If you say the name André Leon Talley to the average fashionista, you’ll likely get a nod of recognition. The former editor at large of Vogue magazine has been a staple in the fashion industry since the 1970s. He exploded even bigger in the pop culture stratosphere after serving as a judge on four cycles of America’s Next Top Model, a modeling series, which plucked fresh-faced aspiring models from obscurity. Divvying out fashion criticisms in a filter-free format in his flamboyantly buoyant style, he quickly became known for his larger-than-life personality, but the documentary “The Gospel According to André,” directed by Kate Novack out in theaters Friday, May 25, reveals another side of Talley.
Here, he emerges as a warm, sincere and sensitive individual, at times affectionate, sometimes humorous, but deeply reflective as he recalls his roots growing up in the segregated Jim Crow South to becoming one of the most influential tastemakers and fashion curators in the world. “I had watched André over the years in fashion documentaries from probably 1995 on for about 20 years,” shares Novack, “and he is really over the top. I know that side of him, but I felt that side of him was a little overexposed. I didn’t want to tell the story that everyone knew. The other side of him, the contemplative quiet, thoughtful, intellectual and spiritual side was less known and that is what I wanted to share.”
A beautifully made biographical piece, Novack’s film is really a revelation of Talley and she carefully captures his personality and his passion for creativity, weaving audiences into the different eras of his life and offering a wealth of archival footage from the most glamorous moments in fashion history.
It’s a film that operates as a fashion documentary and a historical piece as Novack, with assists from archival material, lays out the basics of Talley’s life story, who as a black boy growing up in segregated Durham, North Carolina, fell in love with fashion and wasn’t marred by the tumultuous racial tensions of that era in pursing his love of fashion. We learn about Talley’s beloved grandmother and the Black Church of his youth and his later iconic, barrier-breaking work at publications like Women’s Wear Daily, W and Vogue and hear of a rather uneasy relationship with his mother, whom he says never understood him. Talley’s own recollections paint the most vivid pictures throughout the film and there’s a scene where he becomes very emotional when he talks about the racism he’s had to internalize over the years and for Novack, that was the major revelation.
“Seeing a human reaction to something that has been so buried really emerges when André talks about having had to deal with a lot of the racism that he has faced in the industry over the years, because that is something he hadn’t really talked about before. Not just in the film but in public very much. The reason the movie is called The Gospel According to Andre, is really because it’s meant to be his telling of his story, so I tried to make it through the lens of positioning him as storyteller sitting on his front porch in the way that his relatives did when he was a kid.” Not only is Novack’s access to Talley intimate, but the Emmy-nominated producer and director of documentary films has called in talking-head appearances from designers, Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, fashion personalities Anna Wintour, models Isabella Rossellini, Bethann Hardison to Talley’s high school and college friends who open a window into the life of this very private man.
This up-close portrait delivers all the runway glamor and backstage details that fashionistas crave, yet it’s also unexpectedly poignant. From Durham, this dreamy, couture-obsessed boy found his way into the center of New York fashion, becoming one of the very first African American men to have a position of visible importance within the fashion industry. An engaging documentary about a genuinely fascinating figure, even if you’re not remotely interested in fashion “The Gospel According to André” is worth seeing. “I want this film to reach African American viewers certainly, but I also want it to reach a broad audience because I think that there is a value for every to know his story.”
Samantha Ofole-Prince is a journalist and movie critic who covers industry-specific news. Twitter @samanthaofole
Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures