In his memoir The Chiffon Trenches, the first black man to hold the editor-at-large title at Vogue details a dizzying rise to fashion’s front row.
In his memoir The Chiffon Trenches, the first black man to hold the editor-at-large title at Vogue details a dizzying rise to fashion’s front row.

The truth about The Devil Wears Prada

The last time a Vogue staffer tipped a bucket on the magazine's iconic editor Anna Wintour, the end result was the hit novel and film The Devil Wears Prada.

Former Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley says his new book, The Chiffon Trenches, isn't a "gossipy, nasty, tell-all" like he describes Lauren Weisberger's 2003 tome, but he does accuse his former friend Wintour of discarding him when he no longer served a purpose.

In his memoir, the first black man to hold the editor-at-large title at Vogue details a dizzying rise to fashion's front row before being dumped from his role - and from the fabled Met Gala red carpet - by one of Wintour's staffers.

"This was not a surprise. I knew it would come one day," Talley tells New Corp.

"I have been thrown under the bus … but this is the way she operates."

From his New York home, Talley, 71, said he wrote the book not because he wanted to hurt or betray Wintour but instead to try to inspire with his story of overcoming his humble beginnings.

"I came from a very dire background, the Jim Crow segregated South," Talley says.

"I was serially sexually abused, and I am a survivor. I'm not a victim.

"I feel that my book has a global message that you can survive if you've had unconditional love in your life from someone, it could be your mother, your father, your aunt, your grandmother, you could be adopted by someone."

Andre Leon Talley and Italian personal stylist Marina Schiano circa 1980 in New York City. Picture: PL Gould//Getty Images
Andre Leon Talley and Italian personal stylist Marina Schiano circa 1980 in New York City. Picture: PL Gould//Getty Images

Raised by his grandmother in North Carolina, Talley moved to New York after college and fell in with a fashionable crowd in the 1970s who went on to become some of the industry's biggest names.

Chanel's Karl Lagerfield, Mick Jagger's former actress wife Bianca, shoe designer Manolo Blahnik and Wintour were all close friends over his three decades tripping on private jets between fashion weeks in Milan, New York and Paris.

He attended Wintour's wedding, was at her side at her father's funeral and still counts her as one of the most influential people in his life.
But it all came to an end in 2018, when he was told by an intermediary he would no longer be Vogue's red carpet correspondent at the Met Gala.

"This was clearly a stone-cold business decision," he writes in his memoir.

"I had suddenly become too old, too overweight, and too uncool, I imagined, for Anna Wintour."

This rejection still clearly smarts, and he tells News Corp it was poorly handled.

"I was removed with no explanation whatsoever from anyone. The explanation should have come from Anna and it could have been like this: 'Andre, we'll move on. We're going to a young influencer …," he says.

"Instead it just fizzled out with no explanation. But this is the way she operates."

Anna Wintour with Andre Leon Talley at the Oscar de la Renta autumn 2007 collection show at Fashion Week in New York.
Anna Wintour with Andre Leon Talley at the Oscar de la Renta autumn 2007 collection show at Fashion Week in New York.

 

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He said that although he has been accused of being bitter, he would still go back and work with Wintour if she asked him too.

"This was a memoir stating my opinion and my feelings. And I hope I stated that eloquently. And actually, I see it as an epistle of love," he says.

"I never said anything that I would consider cruel in my book about Anna Wintour. I only said that she lacked empathy, well she lacked empathy towards me."

The formerly close friends have not spoken since his book was published in the US.

"I have not heard from Anna since early February, with a phone call after I gave her the book first to read," he says.

"I gave her the galley (advanced copy) to read, and I sent her an e-mail saying, if there's anything that you would like taken out, please call me and I'll be happy to do so."

Andre Leon Talley and Lady Gaga at the 2016 Met Gala. Picture: Instagram
Andre Leon Talley and Lady Gaga at the 2016 Met Gala. Picture: Instagram

He said he edited some chapters she described as sharing private family details, but that she now would not take his calls.

