André Leon Talley was a dreamer. His dreams and Southern roots took him from Durham, North Carolina to New York City and beyond as he ascended to the highest echelons of the fashion industry. His death last week at the age of 73 — he had several chronic illnesses — allows for a moment to reflect on his rise as a creative director, public speaker, and fashion editor from the South, joining a lineage of other impactful Black Southern figures who overcame racial barriers to conquer new territory in fashion.
The idea that a Black gay man from the segregated Deep South could become a well-regarded fashion insider is inspiring. But before Talley forged a path for himself, Ann Lowe of Clayton, Alabama had already garnered acclaim for being the first African American to become a noted fashion designer.
Born into a lineage of dressmakers, Lowe’s career began in 1917 when she moved to New York to take sewing courses at the segregated S.T. Taylor Design School. Despite having to attend classes in a room alone, Lowe ended up graduating in half a year because of how good her work was. Shortly after that, she relocated to Tampa, Florida, where she opened her first dress salon and saved up enough money to return to New York City.
Her career encompassed many accomplishments: working with stores like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue; designing a dress that actress Olivia de Havilland wore to accept the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in To Each His Own; and designing the wedding gown Jacqueline Bouvier wore when she married former President John F. Kennedy. (Unfortunately, Lowe wasn’t publicly credited for both works when they were first worn, although she did receive credit for the latter following JFK’s assassination.)
Lowe’s name was never mentioned among other mid-20th-century couturiers of her time — like Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, and Pierre Balmain — but her legacy stands tall now. Her historic works can be found in The Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of FIT, and more.
“Ms. Lowe is historically extraordinary,” Talley said in a 2020 interview with Harper’s Bazaar. “Ann Lowe had obviously seen her grandmother sew, and she created a career out of that. So that is the history of the Black designer, it comes out of the segregated South, it comes out of a folkloric ancestral recall. I would say that ancestral recall is very inherent in the work of the Black designer.”
Lowe’s pioneering work laid the foundation for other Black Southern fashion designers like Patrick Kelly, who became a friend of Talley’s when he moved to New York. Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the Jim Crow South heavily influenced Kelly’s designs. Never afraid to utilize race and racist figures such as pickaninnies and Aunt Jemima, he reclaimed these figures in his designs. He also became well known for how he utilized unconventional buttons, a callback to what he saw his grandmother do during his younger years as she worked as a maid.
Beginning his career in Atlanta, Kelly later moved to New York in an attempt to legitimize his design aspirations. He attended Parsons School of Art and Design for one semester but withdrew due to financial reasons. In 1979, he relocated to Paris and entered the fashion scene there, where he struggled during his first few years before becoming the first American designer to sell their designs in Victoire (a renowned Parisian retailer) in the early ‘80s. In 1985, he debuted his first women’s ready-to-wear show, and would later become the first African American to present his shows as an official part of Paris Fashion Week.
Talley once wrote about Kelly that the designer “turned the folklore and memorabilia of his humble, Jim Crow, segregated roots into his distinctive personal style.” Like Lowe, Talley’s success wouldn’t be what it is without his Southern upbringing. His interest in fashion was born out of the Black church — where he realized style and fashion had a symbiotic relationship — and nurtured by his grandmother. That interest only blossomed as he became a voracious reader of Vogue, often traveling to Duke University (where his grandmother worked as a maid) to purchase copies. This foreshadowed Talley’s entrance into the world of fashion, taking his love of fashion and education in French literature — he received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from North Carolina Central University and Brown University, respectively — to New York, where he worked his way up from a receptionist at Interview to Vogue’s fashion news director (followed by its first African American male creative director, and later, its editor-at-large).
By 1996, he had moved on from Vogue and was a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. During this time, he was inspired to create what he called a “historical moment” to The New York Times — “Scarlett n’ the Hood.” A fashion editorial that reimagines the film Gone With The Wind, “Scarlett n’ the Hood” intimately explored race and racism. Naomi Campbell is Scarlett; John Galliano mops a floor and Manolo Blahnik appears as a gardener — with this shoot, Talley flipped the film’s racist depictions and created a legendary moment.
Following that, Talley had other historical moments, particularly his work with the Obama family, from advising on fashion to styling Michelle Obama for her first Vogue cover (which Talley also wrote), his work and expertise in fashion had led to these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
“To think of where I’ve come from, where we’ve come from, in my lifetime, and where we are today, is amazing. And, yet, of course, we still have so far to go,” Talley wrote in his memoir, The Chiffon Trenches. Talley brought his largest dreams into fruition during a period when there were no others he could look to, to figure out his coveted path. He also serves as a reminder that fashion wouldn’t be what it is without the contributions of Black Southerners, with him, Kelly, and Lowe paving the way for succeeding Black Southerners (and Black people in general) to define — and redefine — the industry on their own terms.
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