The André I Knew
Model, mogul, and Baby Phat CEO Kimora Lee Simmons pays tribute to her late friend, the larger-than-life Vogue legend and former EBONY fashion editor André Leon Talley.
As told to Marjon Carlos
Digital Painting by Brandon Breaux
When news broke last month of the untimely death of André Leon Talley at 73, the fashion world was left bereft at the loss of its “last great fashion editor.” How do you eulogize a figure nearly mythological in stature and influence? For one of his closest friends, Kimora Lee Simmons, she wanted to start at the beginning.
Simmons, then 13 and a house model at Chanel, first caught a glimpse of the style savant in Paris at the end of a long runway. Vogue’s first Black creative director stood out among the rarefied cabal gathered at the Chanel show that day not only because of his stoic demeanor but also because it was uncommon for Simmons to see anyone who resembled her in the whitewashed beau monde of couture. The two were outsize in height—she was 6 feet tall and he was 6-foot-6—and in personality; they were also Black Americans who had traversed the Midwest and Deep South, and landed in the atelier of the fashion titan Karl Lagerfeld.
Talley was one of Lagerfeld’s closest friends and a fixture among the industry’s most exclusive circles. And though Simmons, the newest member of the Chanel tribe at that time, was initially intimidated by him, she could sense his prominence. She would come to be like family with the authoritative figure who had refused to play it small in an industry that by design was not welcoming to their kind.
Charting a career across the biggest mastheads in publishing–Interview, Women’s Wear Daily, Vanity Fair, and yes, EBONY—using his Herculean power with words, incisive possession of the French language, and a near-encyclopedic knowledge of dress and fit, Talley shattered every ceiling that would hold a Black boy from Durham, North Carolina, back. Having helmed fantastical fashion shoots, penned whimsical stories of flights of fancy, dressed first ladies, rubbed shoulders with aristocracy, and having been present at many of the monumental cultural milestones of the era, he was, as Simmons describes him, a part of American royalty. And despite reaching the highest echelons, Talley never forgot where he came from. He served as a conduit—bringing along the Black glitterati’s biggest stars into fashion’s exclusive folds, highlighting their influence as architects of culture.
But he also acted as a godfather and teacher to Simmons and lent a watchful eye over her as she blossomed from a catwalk ingenue to the owner of her own fashion empire, Baby Phat. They had an indestructible bond, forged by the struggle of being the “only one” and breaking through as fashion’s unlikeliest darlings.
Here, Simmons tells the story of their kinship across fashion, business, life’s ups and downs, and, ultimately, history.
He was a giant; he was a great. He was a legacy in the works. He was tall; he was loud. He was imposing; he was grand.
Even though André and I seem close in age and have a lot of the same peers and contemporaries, in a lot of ways, we very much are not. He was at Studio 54, with Diana Ross or Diane von Furstenberg. It’s a different graduating class, so to speak. He is the leader. He is the pioneer—1,000 percent. There were a few [Black people in fashion], like Patrick Kelly, but André is one of the very few. And coming from the Deep South and just living in that time, and being able to stand on his own two feet and ascend to all the greatness he did… I realized that he’s kind of like a godfather [to me]. We’re like family.
HOW KLS AND ALT MET
He had on all-black sunglasses, thick ones. He was very scary, and he would sit at the end of the [runway]. This was many years ago when he would sit front and center–daunting–smack dab in the middle, at 6-foot-6.
At Chanel, I was a cabine girl, a house model for the luxury brand, which means I’m also working behind the scenes every day. I would see him almost daily during fashion week and during couture. He would pop by with princesses, and we’re doing fittings and making the clothes. It’s like a workshop; we’re all together. He would do this with many different designers, like Yves Saint Laurent. But one of the most memorable and biggest friendships he would have was with Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel. I realized then that André was a very large personality and that he was in charge; he had influence.
And that started the beginning of our life, our relationship.
We probably didn’t become close friends until many, many years later. He was a giant; he was a great. He was a legacy in the works. He was tall; he was loud. He was imposing; he was grand. And even though I was super tall, too, I was definitely the smaller, younger baby in the room. When the silver flask was passed around backstage, they never let it land on me. It went over my head. I was the protected one, and he was more like a guru.
My ‘godfather’ was friends with Andy Warhol and [Jean-Michel] Basquiat, so when I’m telling you the very essence of culture, that is him no matter how you slice that pie.
