“Fashion is fleeting, style remains.”
That is one of several arresting apercus uttered by Andre Leon Talley, the charismatic subject of “The Gospel According to Andre.” At 6-foot-plus, his prodigious frame draped in a breathtaking collection of capes and caftans, the fashion journalist presents a literally larger-than-life figure throughout this admiring documentary portrait, which gives the subject his due not only as part of the New York vanguard that included artist Andy Warhol and fellow editors Diana Vreeland and Anna Wintour, but as an avatar for black excellence in post-Jim Crow America.
Following Talley from his stately White Plains home to Paris, Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and his birthplace of Durham, North Carolina, filmmaker Kate Novack creates a lively homage to the act of self-creation: Growing up with his grandmother in a modest home, Talley – now approaching 70 – received an early education in fabulousness simply by attending church, where African-American laborers and domestics shed their weekly uniforms and arrived decked out in fine dresses, hats, gloves and shoes. This is where Talley learned the core tenets of what has become known as “respectability politics” (wherein, as he says at one point, “it’s a moral code to dress well.”)
His pursuit of a master’s degree at Brown University, where he studied French literature, spun Talley into the orbit of a group of young avant-gardists at the Rhode Island School of Design across the street. Moving to New York in 1974, the smart, effortlessly sophisticated Talley began answering phones at Warhol’s Interview magazine and volunteered for Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.
Those gigs led to editorial positions at Women’s Wear Daily and Vogue, where he and editor Wintour developed the kind of mind-meld that results in truly groundbreaking creativity, in Talley’s case championing black designers and models and conceiving bold, provocative spreads that engaged the wider culture as much as couture. (A table-turning 1996 re-enactment of “Gone With the Wind” for Vanity Fair, featuring Naomi Campbell as Scarlett O’Hara, was particularly prescient.) The musician Will.I.Am calls Talley “the Nelson Mandela of couture, the Kofi Annan of what you got on.”
“The Gospel According to Andre” only briefly addresses Talley’s private life or, more accurately, lack of one. Although Talley shares a few candid reflections on how racism and homophobia affected his life, viewers must connect the dots more deeply on their own. The structure of the film, which is framed within the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, feels dated and by now too-familiar, as we witness another set of happy, anticipatory faces turn stricken and somber as the unexpected results are announced. (His eyes always firmly on the prize, Talley still has nice things to say about Melania Trump’s inauguration outfit.)
At its best, “The Gospel According to Andre” gives viewers the rare chance to get to know someone who, until now, has mostly been known as that impeccably turned-out gentleman who seems to know everybody at the annual Costume Institute gala. Talley, it turns out, merits admiration not only for his intellect, work ethic and ability to contextualize fashion within history, literature, visual art and music, but for the exacting eye and determination with which he has created his own character.
The obstacles, clearly, were present from the start. Talley, notes one observer, “was so many things he wasn’t supposed to be.” In “The Gospel According to Andre,” a star isn’t born. He gives birth to himself, through sheer force of will.