By Janine Gericke.
I’ll start by saying that The Gospel According to André is a delightful film about a delightful human. The film is enthralling and made me laugh out loud at many points, which I wasn’t exactly expecting. One particular scene involving Isabella Rossellini’s two pigs, Boris and Pepe, made me chuckle. This is just the kind of film that we need right now. It is thought provoking and moving. It doesn’t just entertain, it also inspires. We get to witness Talley’s life, from his humble beginnings in North Carolina to the sparkliest center of the fashion world.
André Leon Talley is probably best known as the former Editor-at-Large for Vogue magazine. Or perhaps as a judge on America’s Next Top Model. Or maybe even from the fashion documentary The September Issue (2009) or Sex and the City (2008). He is definitely unforgettable and chances are, even if his name doesn’t ring a bell, you will recognize him the second you see him. He has a penchant for capes and caftans. He found his first cape at a thrift store in New York for $5. “Capes make you behave differently, stand differently,” says Talley. He is a big personality, and just big, standing tall at 6 foot 6.
Talley was raised by his grandmother in Durham, North Carolina. He compares his childhood to Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” which centers around a young man in the 1930s raised by his distant cousin. Though his grandmother tried to shield him from the atrocities of the time, he was very well aware of the segregation and indiginities happening around him. During that time, church was a huge part of his family’s life, and it was also a place where the community could come together without judgement or ridicule. Going to church was the most important thing in life. This was where the community could dress to the nines, and it was essentially André’s introduction to the fashion world. “Fashion is fleeting. Style remains,” states Talley, and everyone in his family had great style. From his grandmother he also learned dignity, values, and how to strive for excellence. It is no surprise that he ended up working with the famed Diana Vreeland, whom he compares to his grandmother several times throughout the film. They both gave him unconditional love. They both gave joy to people. “You want to give the world some sort of spark,” once said Vreeland.
Director Kate Novack (producer of Page One: Inside the New York Times) uses archival footage, which helps the viewer see Talley’s beginnings and how his career evolved. The film also contains musings from a literal who’s-who of big names in fashion, including designer Marc Jacobs and Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour. There are tours of the Conde Nast Archives and the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology Archive. Talley absolutely beams when he walks into these history-filled sanctuaries, and you can tell that this is everything to him. We see his first trip to Paris in 1984 and footage of him sitting in the front row of oh so many fashion shows. We get to see this world evolve around him, just as he evolved with it.
Talley is incredibly well read and makes references to art and literature, and of course fashion, throughout the film. He talks about how Vogue magazine was his escape while growing up—he started reading the magazine at 12 years old. He recalls a time when he had to walk through the Duke University campus, in order to buy the latest issue at the university newsstand. As he was walking, some boys began throwing rocks at him. Watching him tell this story is heartbreaking. “I wasn’t wearing capes or anything” he says. This was the state of things, but he was taught to rise above it and be strong, which is exactly what he did. Talley attended an all black high school in Durham. A school where students learned that the best revenge is success: overcome and move forward. He left North Carolina for Brown University and found a group of like-minded friends who attended the Rhode Island School of Design. Then in 1974, Talley made the move to New York and landed a volunteer position at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He wanted to be at the Met’s Costume Institute with the one and only Diana Vreeland. He worked as Vreeland’s assistant for the Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design exhibition. He took a chance, and it paid off big. Vreeland became his mentor and friend. This was only the beginning.
It would be hard to write this review without mentioning that The Gospel According to André was filmed during the 2016 election. The election has a looming presence throughout most of the film, with Talley and his friends discussing the state of things right up to November 6, 2016. Talley is visibly on edge at this time, “How do I get through this?” Isn’t this what we were all wondering during this time?
As the film draws to a close, Talley returns to Durham, NC. You hear him speak in voiceover, saying that at a certain age, “you think about how you achieved a certain amount of success in your life and you must always look back on the place from whence you came.” This is what stuck with me the most. Not because it’s from the end of the film, but throughout the running time, you are watching the story of how a young black man from the South rose to success but never forgot where he came from. He embraced his past and the people who influenced and loved him. This is what is most inspiring. Life is difficult and not always fair, but if you just try, you may be pleasantly surprised. “Moments should come to you every day. You should be in awe of everything.” Lovely words from a lovely person.
Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.