"I am sure she wishes me well and I wish her well. She says she does not read the things the way I wrote them," he says.

"I think about (her) almost every day of my life. I have dreams about Anna Wintour.

"And this was not a tell-all revenge memoir."

The culture and future of big magazines in the US has been questioned amid #metoo ructions that saw publishing giant Hearst's president Troy Young resign last month after making lewd comments to staff.

Wintour, 70, has been accused of marginalising minority voices, but Talley believes that she will survive long after the current cultural reckoning subsides.

"She'll survive everything. She's a very powerful woman. She has extraordinary skills and talents," he says.

"This might be called her nuclear winter. But you know, she was once called 'nuclear Wintour' and now she's a dame, knighted by the Queen and she will indeed survive all the changes in the company. She will find a way while all others have fallen aside."

 

 

The Chiffon Trenches by Andre Leon Talley
The Chiffon Trenches by Andre Leon Talley

 

EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT

I interviewed twice to work at Vogue.

The first time was in 1980, soon after I left Paris and Women's Wear Daily.

I was friendly with the great Alexander Liberman, the editorial director of Condé Nast. He had a buzzer under his desk that would automatically shut his door, so when I sat down in his office the door clamped shut behind me. I told him I wanted to work at Vogue, and he smiled warmly and said, "I think you're brilliant, but if you want to work at Vogue you have to go downstairs and convince Grace Mirabella."

"That's all?" I said. I only knew the editor-in-chief from seeing her out socially - I had just barely said hello to her - but I knew by reputation she did not suffer dramatic people. Grace Mirabella was all beige cashmere and very subdued. She had been (former editor-in-chief) Diana Vreeland's assistant, but she was the opposite of Mrs. Vreeland in almost every way. Mr. Liberman was very gracious, even though we both knew he was giving me an impossible task.

I went down to Grace's office with a prepared speech ready. She wore impeccable Saint Laurent trousers, which was so Vogue, and had wavy, silvery hair, worn in a classic, traditional way. Very elegant and very straightforward.

As I began to speak, so did she, and I respectfully demurred.

 

"I remember you, from Paris. You were with Marian McEvoy, sitting in the front row at Claude Montana, madly applauding the collection on the runway. And then I saw you at Thierry Mugler, clapping loudly. Why is that?"

Claude Montana was a young upstart designer at that point, and a total genius. And Thierry Mugler was an outlier, very talented but part of a new generation of designers. They represented youth, which I loved, but not everyone in fashion is quick to embrace new designers.

Grace stared at me, very dry and cold. Honest indignation felt an appropriate response, and so I sat back, folded my arms, and said, "I react exuberantly when I see a talented designer and I love what they're doing. Both Claude Montana and Thierry Mugler have wonderful things to say!"

"Hm, hm," she said. Completely unmoved. Then, with a snide smile: "Okay, thank you very much."

I left the office and I knew it was finished. I wasn't going to work for Grace Mirabella or Vogue. She thought of me as superficial, some loudmouth on the front row, clapping like a seal for designers she could not understand or appreciate.

No matter. Vogue was a dream job but there were plenty of other stimulating opportunities. I continued to work at other magazines.

Brandi Quinones, Andre Leon Talley and Claudia Schiffer attend a Versace fashion show during Paris Fashion Week in the 1990s. Picture: WireImage
Brandi Quinones, Andre Leon Talley and Claudia Schiffer attend a Versace fashion show during Paris Fashion Week in the 1990s. Picture: WireImage

In 1983, two years after my first interview, Grace called me back into her office. The photographer Arthur Elgort had shown her a video of me interviewing Karl Lagerfeld in the backseat of a car, heading to a fashion show. It was an experimental interview, but it was a serious, passionate conversation about fashion. I guess Grace realised what I was capable of and rethought her initial impression of me.

She asked me about the Lagerfeld interview and praised me for it. "Clearly you know how to talk to designers. We're going to try you out as a fashion news editor," she said.

I said, "Thank you very much," and left before she could change her mind.

