Portrait of Fashion Icon André Leon Talley
Filmmaker Kate Novack on her new doc, The Gospel According to André
As a fashion personality, André Leon Talley has crafted a grandiose persona: infamous for his outfits – dramatic caftans and capes billowing over his 6'6" figure – and equally bold mannerisms, delivering lines like, "I don't live for fashion, I live for beauty and style."
This proclamation opens Kate Novack's new film, The Gospel According to André. Her directorial feature debut seeks to undress the legendary Vogue editor of his sensationalized public image. "André always appears in these larger-than-life, over-the-top, scene-stealing roles, but he's always the supporting character; always commenting on someone else," said Novack. "But he has such an interesting backstory. ... I wanted to tell a story of André that was different from the narrative that we had all seen."
Talley's genesis begins with his North Carolina childhood, trekking to Duke University's magazine stand to purchase the latest edition of Vogue. Novack said, "[He] saw this world of glamour that he could be a part of." To a young, gay, black man growing up in the segregated South, what lay in the glossy pages seemed to promise an escape. Gospel relies on interviews and archival footage to chronicle his journey from Durham (where white Duke students once threw stones at him) to his bon vivant status in the upper echelons of high fashion where, as Vogue's editor-at-large, he would take the magazine into a new era of more racially diverse shoots and coverage.
But the latter realm was not immune to racism, which Talley, in a moment of striking vulnerability, addresses in the film's climax. "Racism that [Talley's] faced in the industry is really something that he hasn't talked about publicly before," said Novack, noting he oscillated "between candor and protectiveness" throughout production. "I think that, [as] human beings, sometimes we're very open and sometimes we need to protect ourselves. I wanted the movie to show that he operated in both ways."
As Novack sees it, The Gospel According to André is less of a fashion film than it is a portrait of Talley painting his own story; this is the cinematic gospel of an influential figure in African-American and American cultural histories who fought to be everything society dictated he couldn't. "I love [fashion documentaries] when they show the beauty and creativity of fashion, but also transcend it to look at either dealing with failure, or dealing with being an outsider." "Or," Novack adds, "dealing with the struggle to become who you want to be even if it's out of sync with where you came from."
The Gospel According to André opens in Austin this week. See our review here.