By Sonia Sly
The Gospel According to André opens with fashion’s most theatrical personality relaxed on his front porch. He sits candidly, reflecting on his past as a tree is being felled on his large open lawn. Here, he shares memories of family gatherings and the importance of passing stories down the generations. But the manner in which he recounts these memories is matter-of-fact, almost distant. As we move through the documentary film we find out why.
Showing as part of the Documentary Edge Festival this coming May, The Gospel According to André traces Leon Talley's rise to the top of the international fashion heap. He's a force to be reckoned with and the steady stream of fashion luminaries in the film from Anna Wintour to Marc Jacobs and Manolo Blahnik, among others, reinforce this.
Leon Tally navigates his way through his career with creative flair and a determined focus. But strategy and intellect plays a role too, and cultivating his larger than life persona is all part of the bigger picture. What Leon Talley also possesses is impeccable timing and his career gets off to a roaring start.
Volunteering at the Metropolitan Museum of Art he catches the eye of acclaimed former fashion editor, Diana Vreeland. She recognises his work ethic and eye for detail, taking Leon Talley under her wing and teaching him ‘the language of clothing.’
From there he makes his way to Andy Warhol's Interview Magazine, accumulating a list of coveted roles for publications including American Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily. Leon Talley is living the dream and with a 'gift of the gab' he's embraced by the fashion industry.
But this new life is far from the one he once knew and that's exactly what makes this film compelling.
Raised by his grandmother in North Carolina, Leon Talley developed an early appreciation for beauty derived from simplicity and order. His grandmother - a domestic maid - nurtured him and provided him with a life that was rich in values and church played a big role in influencing his eye. Church brought the community together with men and women dressed in their Sunday best, parading almost like a fashion show. It was also a place of empowerment and of the black community claiming 'visibility' through their clothing, in a world that otherwise placed them as second class citizens in a bleak American South at a time when racial hatred and segregation is alive and well.
This historical context puts Leon Talley's success into focus. He made it to the top, but what challenges did he face in order to break free from the past?
Leon Talley's personality adds a curious dynamism and energy to the documentary. He is a self-made man who burst onto the scene with a depth of fashion knowledge. Fluent in French, he also possessed an innate ability to articulate what we saw on the runway. But it's his childhood best friend and the people who grew up with him that paint a vivid picture of a brave young man - an outsider who was set on pursuing a dream that went against the grain.
There are some beautifully candid moments in the film that allow us into his life. He's almost as surprised as we are to look back at some of his fashion faux pas.
"Those were not good moments in my wardrobe," he utters looking at a photo: he's donning a turban and the rest of his outfit pushes the metaphorical envelope over the edge of a cliff and then plunges it deep into the ocean. It's horrendous. But then again, fashion should be about experimentation, and as we discover the experts don't always get it right every time.
These kinds of moments make Leon Talley that much more accessible and endearing. Beyond the Kaftans that have become part of his signature style is a man who is equally as vulnerable at times as the rest of us.
We are guided through the ebb and flow of Leon Talley's life, building up to significant moments of quiet reflection. This makes his revelations all the more powerful and what comes to the fore is something he can never escape - the colour of his skin. Racism exists in all spheres of life, including in an industry responsible for creating a colour-blind fantasy where white and black models are placed side-by-side on the glossy pages of fashion editorials.
The best documentaries capture a totality of experience and richness of emotion, and the highs and lows in the film bring the story into balance with some gut wrenching moments that are painful and surprising to watch.
While The Gospel According to Andre isn't the most masterful piece of film making and doesn't come close to setting the bar as Frédéric Tcheng's 'Dior and I', Director Kate Novack still manages to capture Leon Talley’s authentic voice. She goes beyond the facade to reveal some of his truths, along with his 'gospel’ on fashion and style.
The Gospel According to André is a fascinating documentary that looks at contemporary fashion history as well as the history of the American South through the eyes of a man who made his dreams a reality in the cut throat world of fashion.