Director Kate Novack asked Brown University for a copy of André Leon Talley’s master’s thesis on French poet Charles Baudelaire as research for her documentary “The Gospel According to André.” For Talley, that simple act of diligence was confirmation that Novack’s profile would delve deeper than his public persona as the larger-than-life, kaftan-wearing, high priest of haute couture.
“He is such a presence that it’s easy, maybe, for people to put him in a box, this box of ‘fabulousness,’ ” says Novack, a Brookline native whose credits include “Page One: Inside the New York Times” (2011), the documentary she made with her producing partner and husband, Andrew Rossi. Although Talley has figured in numerous fashion documentaries over the years, including the Rossi-directed “The First Monday in May” (2016), about the annual Met gala, “The Gospel According to André,” which opens here June 1, is the first to focus solely on him.
“I’ve been watching André in many fashion docs since ‘Unzipped’ in 1996, which is around when I was getting out of college,” Novack recently said by phone from Brooklyn, where she’s lived for 20 years. “It was always this over-the-top [depiction] where he’d steal the scene but he was always an enigma. In a weird way, people thought they knew all they needed to know about André Leon Talley, but he was still, I thought, an enigma.
“I knew he could carry a movie. He transcends fashion. He grew up in the segregated South and for so many years, he was one of the few African-American men in a predominantly white field. [The film] is about how he transgresses ideas of black masculinity.”
Novack traveled to Durham, N.C., to trace Talley’s journey from the modest house he shared with his grandmother, Bennie Frances Davis, a maid at Duke University, to what Talley calls the “chiffon trenches” of Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily. Talley worked as editor at large and Paris bureau chief, respectively, for those fashion bibles after earning degrees in French literature from North Carolina Central State and Brown University. (Talley’s interest in French came from watching Julia Child’s cooking show on TV, he says). Legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland became his mentor and friend after Talley impressed her while volunteering at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. The film is packed with commentary from fashion world luminaries including Valentino, Tom Ford, and Manolo Blahnik, as well as cultural figures such as Fran Lebowitz, a colleague from Talley’s first job as a receptionist at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine.
“I wanted the film to work on several levels,” said Novack. “It is structured as a classical hero’s journey, in four chapters, as an homage to the four gospels. It’s an epic tale; an American success story; and a fashion documentary in which you could see the great collections as [they go] down the runway.”
Novack understood that Talley wanted “a more complex, layered picture that includes his intellectual side; he’s deeply spiritual, he’s connected to nature, to animals. The film opens with those shots and ends on his front porch because . . . that represents the private side of him; a quiet, private place. In tough moments, he becomes quiet, and that communicates a lot.”
In the film and during an interview at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival where “The Gospel According to André” premiered, Talley credited his success to “three women: my grandmother, Mrs. Vreeland, and [current Vogue editor in chief] Anna Wintour. I would not be anywhere without these women in my life. . . . My grandmother was everything to me; she gave me the foundation. Without her, there is no André Leon Talley.”
Aspiring fashionistas flock to Talley — while promoting the film with him, Novack described as “crazy” the crowds that line up for Talley as if seeking an audience “with the pope.” Talley’s advice to them is simple: Work hard and work humbly.
“I tell them, get in the door and if they ask you to do a Starbucks run, do it. When Oscar de la Renta started at Balenciaga in Spain — not in Paris — he picked pins up off the floor. Look where it took him; all the way to the top! If you get your foot in the door, never say, ‘That’s not my job.’ If you’re asked to do it, you do it.”Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.