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Well-shod feet on the ground

Faith and family keep fashion-world doyen Andre Leon Talley firmly rooted.

June 02, 2003|Jill Gerston | Special to The Times

New York — New York

In an industry where a $900 handbag becomes passe in three months and a parade of impossibly beautiful Czech and Russian teenagers in Chanel couture is same old, same old, it takes a lot to impress jaded fashionistas.

But the sight of Andre Leon Talley, the 6-foot, 7-inch editor-at-large of Vogue, sweeping into a fashion show in floor-length sable or crimson crocodile, exchanging handshakes with P. Diddy and air kisses with socialite Nan Kempner, quickens the pulse of even the most imperturbable front-row denizen.

Talley has been on the scene since the Halston heyday at Studio 54 in the 1970s. Now, as Vogue's unofficial "roving fashion ambassador," he covers shows, styles celebrity photo shoots, pops up at A-list wingdings and each month writes the magazine's hip, breezy "Stylefax" column.

He appears to have descended, full-grown and fabulously attired, from some rarefied, clothes-obsessed galaxy far, far away. Don't be fooled by the flamboyant facade. A paragon of self-invention, Talley credits two remarkable women with shaping his life and career: his nurturing maternal grandmother, Bennie Frances Davis, and fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland, the legendary Vogue editor and director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute.

Davis and Vreeland, who both died in 1989, are the focus of his recently published memoir, "A.L.T." (Villard), an affectionate, poignant recollection of growing up in a close-knit black family in rural Durham, N.C., and making his way through the "chiffon trenches" of New York and Paris.

Davis, a cleaning woman at Duke University, kept an immaculate house and delighted in dressing up for Sunday church services. She ironed her sheets, tinted her white hair with a pale blue rinse and always carried a neatly folded handkerchief in her purse. She may have been poor, but she had, according to Talley, "panache."

Vreeland also possessed panache. Only she had a staff to look after her tony Park Avenue apartment, pack her Vuitton trunks and care for her elegant wardrobe (a French maid would iron a sheaf of $5 bills before tucking them into her evening bag). Her collection of Porthault linens filled an entire walk-in closet. She became Talley's mentor when he moved to New York in 1974 and wangled a volunteer job at the Costume Institute helping her to install her fashion exhibitions.

"From my grandmother I learned the lessons of faith and goodness," says Talley, sipping a cup of coffee in one of his favorite haunts, the cozy private showroom of his close chum, shoe designer Manolo Blahnik. "From Mrs. Vreeland, it was about faith in yourself and your metier and doing the best you can. And they both believed in getting on with it. Get up spit-and-polished, put your best foot forward and get on with life."

A zest for life

Although it is Tuesday, Talley is dressed in what may be considered his casual Friday garb: a custom-made Juicy Couture gray velour track suit, JP Tod's deerskin moccasins, a Prada gray alligator coat and matching crusher and a Cartier Tank Divan watch.

At 54, Talley looks about a decade younger, with his unlined coffee-colored skin and boyish, gap-toothed smile. He speaks in clipped diction in a deep bass voice that rises and races lickety-split when he becomes exuberant, whether about the smell of lemon, vanilla extract and Argo starch that emanated from his grandmother's kitchen or the fabulousness of a Manolo silver stiletto sandal. At once grandiose and down-home, Talley is warmly regarded in a realm where sniping and jealousy have been elevated to an art form.

"If you don't know Andre, he can seem intimidating because he is larger than life, literally and figuratively," observes James Mischka, of the design team Badgley Mischka. "But he is very supportive, very approachable. He embraces fashion the way he embraces life, with great enthusiasm."

Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue and a longtime friend of Talley's, toasted him last month at an intimate soiree celebrating the launch of his book: "For Andre, God is always in the details," she told guests. "If he sends flowers, it's the most exquisite bouquet. If he gives a candle, it's the perfect candle. And how many of us have, over the years, received those extremely dramatic letters from Andre, penned in striking purple script (for news of medium interest), red ink (a breaking story) or gold (something truly fabulous)! Now he corresponds by fax or e-mail, and it's such a shame because I miss the gold."

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