BY: MAEGAN J
If you're interested in gaining insight on André Leon Talley 's life story, The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir, has plenty to offer you. However, I thought this book was very dense and difficult to get through. There was a lot of name dropping, insider gossip, and some moments that didn't quite read as being truthful or transparent.
Despite my problems with the book, Talley draws a very clear trajectory from his humble beginnings in segregated Durham, North Carolina to dancing the night away with the fashion elite at Studio 54, being welcomed to the hallowed halls of Conde Nast, and finally being unceremoniously ousted from the fashion's elite inner circle. As a pioneering and talented black man navigating the world of fashion, I found his moments of personal reflection the most enlightening.
Talley's fashion awakening was seeing Jackie Kennedy on TV for the first time. He describes her stylish muff, pill box hat, and the stylish cut of her custom tailored coat. In his youth, Talley often retreated to the public library where he would immerse himself in the backlogs of Vogue magazine and other fashion glossies and fantasize about a life in the elite world of fashion, a place where he dreamed of but never dared believe he could be. His home life was less glamorous - he recounted that he could only remember being embraced twice in his childhood from his grandmother, whom he referred to as “Mama.” A lack of physical affection in his upbringing coupled with the fact that Talley was routinely sexually abused by an adult neighbor, made romantic relationships and physical intimacy nearly impossible in his adult life. This is a very poignant revelation in the book, as it also ties into his habit of binge eating. It was a very gut-wrenching passage to read.
As mass protests have erupted across the United States in response to police brutality, lots of fashion labels have expressed “solidarity” with the Black Lives Matter movement, with promises to look inward and create a more inclusive space within their companies. Considering the cultural moment we are living in, The Chiffon Trenches offers a timely and relevant perspective on the black experience in the fashion world. In the first couple of paragraphs, he proclaims, “It is difficult to be a black woman or black man in this country.” Throughout his 50 year career in the fashion industry, Talley grapples with often being the only black person in the front row of haute couture shows, feeling “ a responsibility as a black man not to 'F' it up.” Another painful moment in the book is when one of his bosses at Women's Wear Daily accuses him of sleeping around with all of the white designers, essentially reducing his success to being “a big, black buck.” This disturbing moment is discussed at length in the 2017 documentary, The Gospel According to André, something Talley has difficulty describing without crying.
I suspect a lot of people will be drawn to this book in hopes of finding explosive gossip about Anna Wintour, but really their relationship sounds like the dysfunctional “frenemy” situation that's common in high school. He frequently calls Anna “cold” and unfeeling,” and refers to her silent treatment as “sphinx-like,” commenting that “One day she treats me like a friend and colleague, the next day she treats me like she just handed over her keys to an unknown parking valet.” What also struck me was the obvious parallels drawn between Anna Wintour and his emotionally distant birth mother, who he states was “cruel and bitter emotionally,” and that often when he spoke to her, she “would never say anything back...while I knew she loved me, I don't think she liked me.”
What I found to be the most interesting parts of the book were when he described his decades-long close friendship with Karl Lagerfeld, or when he discussed his own richly embellished personal wardrobe in lustrous detail. There's a sequence in the book where he explains that due to his binge eating, he could no longer wear custom-tailored suits, so his friend, designer Ralph Rucci cuts him 17 caftans made from expensive silks. Talley likens his caftans to ceremonial seventeenth century Italian Armor, or regal men's dress from the court of Versailles. These richly embroidered caftans are synonymous with the image of André Leon Talley we all have today. There are lovely moments where André's sharpness and vast knowledge of fashion history shine through. Fashion is a language that is shared and André is adept at “speaking the language of fashion” but his true talent is tying fashion into the broader context of the history of visual culture.
It's important to share black stories and to honor those who have paved the way for us. Without tempestuous figures like André Leon Talley there would be no Edward Enninful, the current editor-in-chief of British Vogue, who is also a black, queer man. Despite my issues with certain passages and recurring themes, I think this book successfully serves as a testament to what can be achieved with perseverance and an unwavering belief in one's self.
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