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The A to Z of A.L.T.: The Fabulous World of André Leon Talley

By: Elaine Lennon

Photo by Loc Dang on

Abyssinian Baptist Church, Harlem, NYC.   The oldest congregation of African Americans there is in New York State. My sanctuary! My saviour! I live in faith, hope and light. And love! Love!

Anvil, The. New York’s prime gay leather bar. I never participated in the sexual antics but enjoyed listening to Picasso biographer John Richardson’s debauched tales. I once went with Andy Warhol and Rudolf Nureyev and had to be told by Rudolf that one man’s hand semaphore was an invitation to a trysting. I was an innocent, in oh so many ways!

Banks, Tyra. If you’re going to be on television’s America’s Next Top Model, this is the woman to host you. I taught her everything she didn’t know. And we taught the ordinary people how to understand fashion.

Blahnik, Manolo. I could never do a shoot without Manolos. Never. When I accompanied him to Fire Island one weekend we were called faggots! Just because I was protecting myself with my parasol.

Brâncuşi, Constantin, 1876-1957. From farm tools to frow. The most magnificent women in the world resemble his sculpture. Naturally, I know them all.

Chanel, 31 rue Cambon, Paris. The couture house. Coco’s apartment is still upstairs. My other spiritual home.

Charvet, Place Vendôme, Paris. The world’s oldest shirtmakers, the centre of the shirting world. They make the most beautifully shaped pieces for the élite and have done for hundreds of years. I wear mine beneath jaguar- and dragon-bedecked caftans created for me by my friend Valentino. Who doesn’t? Churchill, Kennedy, even Deneuve wear them. Five thousand bolts of fabric and fame.

City Limits Diner, White Plains. Starving and working out are not my thang. Face it, I have. I eat therefore I am. And in such fabulous kaftans. I fill them out exceptionally well.

Condé Nast. Or Condé Nasty, if you ask me. One World Trade Center. Such a comedown! Our – their! – formerly heritage offices are now in the equivalent of a discount outlet. They might as well operate from Filene’s Basement. So déclassé. To think that once upon a time there were town cars to work and business class to Europe.

Coupole, La, 102 Bd. Montparnasse, Paris 75014. A brasserie that simply screams Art Deco. Rightly renowned for the Indian lamb curry, on the menu since 1927 but the roast calf’s liver? To die for! I will never forget the bitterly cold January night I attended a dinner held in my honour. The great and the good lined out against each other, the fashion equivalent of a playoff. Well, more of a stare off over the sauerkraut (how apposite!) and boeuf. I was with Karl, of course; and Anna Piaggi and her boyfriend; Karl’s BF, that handsome aristo Jacques de Bascher; and antiques expert Patrick Hourcade. We were probably all on Karl’s payroll. Yves’ crowd were opposite: Betty Catroux (a mother, muse and model, she hates fashion but rocks it, as they say); Loulou de la Falaise, who was accompanied by Thadée her husband; and one of the Rothschilds. Eric? The frisson was palpable, the temperature glacé. And the steak tartare was delicieux.

De la Renta, Annette. Oh, my dears! As a young woman her enviable frame was enveloped in Madame Grès. Her wardrobe is filled with YSL. She loves Chanel and Fendi. The sheer good taste of the woman. Has there ever been a more informed muse to the Emperor?

Elegance. The ne plus ultra of existence.

Ford, Tom. Genius. He loves black on black on black. Halston and YSL are his twin gods. Style for style! Betty Catroux is his muse now – the pantsuit pioneer never stops. This is the man who got Beyoncé to walk in his show. He made my Met Gala looks for years. And thanks to him I have my courtly capes and ceremonial coats.

Front Row, The. The only place to be at the collections. And I never take notes. I experience.

Galliano, John. The enfant terrible who resurrected the greatest of all fashion houses, Dior, after Bohan, after YSL  A poetic visionary, there is nobody like him! I like to think I stepped inside his dreams and led people to him. He called me his Pied Piper. And gave me his CBE.

Librairie Galignani, 224 rue de Rivoli, Paris 75001. Karl’s favourite bookstore.

Gospel According to André, The. My documentary film. Karl refused to be interviewed. Amanda Harlech told me he doesn’t do the past even if he seems to live in it.

Gucci, Pucci, Fiorucci. The silent prayer of the fashion forward!

Herrera, Carolina. The chicest chica from Caracas. She wears things nobody else would think of buying. The most elegant lady in New York. Karl said so. So I agree!

I. Me, myself. J’ai du chien!

Jacobs, Marc. Friend. Inspiration. He had me at white mink trench coat. And that was at his very first show. Unique among designers because he’s totally transatlantic, equally anticipated at New York and Paris. Lee Radziwill * outfitted his Paris apartment, spending months picking out the correct Christofle silverware, Baccarat glass and Porthaut sheets. His legally gay wedding at the Four Seasons was our Black and White Ball!