On my way to the elevators I saw Anna Wintour, who had recently, famously, been named creative director of Vogue. Anna and I did not know each other, but I knew her reputation quite well.

As I walked by she smiled politely and I smiled back, but we did not exchange words. I took the subway to my Union Square apartment, a mere two stops away from Vogue's offices. A messenger envelope was waiting for me beneath my door. Inside, a beautiful, handwritten note:

"Welcome to Vogue. I look forward to working with you. Anna Wintour."

That was fast, I thought. But it also sent a clear message: I had an ally at Vogue. A formidable one.

 

***

I did not know Anna Wintour at all, but even still, I was terribly terrified of her.

Whenever I went out with Andy Warhol we would usually end up attending the same parties she did. She wore four-inch-high stilettos and simple, elegant clothes, like her Chanel coats, purchased at Bergdorf Goodman. Her bob, à la Louise Brooks, was more extreme, shorter at the nape of her neck. Otherwise her style has not changed much since.

Andy knew I was intimidated by her, and he would poke me in the ribs and say, "Oh, André, go say hello to Anna Wintour."

"She doesn't even know who I am, I cannot speak to her!"

"Oh, geez, of course she does, go say hello."

"No, no, no, I can't, she's too intimidating, too famous!"

Anna Wintour was well-known for her time at New York magazine. When she went to Vogue, everyone knew it was Mr. Liberman who had hired her. Actually, he had imposed Anna upon Vogue … and upon Grace Mirabella. Publisher S.I. Newhouse and Mr. Liberman were smitten with this young English rose, taking over American Vogue and branding it with a European sensibility. Anna clearly knew how to behave to get the best out of them. But behind that was the structure; she was an instinctively good editor. They believed in her. As Mr. Liberman often said, Anna Wintour "had the visions."

Anna Wintour circa 1980s in New York City. Picture: Getty Images
Anna Wintour circa 1980s in New York City. Picture: Getty Images

Being close to Mr. Liberman meant Anna could say and do things other editors could not. "Creative director" was essentially a job he made up for her, giving her an ill-defined authority. Still, she had to gingerly walk the line with Grace Mirabella in order to keep the peace.

It had to be Anna Wintour's intuition that told her I was going to be someone close to her. She knew it before I did. As soon as I started working at Vogue we became fast friends. We never really spoke about our friendship or worked to develop some long-lasting bond.

It was just perfectly understood between us, like a silent language.

When Grace Mirabella gave me assignments, I would often depend upon Anna's help. I had two pages to fill of contemporary fashion news that would go in the front of the book. Once, I wanted to write about feathers for my column. YSL had feathers, and I found a photograph by Leni Riefenstahl of an African tribal man with a feather on top of his head. I showed it to Grace and explained my thought process. She threw her arms in the air and said, "What have I done to deserve this underground influence?"

To Grace, Andy Warhol was still the underground. I told Anna Wintour about what Grace had said and she shrugged. "Don't worry about it," she said. "Don't … just don't worry about it."

 

***

Just like with Diana Vreeland, Grace Mirabella was the last to realise she had been replaced. WNBC- TV's Live at Five broke the news to her.

Anna Wintour took over as editor-in-chief of Vogue, the job she had been dreaming of.

I was named creative director. There was no higher accolade she could give me, as the masthead portrayed. Anna Wintour made me the highest-ranking black man in the history of fashion journalism. (If the importance of this is lost on you, please remember again that

this was 1988, and I was not superseded in that ranking until Edward Enninful's momentous rise as editor in chief of British Vogue, thirty years later.)

Vogue was an institution. I became, for a moment, the most important male in fashion journalism. As an African American man born in the ugly and racist Jim Crow South, I understood how monumental this was. I was the first.

What exactly a creative director does was never explained to me.

In the world of fashion things go unspoken. Anna Wintour saw something in me that others did not see. I never quite understood it. As I saw it, I was meant to be by Anna Wintour at all times and encourage her visions.