I felt totally engulfed by his presence, and I know other people from all walks of life everywhere—politicians, presidents, first ladies, supermodels, poets, and those in ballet and architecture—did as well. Do you realize I am like a blip on that radar? My “godfather” was friends with Andy Warhol and [Jean-Michel] Basquiat, so when I’m telling you the very essence of culture, that is him no matter how you slice that pie. It doesn’t matter what kind of culture. He’s always going to be there, from hip-hop to classical; art to architecture. He is as educated as any. He has rubbed elbows with as many. He has been in every room, every palace, every kingdom. He’s the legend. Even though he might be our contemporary, or our peer, we have to use that [word] humbly.
But I think, from being around each other and working and going everywhere together, we eventually grew close.
We WEre always holding each other, kissing, whispering, giggling, giving a side-eye. We had code names for everybody in the industry. Life with André was like a kiki—a kiki of the classics.
LIFE WITH ANDRÉ
I went back and I looked through so much stuff that we did together: the Met, the Martha Graham Dance Company Opening Night Gala. I chaired that. We hosted that with Oscar de la Renta. I think I might have worn one of those huge Zac Posen gowns. He also dressed me for The Met Gala one year. It was this gorgeous Ndebele-inspired gown by [the designer] Kevan Hall. Bold, beautiful colors and an almost geometric pattern on it. One of my favorite gowns I’ve worn. André put me in that. When I look back at all our pictures, we are always talking about someone—always. There’s always a face. We’re always holding each other, kissing, whispering, giggling, covering the mouth, giving a side-eye. Oh, my God! We had code names for everybody in the industry. Life with André was like a kiki—a kiki of the classics.
He exposed me to so much. Decor, for one thing. My old house in New Jersey…the silk draped walls, the gold leaf ceilings, hand-painted murals, and tapestries—André had a hand in all of that. He said, “This is your Versailles! Own it!” He was adamant about the power behind the baroque style. And it wasn’t necessarily the wealth that he thought was fabulous—it was about impact and passion and precision. André was about texture and detail and it always showed in his work.
What I’ll most treasure are the moments we spent lounging on what was Gianni Versace’s bed. I used it as a daybed in my house, and we’d whittle away the hours. He was always in some kind of caftan or muumuu situation. Always fabulous. Always the best silks. Always some story of where he got it. We would have sleepovers and eat cupcakes and sweets he’d ordered from whatever fabulous pastry chef he knew. These were true Marie Antoinette moments. And, he’d expose me to art and architecture. We’d watch the films he deemed essential. We were both luxury hoarders but also huge fans of basics and essentials. He’d rhapsodize about the elegance of a plain white Hanes T-shirt with the same fervor as he did an Oscar de la Renta gown. We were both organically “high-low” kind of people. Best of both worlds! I’ll always treasure the fantastic conversations we had.
When my fashion label Baby Phat was at Radio City Music Hall and we were getting ready, he was there. He would help me in any way I needed. And sometimes, it would just be by showing up. Or by giving me help with the models. Or by saying, “It’s this color, not that” or “I hope you didn’t do that” or “I sure hope you do that.”
It could take on any element and every step in between. He would show up. He would support. He would hang out. He would take the call. He’s there when you need him. And he was always that type of friend that even though you don’t talk every day or every week, when you do, it’s to catch up or say, “What’s going on?”
He’d rhapsodize about the elegance of a plain white Hanes T-shirt with the same fervor as he did an Oscar de la Renta gown.
HE DID IT FOR THE CULTURE
André always functioned as a bridge between high fashion, and editorial and what we now call “the culture.” He lived at the intersection of music, fashion and media–including hip-hop culture. All of your favorite hip hop glitterati sought him out as a conduit between urban culture and stylists, editors, and designers. Whenever you were getting dressed up, you were doing it for André. That was one of his great gifts—cross-pollination. In what I call “the early years,” we were all a team, a crew. And, I watched as he fostered many of those relationships. I was one of the few women in that group who wasn’t an entertainer. André always pushed me to embrace that and step into my role as what he termed a “tastemaker.” He encouraged us all to set the bar. André was Black excellence! All of the culture that we have now was largely because of him.