Kamali, Norma. Her big red sleeping bag coat is my idea of Heaven. Heaven!

Kipling, Nigel. No matter what they say, this is definitely not me. The Devil Wears Prada be damned. And Stanley Tucci has no hair. Talk about de trop.

Lagerfeld, Karl. Hôtel de Maisons puis de Soyecourt aka  Hôtel Pozzo di Borgo, 51, rue de l’Université, 7th, Paris; 17 Quai Voltaire, 7th, Paris; 8, rue des Saint-Péres; 6, Place Saint-Sulpice, 6th, Paris; Le Mée-Sur-Seine, Fontainebleau; Villa Louveciennes, Versailles; Château de Penhoüet, Grand-Champ, Morbihan, Brittany;  Millefiori Tower (19th Floor), Monaco.  Etc., etc. Kaiser Karl, in the words of John Fairchild. A walking encyclopaedia. Fluent in so many languages, not just costume. Practically the eighteenth century in living human form. Just do it and shut up. Truly, the master of aphorism. He ran three great marques simultaneously – his own Lagerfeld brand as well as Chanel and Fendi. A modern conqueror. There was a time when we were closerthanthis. So everyone wanted to be closertome. I will never forget his debut haute couture collection in 1983 when he flew me first class to Paris and paid my way at the Saint James Albany. I was wearing grey. Did he wear blue? Who knows? I was on the front row of history as the Emperor donned new retro clothes. The bouclé tweeds with straw boaters and gilt accessories, gold cartridge beads on crêpe dresses, white gloves and interlocking C’s, were pure Coco. Plus ça change. Now it’s not the même chose. Pas du tout. I am the latest in a long of associates to be dismissed as he reinvents himself infinitely closer to godliness. Only his cat mistress Choupette gets near him now. She probably controls the fax machine with her paw. How I miss those baroque handwritten letters composed on paper bought from Magasin Sennelier and chosen from his personal stock in a dedicated room. And how did he lose all that weight? I am so jealous! Rumour has it he followed the spit don’t swallow diet. All those monogrammed Goyard travel valises filled with bread. Does he leave a trail of fifty shades of grey mulch in his wake? I can never forget the hat he made for me – Tyrolean-style with a badger’s brush. Not forgetting the sable Fendi muff that speaks to my inner Duc d’Orléans. He knows the real me.

Lenox, Hôtel, rue de l’Université, Left Bank, Paris. Modest is the word. Where I really want to be is the Hôtel Pozzo di Borgo – a grand piano nobile apartment! a miniature Versailles! – Karl’s luxurious residence just a three-minute prance away. Quelle horreur.

Little Black Dress, The. My first solo curated exhibition at SCAD** where I was so memorably honoured. A grand succés. Diane von Fürstenberg, Anne Bass, the estate of C.Z. Guest, Gloria von Thurn und Taxis and Deeda Blair. The great and the good showed up with their wardrobes. Comme il faut. Anna’s black wool Chanel couture dress was on the cover of the book from Rizzoli.  

Mathias, Paul. Oh, Paul. The Paris Match reporter of my dreams. Friend of the Kennedys. São introduced us, then Andy set us up. When Paul said, Come up and see my Old Masters, he was being literal. I did not measure up to expectations. Oh, the embarrassment. I slid under those sheets covered in shame. I’m just a big cabochon.

Met Gala. Diana Vreeland started the most significant event in the fashion calendar.The Super Bowl of our world,I was the voice and face for Vogue. I understand the references. I am practically a museum piece myself. Now,I am extinct, evolution has replaced me with a streaming influencer, whatever that means. Moi!

Mirabella, Grace. The editorial director at Vogue who never shared my penchant for drama. She’s all beige cashmere and quiet. I. Am. Not.

Moulié-Savart, 8 Place du Palais Bourbon, Paris 75007. Karl’s favourite florist.

Naomi, La Campbell. I will never forget the first time I saw her. She is positively it. Generous to a T, I will not forget however her invitation to Nigeria and how we were left dangling in Lagos Airport without a paddle in a wheelchair on melting tarmac. Chaos is so not me. Love has its limits. Going ancestral?  Never again.

Obama, President Barack, and his wife, First Lady Michelle. He represents the audacity of hope. She wears a nice waist belt. And she was the March 2009 Vogue cover. I can hardly contain my tears.

Ooh la la la la la la la la! The ultimate praise.

P is for Palace, Le. Paris’s gayest disco. I will never forget the night Vogue Italia’sspecial fashion editor Anna Piaggi showed up with a basket of Pigeons on her head. My word did they stink. I didn’t know which way to turn. And what about the night her head dress of Bird of Paradise feathers caught fire from wax candles – at Paloma Picasso’s wedding! “It’s happened before, there’s nothing to do,” she shrugged it off with her usual devil may care nonchalance. Obviously that went into my story for WWD.*** I cover everything that matters.