There was no "transition period." Once Anna's reign was announced, it was simply bullet speed and lighting bolts ahead. There was no time to celebrate; we had a magazine to put out. We all worked with such energy, presenting dynamic, youthful ideas.

Andre Leon Talley and tennis player Venus Williams Met Gala, Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy in 2008. Picture: Getty Images
Andre Leon Talley and tennis player Venus Williams Met Gala, Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy in 2008. Picture: Getty Images

Longtime editor Polly Mellen was kept on as fashion director. Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele, one of the greatest fashion editors who ever lived, formerly of French Elle, also came on as a fashion director. She styled - invented - Anna's first Vogue cover. It was a Lacroix couture jacket worn with frayed and well-worn blue jeans.

Never had jeans appeared on the cover of Vogue in its history.

Grace Coddington was also hired, also as a fashion director.

Each of these women had a strong, independent personality. By naming all three fashion directors, Anna gave each equal billing on the masthead, and each could do her own thing.

It was a brilliant move, politically. The equality of their roles also reflected the fact that at Anna Wintour's Vogue, there was no hierarchy. There was Anna Wintour, and there was everyone else.

To Anna Wintour, a good meeting was over in eight minutes. If a meeting went over fifteen minutes, it meant something was seriously wrong. If she relied on your taste and your thought process, there was no need for a conversation with an editor to last more than a few minutes.

The first meeting I ever had with her outside the office was at Bice, where we went for lunch. I wore my favourite custom-made double-breasted navy blue suit, with a pink shirt. By the time the first course came out, she got up and said, "Okay, let's go back to the office."

 

Andre Leon Talley and American model Kristen McMenamy during fashion week in the mid 1990s in New York. Picture: Getty Images
Andre Leon Talley and American model Kristen McMenamy during fashion week in the mid 1990s in New York. Picture: Getty Images

 

As I passed the maître d' on the way out, his "c'est la vie" expression assured me they had already gotten used to Ms. Wintour's "lunch meetings" and had likely not set grill to whatever she had ordered. Anna didn't want to waste time sitting around thinking about something; she wanted her editors to get out and do it.

One of my first big assignments was Madonna's first Vogue cover, shot in 1989. I was in Paris covering the collections and had to fly out to Los Angeles with a bag of clothes for the shoot. Madonna's Hollywood pad was spacious, with a minimalist décor. She smiled warmly when she introduced herself and said, "Hi, I'm Madonna, you want a blow job?"

"No thanks," I replied. I am sure she was joking and just breaking the ice as we had never met before. I was flattered and continued to unpack my large black cases from Paris.

 

***

 

Culturally, Vogue is an institution with unspoken rules and unspoken mannerisms. The Devil Wears Prada inaccurately portrayed a lot of things that never would happen at Vogue. For instance, Anna Wintour would never throw down her bags and coats. And girls didn't run up and down the halls in high heels. People did not carry on like that. Vogue was a culture of deportment, a culture of manners. This was all unspoken yet it was crystal clear. Flowers were sent and thank-you notes were handwritten. You established relationships and you adhered to them. You were meticulously groomed.

There was no vulgar language, you did not walk into the office drunk or hungover, and you certainly did not bed designers.

We embraced the fashion world and they in turn embraced us.

Vogue has the highest standards of excellence in publishing journalism. It stood for that in the day of Diana Vreeland and the day of Grace Mirabella, and it certainly stands for that in the day of Anna Wintour. When one is aligned with Vogue, one is aligned with the best team in the world of fashion. A designer wants to be associated with Vogue. A designer wants to have Anna Wintour endorse them, embrace them. It's a culture.

 

 

The Chiffon Trenches, by Andre Leon Talley, published by HarperCollins Australia, is available in Australia from September 2.

 

 

 

Originally published as The truth about The Devil Wears Prada

Anna Wintour. Picture: Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Anna Wintour. Picture: Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Anna Wintour and Andre Leon Talley at a fashion show in 1999. Picture: Chris Moore
Anna Wintour and Andre Leon Talley at a fashion show in 1999. Picture: Chris Moore


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