In the past two months, the novel coronavirus has pushed fashion houses and retailers to the brink. The last bits of the glittery cloud of pomp that once surrounded the industry’s top editors and designers evaporated.
The question is not which editors will be gifted with a Condé Nast interest-free real estate loan or a king-size mink blanket, but which ones will be able to keep their jobs. The seating debates over who will have pride of place in the front row of a grand fashion spectacle are moot because there will be no big spectacles for the foreseeable future.
The fashion industry is in pain. A better industry might emerge from all the suffering, but right now, from Paris to New York, there’s just an enormous, open wound.
Veteran fashion editor André Leon Talley has published a memoir that ostensibly pours salt into the gash.
In “The Chiffon Trenches,” Talley lays out his grievances and earnest despair at an inconvenient time. Every man has his joy and his sorrow. But it is hard to weep for someone who over his career received a benevolent corporate loan — along with gifts of designer clothes, rooms at the Ritz Hotel, designer luggage, fur bedding, first-class flights, and lots and lots of kowtowing — especially at a moment when more than 36 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits.
It is hard to grieve with Talley when what has gone missing from his life were extravagances, not necessities. He lost suspect friendships, not soul mates. The timing is not Talley’s fault, but the refusal to see oneself from a reasonably objective distance unfortunately is.
The story of Talley, 70, is in many ways the story of fashion itself — from the yearnings for a glamorous, influential life to the poisonous effects of believing in one’s own myths. Fashion built itself into a state of hyper-indulgence until it began to topple under its own weight.
Talley, who is African American, has spent more than 40 years in a business that still has little diversity in its upper echelons. As the creative director of American Vogue, Talley was not among the few African Americans at the top of the pyramid; for decades, he was the only one.
He bore that burden — that gilded yoke — with a combination of dignity and grandiosity, insecurity and overcompensation, pride and petulance. He could be charming and gracious; he could be dismissive. He was seduced by fashion’s hierarchical structure when he sat at the top of it peering down; he derides that very system when he believes it has dismissed him.
Age has afforded him experience and knowledge that he often shares with youth. It has also given him a certain amount of impatience with biting his tongue about the ways in which race played a significant role in how he was perceived, whether it was evinced as a prejudiced slur or the perception that he was being uppity.
For anyone who is a student of Talley’s personal reminiscences, his 2003 memoir “A.L.T.,” which recalls the influence of his grandmother and iconic fashion editor Diana Vreeland, is more contemplative and ultimately more revealing. It tells the story of his beginnings in the South and in the black church and how both of those things shaped his obsession with appearances, propriety and the complicated idea of being a credit to one’s race.
“The Chiffon Trenches” is stippled with famous names — specifically Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour. In Talley’s estimation, these are two of the most important figures in his life. Spiritually, he continues to find sustenance in the church. Fashion is everything else — and it is not enough.
Talley writes that he was sexually abused as a child and admits that he’s never done a deep assessment of the damage it caused. He barely gives the assault two sentences in this memoir even though the fallout has hindered his ability to have intimate relationships; it unleashed a propensity for binge-eating. And it led him to equate love with lavish gifts. To keep the love flowing, he became an expert in acquiescence.
Talley’s relationship with Lagerfeld begins when he impresses the Chanel designer with his deep knowledge of French history. Lagerfeld rewards the young writer with his castoff silk shirts. Soon Lagerfeld is putting Talley up at the Ritz hotel, outfitting him in bespoke attire and having him chauffeured to his chateau. The two never had a romantic relationship, but it was a decidedly asymmetrical one. In return for the largesse, Talley was expected to always say just the right things to entertain and soothe Lagerfeld.
That’s treacherous ground. Eventually Talley offends Lagerfeld, an avid photographer, when he suggests that Chanel underwrite an exhibition of another lensman’s work. Lagerfeld, who died last year, severed their relationship without a word.
But Talley seems most wounded by Wintour. She dethroned him from his perch conducting red carpet arrival interviews at the annual Met Gala. She did so by having an assistant suggest that Talley was probably tired of doing them, and she replaced him with a social media influencer. Her sin was in not personally thanking Talley for his service.
These two-minute tete-a-tetes meant a great deal to Talley. He ascribes his dismissal to his age and his weight. This may be true. The industry has a long history of being both ageist and sizeist. He may well be the victim this time, but one wishes he’d used his stature and knowledge of what goes on inside fashion’s glossy realm to consider the wider moral and financial implications of the industry’s continued skittishness about age and size. His hurt is important, but what comes down to an assault on Wintour’s communication style is petty.
“The Chiffon Trenches” uses a battle reference to suggest that fashion is an exhausting fight. It’s cultural and social warfare, and few people emerge from it unscathed. But it also calls to mind the old notion of who you’d want to have on your side when things become particularly treacherous. Talley admires Naomi Campbell and designer Tom Ford for their loyalty to him. As evidence of that, he recounts the trip to Africa that Campbell arranged for him and the many extravagant robes Ford has created.
By simply being present, Talley has done his share to make fashion better. (My brief tenure at Vogue overlapped with Talley’s and he could not have been more welcoming.) Has it been enough? To whom much is given, much is expected. Perhaps too much. But in emerging from the long fight, Talley is less focused on whether his victories have done some abiding good and more interested in counting the spoils.