Paulette, Madame, 37 W. 57th Street, NYC. The most expensive dry cleaners in Manhattan and the only place to use for couture. What do you mean, must everything be en français? Pourquoi pas?

Que sais-je? Quoi d’neuf? Quo vadis? French. The language just keeps giving.

Radziwill, Lee.* Avenue Montaigne, Paris;  and 160 East 72nd Street, Lenox Hill, Upper East Side,  New York City. Oh, Lee. In her shirtwaister with tortoise shell belt and Roger Vivier Pilgrim-buckle shoes. A woman of many talents, and none. A person of exquisite taste. One of Truman Capote’s Swans. My one and only elegant miracle. Okay, that was Peter Beard, but she means the same to me. She and her soeur Jacqueline were American society royalty. She was Diana Vreeland’s assistant at Harper’s Bazaar and according to Miss Vreeland it was Lee and not Jackie who had great fashion intuition. Sundays with Lee while she reclined in grey cashmere and I admired her svelte physique make an indelible mémoire. I would sit and tickle her lapdog Lola’s tum until Lee would get bored and tell me to leave. Abrupt! She made me feel like her lapdog. And to think of the calls I had to make to find out if I was on the list of the two hundred and fifty of the closest friends invited to her funeral! Those three days were the longest of my life, made tolerable by the Brunswick stew my friend Georgia brought me as I teetered on the edge of a nervous breakdown. I never did see her carry the gorgeous black square leather handbag with gold metal handles I got her for her birthday. Something tells me the maid has it. I shouldn’t feel so bad. When Marc Jacobs gifted her the wrong Giacometti sculpture it was never seen again. She bequeathed me a leopard print pillow and I had to buy her leftovers at Christie’s. Whatever.

Rucci, Ralph. The man cuts fabric like butter and I cut a swathe in the kaftans he styled from my silk swatches. They are my armour. To Hell with the Duke Diet and Fitness Center! I want my biscuits! Being a large Editor-at-Large is no bowl of cherries in Lilliput. Louis XIV, eat your heart out.

St Laurent, Yves. Karl loves Yves. Yves lives with Pierre Bergé. Karl’s boyfriend is Jacques de Bascher. Yves loves Jacques. La Ronde, Paris fashion style.

Sangfroid. I wear it all the time. Like a personal scent, it never dates.

Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).** My home from home. My heart is in Georgia. They honoured me with their Fashion Icon award, I honoured them right back, with a permanent museum collection and an exhibit of Oscar de la Renta, which of course led to my commemorative book with Charles Mier at Rizzoli. Collaborations are wonderful but they nearly kill me. The work is endless. So is the food, glorious food. Sweets to the sweet.

Schlumberger, Sȁo, rue Férou, Paris. A doll. One of the great society hostesses. Her other hôtel particulier (seventeenth, not eighteenth century – do keep up!) hosted John Galliano’s comeback which I engineered when he was down and out and living in Squalor. A triumph, if I do say so myself. I got the McDonalds. From there to his triumphant extravaganza at Gare d’Austerlitz in 1998. When Sȁo died it was in August and the in crowd were out of town. Six people showed up at the obsequies. Devastating!

Style. When I had no money I had Bermuda shorts and knee-high socks. My addiction to luxury would come later!

Sugar. Saccharin? Accept no substitute! My other addiction!

Trump, Melania. I don’t need to blow my own trumpet. The Trumps blow mine. Did I mention I dressed the First Lady for her wedding to The Donald?

Ungaro, Emanuel. From Space Age to Big Look to simple plan, he transcends fashion. Mainly with fragrance. Lee was the first to wear him.

Valentino. The effervescent mononymy! Rejuvenated by Pierpaolo Piccioli, he never ages. His three-day celebration in 2008 included dinner in the Roman Forum. And I was there!

Vanity Fair. A home from home edited by the divine Graydon Carter who had the great taste and budget to hire me as Style Editor. In Spring 1996 he allowed me to create an historic fashion moment – Naomi as an updated Scarlett O’Hara on the spiral staircase of Karl’s hotel particulier, wearing Givenchy by Galliano. You’re welcome. The definitive feature article on me appeared in the magazine with Jonathan Becker’s photographic portrait taken on Pont Alexandre III. I was wearing one of Tom’s embroidered blue court coats. There was nothing jejune about me that day. Look it up if you don’t believe me: September 2013. The September Issue! The Style Issue!  “An imposing, if improbable, fashion landmark.”[1] I’ll take that.  I may have discussed gloves to excess. One of my best ever looks was the white alligator coat I wore to a party the magazine hosted. (They host the best parties). Lee was wearing her white Dior trouser suit. We could have been sisters. Or princesses.

