Andre Leon Talley on the Influence of His Grandmother, Diana Vreeland in New Doc

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Andre Leon Talley

"It’s a very sensitive film and it shows where I came from, which is very important," says the prominent fashion figure.

"Many people had come to me to do documentaries and I had turned them down for years," says Andre Leon Talley, the towering — in every sense of the word — fashion figure who finally gets his big-screen due in The Gospel According to Andre, premiering Sept. 8 at the Toronto Film Festival. Though the also-rans even included Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, Talley went with first-time director Kate Novack, who has previously produced several documentaries, including Page One: Inside the New York Times.

"Kate just seemed like the right fit," Talley adds. "It seemed deeply, profoundly, a story she wanted to tell ... Of course, she was going to do research, but she would come up with surprises," he says, noting that he was particularly impressed that Novack had gone so far as to obtain a copy of his master's thesis from Brown University. "That impressed me."

Novack's film tells the improbable story of a black man born in the South in the era of segregation, raised and nurtured by his grandmother Bennie Davis, who worked as a maid in a men's college dormitory. Talley always loved to read, growing up with the old bi-weekly Vogue, the short stories of Truman Capote and everything else he could get his hands on.

After getting his master's (the dissertation, by the way, explored the correspondence between the 19th century artist Delacroix and the poet Baudelaire), Talley landed in New York in 1974 at Andy Warhol's Interview. Stints with legendary editor Diana Vreeland at the Met's Costume Institute and a role as Paris editor for Women's Wear Daily preceded his long career alongside Anna Wintour at Vogue and more recent exposure to a new generation as a judge on America’s Top Model.

"People say to me, 'Aren't you that fashion guy?' But they don't really know what it is that I ever did," says Talley. "Kate really established what I did and that it wasn't just sitting in the front row of fashion shows. I had an impact in the fashion world."

"I am going to be 70 years old in October, and I am very happy it came along at this time," Talley continues. "It’s a very sensitive film and it shows where I came from, which is very important. How I got from humble North Carolina to New York City, to Studio 54. And also how important the inspirations of literature and beauty were in my youth through my life at church and my life with my grandmother. I find it very poetic."

Not that Talley hadn't been on the big screen before, appearing in a raft of documentaries from Valentino: The Last Emperor to First Monday in May. For director Novack, those "star turns" had the feeling of a performance, but spending close to a year with her subject allowed her to go deeper.

"Ultimately, I think he trusted me because he allowed me to make the film and really show his vulnerabilities," says Novack. "But there were harder moments. We go back to Durham, North Carolina, where he's from and which was a place that represents a lot of joy for him and also a lot of pain." In the end, she says, "I understand that it was difficult for him, but I think he was very generous in that way."

The film also addresses the two formidable women who influenced his work ethic, first at home and then at the start of his career.

"My grandmother and Mrs. Vreeland were so different in their lives but so similar," Talley recounts. "They both believed in the strong values of work, family and tradition, and I learned very early on from my grandmother. I had chores and duties to do. And I did them with great glee because they were a part of my life."

The same thing can be said of Vreeland.

"She was a woman of great gravitas but had a superficial theatricality that maybe resonated with people," he says. "But beneath the surface was a very serious, hard-working woman."

Novack sees Talley and Vreeland as "kindred spirits, two very idiosyncratic, unique individuals who met each other and she really ended up being a huge influence in his life."

And she thinks the similarities get at the core of what Talley loves about fashion, "It's looking at luxury in a way that is really different than 'Andre draped in diamonds with 85 Louis Vuitton trunks,' which is totally a part of who is wonderful and fabulous." Novack says. "But, ultimately, if you strip away the layers it's an appreciation of luxury in the way he was raised," she says, adding, "I think he really views being well-dressed as moral issue."

Talley also credits the legendary Women's Wear Daily editor, the late John Fairchild, for shaping his fashion acumen. "He was a genius," Talley says. "He would stand over my shoulders and fold his arms, over my typewriter, and talk. And I learned how to report (on) clothes, how to analyze a collection coming down a runway. And not just saying 'pale blue coats were shown with broad shoulders and bold black buttons.'"

"I learned to narrate fashion from Mr. Fairchild and I learned to appreciate the luxury of fashion from Diana Vreeland, and the true luxury of fashion for her was the way clothes were made, were beautifully turned out and that the details were important."

Though happy with the documentary, Talley admits to sometimes finding the actual filming "slightly annoying," what with its inevitable delays, and Novack good-naturedly concurs.

"Andre still uses a lot of Vreeland-isms, actually, and there's a phrase of hers that he loves" that the director remembers hearing when Talley was running out of patience: "Get crackin'."

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