, Andre Leon Tally. The fashion doyen returns the favor, dominating the film with his sheer force of personality. Taking a rightful place with such recent, similarly themed documentaries as The First Monday in May, House of Z and Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards, among many others, The Gospel According to Andre should prove catnip for fashion buffs. Recently showcased at the Tribeca Film Festival, the doc is scheduled for theatrical release May 25 via Magnolia Pictures.
“I don’t live for fashion, I live for beauty and style,” declares Talley in the opening moments of the film, which spends its next 94 minutes confirming the thesis. Any doubts about Talley’s eminence in his field are immediately dispelled by plaudits from such figures as Marc Jacobs, Anna Wintour and Tom Ford. It’s musician will.i.am. who takes the prize, however, for his comment, “He’s the Nelson Mandela of couture.” Whatever that means.
The film delivers an evocative biographical portrait of Talley, who was raised in modest circumstances by his grandmother in Jim Crow-era North Carolina. “Going to church was the most important thing in life,” Talley recalls; the lavish hats worn by the women in attendance were his introduction to fashion. He was soon poring over issues of Vogue at the Durham public library, although he was self-conscious about his own looks, describing himself as a “manatee.”
After attending Brown University on a French studies scholarship, he moved to New York to pursue his dream of working in fashion. He landed a job at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute, its then-director, Diana Vreeland, taking him under her wing. (The documentary includes entertaining footage of Vreeland in all her haughty imperiousness.)
From there, Talley went to work at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and became a fixture at Studio 54, although not for the usual reasons. “I went there every night for the dancing, not the decadence,” he says. He also struck up a friendship with Fran Liebowitz, who says that her mother thought Talley was an African prince because of his elaborate clothing.
After a stint as Women’s Wear Daily‘s Paris editor, he finally landed his dream job at Vogue in 1983. Wintour, not prone to doling out praise, says that she relied on his extensive knowledge of fashion history when she became the magazine’s editor several years later.
Talley, frequently seen musing aloud from the porch of his White Plains house, movingly describes the prejudice he faced in the industry because of both his size and color. “They used to call me Queen Kong,” he says, near tears.
His colorful, confessional commentary is the strongest aspect of the admiring film, which otherwise doesn’t delve too deeply into the milieu in which he’s spent his life. But even that becomes a bit much, such as in the extended scene toward the end in which he and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd are seen live-blogging during the inauguration of Donald Trump. Although Talley expresses enthusiasm for Melania’s outfit, his utter dejection at seeing Trump take office is all too apparent. It’s an interesting sequence from a fly-on-the-wall perspective but feels wholly unnecessary here.
Production: Pacific Northwest Pictures, Abstract Productions
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Director: Kate Novack
Producers: Kate Novack, Andrew Rossi, Josh Braun
Executive producers: Bob Acree, Lindsey Acree, Daniel Pine, Ken Novack, Marianne Novack
Director of photography: Bryan Sarkinen
Editors: Andrew Coffman, Thomas Rivera Montes
Composers: Ian Hultquist, Sofia Hultquist
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival
Rated PG-13, 94 min.