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NC roots set Andre Leon Talley on road to being fashion icon

André Leon Talley, curator of the Mint Museum’s new Oscar de le Renta exhibition, poses Tuesday with Charlotte’s Chandra Johnson (left) and Maria Owen. Of growing up in Durham, he says: “I did my homework. And that’s what took me out into the world.”
André Leon Talley, curator of the Mint Museum’s new Oscar de le Renta exhibition, poses Tuesday with Charlotte’s Chandra Johnson (left) and Maria Owen. Of growing up in Durham, he says: “I did my homework. And that’s what took me out into the world.” knikouyeh@charlotteobserver.com

André Leon Talley was raised in Durham, but there’s nary a lilt of a Southern accent when he speaks – a British cadence is a better descriptor.

That’s not the only reason it seems hard to picture this fashion eminence as a Carolina boy growing up with humble means in the segregated South.

He’s former American editor-at-large of Vogue magazine and one of fashion’s larger-than-life personalities, the towering black man in billowing capes and caftans we’ve seen for years beside Vogue editor Anna Wintour on runway front rows – and as a judge on “America’s Next Top Model.” (He’s the sole focus of a new documentary that debuts next month: “The Gospel According to Andre.”)

Talley, 69, was raised an only child by his grandmother Bennie Davis, who cleaned dorms at Duke University. His regular forays to the Duke campus to buy Vogue magazine as a young man are what got him excited about fashion, he says now. He kept them “piled up on the back porch in an old wooden commode that had been saved for washing or something,” he says. There they sat until he went off to graduate school at Brown University.

“I escaped to the world of Vogue. I loved it. Vogue was my best friend,” Talley told the Observer Tuesday, moments before a VIP reception at the Mint Museum honoring the retrospective of the work of his friend Oscar de la Renta; he curated the show.

“I had the best upbringing. I had the best food. Church was the nucleus of our lives. And good manners. I was an only child and I just followed the rules,” Talley says. “I spoke when I was spoken to and I learned and I listened. I did my homework. And that’s what took me out into the world.”

It’s his late grandmother whom he credits with engraining in him good style and a sense of color.

“She was not extravagant, but her style was quality and she’d buy one good thing and it would last forever,” he says. She did have a few extravagances, though: gloves and handkerchiefs, which filled her drawers.

Talley earned a bachelor’s degree in French literature from N.C. Central University after graduating from Durham’s Hillside High (he credits his French teacher there for his love affair with all things French), then added a master’s in French studies at Brown.

But while he was at Brown, it was the art students at nearby Rhode Island School of Design that he clicked with. “They were very sophisticated and we just seemed to be on the same wavelength.”

When he arrived in New York in the early ’60s, famed magazine fashion writer and editor Diana Vreeland took him under her wing and helped launch his career in the fashion world. He went on to write and edit for publications like Women’s Wear Daily, The New York Times and, of course, Vogue.

Black men were rare in the world of high fashion when Talley was forging his career, but he says he didn’t waver in his belief that he belonged there. And once he was a force people listened to, he fought to get more diversity on the pages of magazines.

“I was always confident about myself,” Talley says. “I was fiercely confident because I had unconditional love, and I was an only child, so all the attention was given over to me. Sartorially, I was always comfortable with my choices. I was always confident in presenting myself to the world.”

On Tuesday evening, he presented himself to Charlotteans in a gold lamé caftan made for him by designer Ralph Rucci. “I’ve turned it inside out. It’s just what I wear at night to be festive,” Talley said. “I got out of the car and threw it on.”

And as for that accent?

“I never had a North Carolina accent. People say, ‘You don’t sound like you’re from North Carolina.’ Of course not,” Talley says.

“I always talked this way, even when I was a child.”

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