Greetings again from the darkness. Being an expert, or even a genius, in one’s chosen field doesn’t necessarily translate to celebrity or a life in the public eye. Few of us can name the best structural engineer or the best commercial airline pilot, yet we regularly drive over bridges and book flights to our vacation spots. However some professions lend themselves to a bit of fame … and that’s either a burden or an opportunity depending on perspective.
Director Kate Novack (writer of PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES, 2011) focuses her camera on one who seized the opportunity. Andre Leon Talley was raised in the Jim Crow South of North Carolina and rose up to become a literal giant in the fashion industry. It’s mostly a biopic of a fascinating, larger than life figure, but also a quasi-history of the fashion industry since the 1970’s. Andre crossed paths with all of the greats, and many of them are interviewed here: Marc Jacobs, Anna Wintour, Tom Ford, Valentino, Fran Leibowitz, Manolo Blahnik, and Isabella Rossellini – along with her pigs, a chicken and a turkey. We learn that he worked for Andy Warhol, was mentored by Diana Vreeland, and worked alongside Anna Wintour (teaching her as much as he learned).
“Fashion is fleeting, style remains.” So Andre tells us as the film begins. He knows the difference between the two, and understands that beauty comes in many forms. Certainly the first, and often the only black man on the front row of runways in Paris and New York, Andre has lived quite the life. Director Novack’s film is at its best when Andre is front and center. He commands attention with his size, his clothes, his voice, his charisma, and mostly his talent. Claiming his eye developed watching the Sunday fashions at the black church of his youth, we also learn young Andre preferred shopping to attending a ballgame with his taxi-driving father.
Thin until age 40, Andre now describes himself as a manatee. The racism he faced within the industry is vivid as he recalls being called “Queen Kong”. Sometimes criticized for not taking a more active and vocal stance against racism, Andre simply proclaims that he was too busy with his career … his same reason for having ‘no love life’. The emotional moments of his recollections fade quickly in the segments where he discusses capes, and later veils. His expertise is on full display.
Looming over much of the film is the backdrop of the 2016 Presidential election. It’s often distracting, but does lead to one of the more powerful moments. This verbose, grandiose couture figure is stunned and mostly at a loss for words as Donald Trump takes his oath. For most of the film and for most of his life, Andre has talked the talk and walked the walk – and continued talking while he walked. As one of style and influence, he has plenty to say and there’s a reason for us to listen.