Versace, Gianni. The only designer everyone liked. Even Karl! We flew by private plane to his funeral in Milan and sat behind Princess Di. The last time I saw her was in Washington the previous Fall when she wore a lilac suit by Gianni. I knocked a glass of red wine in her lap at lunch. Fortunately she didn’t make a fuss.

Vogue. It existed before Madonna, you know. I am a Vogue person. I read it as a child. That means I am loyal to the brand despite not having had a soupçon of a suspicion of my demise. Even if I am persona non grata I remain on the masthead with the best team in fashion. I may not be in it but I am en it. That’s all that matters, if you ask me.

Vreeland, Diana. Think Pink! I know I do. Constantly. The woman who propelled me into the stratosphere of fashion when I was but a callow youth desperate to make something of myself. Thanks to her I spent a wonderful time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute and flew ever upwards. Now I make others in my own, inimitable, pay it forward way. I just don’t have the Park Avenue apartment to show for it. Was there anything more enchanting than drinking Russian vodka in her red seraglio while she imbibed her lunchtime shot of Dewars? We had a shared language of fantasy. She gave me abstract, I gave her real.

Warhol, Andy. Do I need to say it? Words are superfluous. They were to him, anyway. He had the naïve vision of a child. Working as his assistant at Interview magazine, my fashion contacts made me invaluable. I opted not to participate in the piss paintings – my grandmother would not approve. He promised immortality with a Polaroid of my appendage – he said I could be as big as Victor Hugo (not the novelist) but nobody was as big as Halston’s Venezuelan lover! I declined. Nonetheless, I made friends for life at the Factory where the day began at noon and ended at Studio 54.

Williams, Serena. The epitome of sporty blackness. What a champion! What a build! She reminds me of someone. Now who could it be? Oh! That’s right! Me! I would not want to be a line judge on her court when she gets a bad call.

Wintour, Anna. The New York Times fashion critic called her “the magical manipulative Wizard of Oz.” I couldn’t possibly comment.The woman who trusted me with house sittings, whether it was at Paloma’s or Ralph’s. Who once gave me a full couture shoot over Grace Coddington and Tonne Goodman. Who gave me a couple of years in Paris when too much death in my life made me want to leave NYC.The woman whose compartmentalising I outgrew. I cannot be a shrink-to-fit personality in a world where women compete to be social X-rays and I am exiled to social Siberia. And who didn’t I introduce to her and set them on the path to fashion stardom?There are those who might call her Nuclear Wintour. Not me. Empress, perhaps. She knows what she wants but relies on strong people and their opinions. And I am usually always right. Like Miss Vreeland, she sticks with the same hairstyle forever, like all style icons.  Is the inscrutable one insecure behind those sunglasses? I picked out her Légion d’honneur dress for the reception at the Élysée Palace. Chanel, quoi d’autre? But now – rien du tout. The silence is deafening. No birthday emails? No Christmas gifts? No more couture fittings? No more personal notes? Our trajectories converged and then burst like fat from an ill-stitched seam. No more. Anna! Call me! Please! Not everyone can carry off waffle-weave tweed. No one else is solely dedicated to Manolo Blahnik (except on weekends when she opts for Chanel ballerinas.) Nobody does it better. Truly.

WWD aka Women’s Wear Daily.*** The fashion bible. And I was It. In New York and Paris. Thank you, John Fairchild, king of fashion journalism, who instructed me in the beat and rhythm of the scene, three hundred and sixty degrees. His memoir The Fashionable Savages was my gateway drug. I distinguished the frill from the frou frou and the significance of who’s wearing who in unornamented copy. It was my entrée.

X. So many fall under this rubric but I’m far too discreet to mention them. My lips are zipped.

Yellow Russian, The. This is what Diana called Alexander Liberman, the editorial director of Condé Nast who got rid of her and interviewed me twice for my role in Vogue. Twice!

Zandra Rhodes. R/Z.  File under Z? Or R? Would it bother Barthes? She made Bianca Jagger’s gown for Loulou de la Falaise’s wedding but Yves SL spent the night pinning it with ferns from the bushes outside his and Pierre’s garden. No one says Non to Yves. Perfection is never enough for some people. Was he high? (Am I?)

Zellweger, Renee. A silhouette of sheath-like simplicity.Evolving into total purity from red carpet to awards show. Untouched by jewellery. Or food. So white. So thin. So robe fourreau. She got herself a black alligator Hermès Kelly for winning her first Golden Globe. A woman after my own heart.

Now you know the real me, A. L. T. from A to Z!

As gleaned from the intimate notebooks, personal diaries, innermost thoughts and historical memoirs of André Leon Talley 1948 – 2022 [allegedly].

[1] The Eyeful Tower by Vanessa Grigoriadis, Vanity Fair, September 2013: 194.

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