Oh, to spend a day with legendary, luminously sincere fashion editor André Leon Talley. For most of us poor unfortunates, that day will never come. For Kate Novack, that day came in 2016, lasted the entire year, and provided the structure of her new film, The Gospel According to André, a portrait of Talley and his irresistible grandeur. Partway through, an acquaintance describes him as “a towering pine tree of a guy,” which doesn’t quite do justice to his folkloric image. He’s a jovial giant warehoused in kaftans, wise enough that he knows things other people will never know, affable enough that he never holds his wisdom over you.
The Gospel According to André is very much about Talley’s experiences, being his life, times and philosophies, and less about his experience, being his accomplishments as a journalist and fashion icon. Novack never shies away from opportunities to bask in his warm presence and the obvious joy he takes in his profession. He’s a man full of stories. At 68 years old, he’s practically made of them. In the film, his vitality has a way of raising the dead. Novack uses archival footage of Talley’s mentor, Diana Vreeland, editor in chief of Vogue from 1963 to 1971, in tracing the arc of his career, but it’s his words that best capture her spirit. Talley paints her as a tasteful, no-nonsense woman with a flair for theatrics; she was petite, but stood so straight that she appeared seven feet tall.
Little wonder Talley grew close to her. He isn’t seven feet tall, but at 6’6” he’s close enough, and his penchant for drama may, almost 30 years after Vreeland’s death, surpass hers. The Gospel According to André zeroes in at first on his day to day and how he perceives fashion, which he clarifies is not what he lives for. “I live for beauty and style,” he says in the film’s opening line. “Fashion is fleeting. Style remains. I think that beauty comes in many forms. It could be a flower. It could be a gesture. It could be so many things, so many things.” He then quotes Voltaire’s Candide with the casual air of a person narrating newspaper headlines over coffee.
If you’re watching The Gospel According to André, you’re probably watching for the very things Talley pegs as transitory. Fashion is not one of the movie’s key components, but its dessert; the story of how Talley became—and is still becoming—Talley is the entree. We see clips of fashion shows and private moments between Talley and his friends—most notably journalist Tamron Hall, whom he fits for the final Obama state dinner in October of 2016, less than a month before the general election. She walks out in a gown looking like, as she proclaims, a princess, affirming the Talley approach to living. She is stylish. She is beautiful. She is glowing, within and without.
She’s also immediately open about her background and identity. “Would you believe I was born in a shotgun house? Two rooms, my grandfather was a sharecropper, and today, look what happened.” They laugh, relishing the moment. They talk about Michelle Obama, agreeing that should Hillary Clinton become president, she’ll owe a debt to Obama. Fashion is transformative, but in that transformation Hall and Talley reflect not on the clothes but on their southern upbringings, their black identities, their American identities, and that, more so than fashion, lies at The Gospel According to André’s core. Fashion uplifts the soul. Novack examines souls once they’re uplifted, mostly Talley’s but also the people who gravitate toward him. He considers dressing well a moral code, but the reasons why are rooted in his past.
Eboni Marshall Turman, Assistant Professor of Theology and African-American Religion at Yale, talks about the role church played in African-American life in the Jim Crow South. Hall declares the White House “our house.” The “twice as good” clause, the notion that black Americans have to be better than just “good” to succeed, comes up in conversation with Wanda Garrett, Talley’s high school teacher. Talley himself recalls a time in his youth when, on his way to pick up copies of Vogue, white boys from Duke threw rocks at him. Coupled with praise for the influence he’s had on fashion, not just on the page but on the industry writ large, we see The Gospel According to André as a film about black lives mattering that never explicitly says so aloud. Talley demonstrates his value through action; Novack affirms it with her filmmaking.
She could have focused The Gospel According to André on fashion alone. It’s certainly integral to the film and its coda. But she throws a gut punch in there, a hushed sequence from November 9th, as Talley watches the morning news in silence, then goes for a shave and a haircut. His eyes are liquid with words unspoken. He is cleaned up in keeping with his code, its own form of stoic defiance. We cut to him live-blogging the inauguration with Maureen Dowd, back to work but in somber context. Beauty and style retain meaning, and yet the film’s lingering message cares for neither. Talley rose above Jim Crow as a young man. Novack’s documentary leaves us with the sobering thought that decades later, still he must rise.
Director: Kate Novack
Starring: André Leon Talley, Tamron Hall, Eboni Marshall Turman, Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs
Release Date: May 25, 2018
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.