what an auction reveals about the late fashion legend

If you’re in the market for a pair of size 13 Manolo Blahnik snakeskin fringe evening slippers with crimson satin ribbon, then February 15 could be your lucky day. At an auction at Christie’s in New York of the personal estate of André Leon Talley, the former creative director of American Vogue who died last year, they could be yours for a guide price of £400. A Chanel navy silk opportune opera coat could be snapped up for around £3,000 (scattered “sun damage” is noted), while two oversized Birkin bags look £4,000. No fewer than 29 Louis Vuitton trunks are available (including one that made a cameo appearance in the 2008 film Sex and the City), as well as a Prada coat in white crocodile and an orange livery Hermès bicycle that Talley never rode but kept there. storage at the Ritz in Paris.

When Talley died, the desolate inventory of his possessions and stories of unpaid rent and painful exile from Anna Wintour seemed to make for an operatic, bittersweet portrait of an overdressed and overwrought figure. . But Talley was more creative, more interesting, smarter and kinder than any of that. After growing up poor and black in the still-segregated southern US, he won a full college scholarship and graduated with a master’s degree in French from Brown University. He blazed a trail to become the first person of color to reach the top ranks of Vogue, and his death at the age of 73 left a huge void on the front row. And, in an elegant twist that Talley would have appreciated, it’s the luxury wardrobe on which he splashed his fortune that will make him appear in a more sinister light.

Proceeds from his estate sale, estimated to exceed $1m, will go to two historically black churches close to Talley’s heart: Abyssinian Baptist church in New York and Mt Sinai Missionary Baptist church in his hometown of Durham, North Carolina. The gift reflects Talley’s deep faith and generosity of spirit, something that was not always evident in a lifestyle stamped all over with logos and monograms.

Scratch beneath the surface of the auction’s most appealing pieces and you’ll discover a collection that speaks to its promotion of black talent (a gold brocade cat by influential Harlem designer Dapper Dan, which he wore to a fashion week show in New -York. by Carolina Herrera) and his love of art (a bunch of Warhols, a portrait of former Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland by photographer Horst P Horst and a signed portrait of Karl Lagerfeld by Helmut Newton). The upcoming auction is an elegant gesture from a man who firmly believed in the transformative power of fashion.

Talley was a complex, contradictory character. Cathy Horyn, the fashion editor of the New York Times during Talley’s Vogue era, recalled him last year as “a combination of a southern front-porch old man … and a Beaton-esque persnickety observer.” He was the grandson of a carpenter, and was raised by his grandmother, Binnie Francis Davis, who credits his high standards of elegance and aesthetics with inspiring his interest in fashion. His washing was boiled “in a big black iron cauldron in our yard”, he wrote in his 2003 ALT memoir, but “until I left home, I never used a towel that was never ironed”.

By the time he joined Vogue in 1983 as a semi-public figure as Wintour’s long-time chief lieutenant, Talley was already a fashion legend, his encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history perfected with backstory. great apprenticeship for Vreeland and clubbing with. Karl Lagerfeld.

Related: André Leon Talley: ‘My story is a fairy tale, and in every fairy tale there is evil and darkness’

When I started attending fashion shows in the late 1990s, Talley was at the top of his game: a glamazon on a grand scale, fur the size of king-size bedspreads and a Lauren Hutton gap between his teeth. When he told me that something I had written upset him – and I hugged myself for days.

For many years, Talley championed black designers in the glossy pages of Vogue, featuring the work of Patrick Kelly, Kevan Hall, Stephen Burrows and Willie Smith. Towards the end of his life, he was an early cheerleader for designer LaQuan Smith, who went on to build a prestigious brand – the buttery yellow trench that Priyanka Chopra Jonas is wearing on the cover of this month’s issue of British Vogue. one of his. Talley recalled that he gave him $2,000 of his own money to “‘go to Paris … just to see how the light falls on the buildings will inspire you'”. In 2010, Talley persuaded his friend Serena Williams to help put Smith on the map by modeling in his New York fashion week show.

Highlights from the upcoming sale were sent to Paris for the haute couture shows this week, where they were greeted with champagne. As a Frenchman and an expert in high living, Talley would have loved to receive the honor during couture week, said Deacon Alexis Thomas, Talley’s estate executor and close friend. “André loved fashion and he loved luxury. That’s how he chose to live his life, and he did so beautifully, and this collection reflects that. But our hope is that it also shows a holistic understanding of who André was as an activist, friend and man of faith.”

Kim Cole Moore's portrait of Talley.

Kim Cole Moore’s portrait of Talley. Photo: Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters

The party was packed, the champagne flowing freely, the glamorous tchotchkes endlessly diverting – who knew Chanel made hot water bottle covers? – but many of those present were focusing on Thalley’s portraits, rather than his possessions. In one, on a huge canvas by Kim Cole Moore, the artist borrows Diego Velázquez from Pope Innocent X for Talley, who wears rich white robes and a solemn, knowing gaze. “He looks so wise, so caring,” said Elizabeth Seigel, Christie’s head of private and iconic collections. “It shows the life and the dynamic personality that we’re trying to bring to life through these things. It was always larger than life – but this is personal and meaningful, too.”

But it’s the Vuitton luggage that will draw the most heat under the hammer, according to Seigel. “It’s so much fun. The closer the relationship to the individual, the more competition there is usually, and the luggage is his signature and a piece of fashion history. Some have his name on them, and some have tags from his time at the Ritz. It’s very nice.”

In his 2020 memoir The Chiffon Trenches, Talley wrote about being underpaid, sidelined and ultimately frozen out by Vogue and Anna Wintour. He feels that he kept, in this library of prized possessions, Annie Leibovitz’s informal portrait of Wintour in her New York townhouse. The presence of several Andy Warhol originals – including a silkscreen of a love heart signed as a Valentine’s gift – tells a contrasting story of an enduring friendship with Warhol, for whom Talley worked early in his career and remained close until the artist’s death. . A long and close friendship with Lagerfeld ended badly – ​​Talley was left off the guest list for the designer’s memorial service – but many of Lagerfeld’s sketches of the two together, here, speak to happier days.

Talley’s other life as a donor was planned well in advance. “Throughout his life he was excited by the idea of ​​creating a fashion collection that would benefit the causes that were important to him,” Seigel said. The auction house will partner with the Abyssinian church to celebrate his life with the church choir.

At Talley’s memorial service in Harlem last year, Michelle Obama paid tribute to his “kindness, joy and electricity”, she said, “that changed the world”. Perhaps Talley is destined to always be remembered for his stacks of monographed luggage. But the stories of the young designers he helped and the generous legacy bequeathed in his name tell a much more sophisticated story.

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