I believe I was first made aware of fashion journalism and all-around expert André Leon Talley when I saw the Vogue magazine documentary The September Issue. It was clear then from his presence alongside editor Anna Wintour that he was an enthusiastic, charismatic fixture on the fashion scene who knew a great deal about style and those who create and perpetuate the looks that change the world.
But what you could not tell from that film was the long and fascinating journey that Talley took to reach the iconic status he’s achieved over the decades.
The Gospel According to André tracks Talley’s life from the segregated South where his family, dressing to the nines to go to church every Sunday, had a major impact on his growing up in North Carolina, especially since his grandmother kept him largely sheltered from the harsh realities of the racially divided world around them. He frequently escaped into the fashion magazines available to him, and this piqued his interest in clothes and style.
There are a few gaps in the storytelling by director Kate Novack (Eat This New York), but ultimately the interviews and archival footage of him attending fashion shows in Milan and Paris for various publications cover the essential points in his life and career. He created and invented a language and enthusiasm for designers and their work that treated them as artists, even if Talley sees them more as craftsman.
The film always makes sure to remind us (as does Talley) that despite the fact that he quickly became a favorite on the scene, he was also seen by many as an enormously tall black man in an almost entirely white world. Sometimes he made this work to his advantage, while other times he felt it was a problem for many.
His reporting, fashion show coverage and photo essays for Women’s Wear Daily, W, Vogue, and Vanity Fair were groundbreaking, and his friendships with Wintour, Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, and Tom Ford helped solidify his place in the pantheon of style, making his opinion on any particular look or line worth its weight in gold.
The Gospel According to André intercuts vintage material with more recent footage of Talley in the months leading up to the election of Donald Trump, a moment in history that Talley takes quite hard. Obama’s presidency meant a great deal to this man from the Jim Crow South, so this turn of events shook him deeply. He somehow manages to find the strength to do his job, commenting extensively on Melania Trump’s regal outfit at the 2017 inauguration.
It’s an interesting, overtly political approach to making a documentary about the fashion world, but for Talley, the two are intertwined. The film is expressive, often joyful, endlessly interesting, informative, and occasionally emotional. There have been a great number of docs in the last few years about the fashion world, but few have the expansive reach and complex history of this one.