André has inspired [Puffy, Pharrell, Will.i.am, Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige, and Kanye West]. He used to call Puffy “Errol Flynn,” which to me is evidence of his ability to reference eras and moments and translate them into current moods and trends. If you look at Pharrell and Kanye and Mariah, his impact is undeniable. Men in pearls and wearing brooches. All the jewels and flashy cars. That was André! He was styling our favorite artists’ video shoots, album covers, and weddings.
André has inspired [Puffy, Pharrell, Will.i.am, Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige, and Kanye West]. He used to call Puffy ‘Errol Flynn,’ which to me is evidence of his ability to reference eras and moments and translate them into current moods and trends.
He educated us. He taught us. He was like the great English professor. He was also well versed in French literature, the arts, writing, the classics, and tapestries and fabrics. And when I say art, I mean fine art…. Because he was always so much more than all of us.
Someone said to me once that he’s an encyclopedia, but not just of fashion but of culture—maybe of the culture of fashion. I can’t really explain it. He’s like a combustible supernova, a quadrillion particles of being. He’s such an amazing person, yet such a humble, simple person. And so when you think of somebody who has, to me, ascended to such greatness from modest beginnings, I think that’s impressive.
He’s also obviously a magnificent writer. He’s a storyteller in how he puts words together. When he’s writing a story about you, he makes you feel good about yourself because he knows how to highlight your best side and speak of your promises. He knows how to put people on a pedestal. Even though he’s a larger-than-life presence, he knows how to turn that onto someone else. He would say things eloquently, and he would give so much more color to it. I’m super sad because I wanted to start a writing project with him about our history and my life, and now I can’t do that.
FASHION’S BLACK DIAMOND
When you’re the “only one” of anything, it can be a challenge. I’ve been in that position myself, so we always discussed the feeling that you have to uphold and represent and shine on behalf of an entire community. Stereotypes are thrust upon you from one side and a sense of duty is thrust upon you from the other. Meanwhile, you’re just one person trying to do the best you can. The stakes were so high for him because he was at the top of his game. There was a pressure there but it turned him into everyone’s Black diamond–which he also put me under, by the way.
We’ve talked a lot about the topic of Do you do enough or are you not doing enough? I definitely have heard both arguments. To me, André did what he could when he could, and it was not always easy. André came through a lot of adversity, so it creates a different kind of person from a different time. It was difficult to function at a time like that, coming up from the Deep South during the Civil Rights Movement–I can’t imagine. Also growing up in fashion… What is fashion as a lanky, tall, but debonair Black boy? What must that be like? We haven’t even gotten [diversity] together today. What must that have been like back then? It was different, for sure.
He was always excited about new people, about new visionaries. He was always so happy to see everybody win—to see all the designers [of color]. We talked about it. I think he was very vocal about it. He was a great supporter.
Fashion owes him a lot. He was one of the only Black people at Vogue forever. One of the only. To me, he is like Anna Wintour. To me, he is alongside Karl Lagerfeld or Yves Saint Laurent. He’s not necessarily a designer, but he’s a creative. He’s a family member to a lot of these people. He’s a confidant.
When he left us, he was at peace in his life and at a point where he was happy. We all go through our highs, and we all go through our lows. When I discovered that he was at peace with everything when he left us, it made my heart rest.
NOT ALL THAT GLITTERS
He’s had lots of tough times in his life too—a lot of pain and sadness he’s had to go through. And so as large as he was in life, I think he was equally at times tortured or sad. We would talk. It’s good to talk to somebody where you know nothing’s going to go beyond that room. But I don’t want that to, in any way, dim his light. I can always hear his energy, hear his voice and his spirit say just to keep going. “Oh, child, who cares? Oh, who cares what they have to say, honey?” We would laugh together at the mean people. People can be mean, but we keep going on.
When he left us, he was at peace. I did learn that. He was at peace in his life and at a point where he was happy. We all go through our highs, and we all go through our lows. When I discovered that he was at peace with everything when he left us, it made my heart rest.
FOREVER OUR HISTORY
He is a part of the landscape of American royalty. Forget what you’ve heard or what you’ve thought or what it was or what they thought. No, you can’t take that away from him. It’s history—period. His contributions are enormous and I’m holding the light on that because there will never be another.
Marjon Carlos (@marjon_carlos) is a New York City–based journalist and host of Your Favorite Auntie Show.
CREATIVE DIRECTOR RASHIDA MORGAN-BROWN
PHOTO EDITOR TRACEY WOODS
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