André Leon Talley just can’t seem to quit Anna Wintour. Despite filling his new memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, with several droll and petty anecdotes about the long-reigning Vogue editrix and his time at the magazine (we’ll be hard-pressed to be sympathetic to his plights about town car expenses), the fashion titan makes one thing clear: He’d still happily take Wintour’s call, even if she had a tendency, however inadvertent, to revel in mind and power games with her supposed “fast friend.” (Think of Jigsaw, only with a sharp bob and endless supply of Chanel tweed.) Their personal and professional relationship took a turn for the worse a few years ago, a spiral that Talley is still coming to terms with today. “We never really spoke about our friendship or worked to develop some long-lasting bond,” he wrote in the memoir. “It was just perfectly understood between us, like a silent language.”
While acknowledging that Wintour made him “the highest-ranking black man in the history of fashion journalism” upon meeting at Vogue in the 1980s, Talley didn’t shy away from sharing his unfiltered experiences about his former friend. Read on for nine of these stories. Sunglasses on, please!
1. Upon the publication of Beyoncé’s historic Vogue cover in September 2018 — where she was given unprecedented editorial control over her photographs and interview — Talley wrote a compelling op-ed for the Washington Post about the cultural significance of the cover for the black community. Despite Vogue’s publisher praising the piece and sending it to the magazine’s top editors, it didn’t elicit any response from his colleagues. “Not one of those editors wrote me about the piece. Not one quick email from Anna Wintour,” he wrote. “Editors I’ve worked with for decades didn’t understand the immense importance of this occasion simply because they are not capable of understanding. None of my contemporaries have seen the world through black eyes.”
2. One of Talley’s first memories of working with Wintour was when Grace Mirabella, the former editor-in-chief of Vogue prior to Wintour’s ascension, casually dismissed his idea of including an African tribal photograph in a fashion spread with the following comment: “What have I done to deserve this underground influence?” When he expressed his discomfort to Wintour about the racist jab, she shrugged and offered, “don’t worry about it, don’t … just don’t worry about it.”
3. Only two Vogue colleagues were in attendance for Wintour’s 1984 wedding to psychiatrist David Shaffer, which occurred during a normal weekday afternoon: Talley and her first assistant. The ceremony was short and “strangely” filled with Wintour’s ex-boyfriends, who flew in from England for the occasion. “Anna ignored the eager crowd, walked down the steps, came directly to me,” Talley recalled, “and thrust the bouquet into my chest. ‘Here, take care of this.’”
4. Following an exodus from Vogue in the mid-’90s, during which time he grieved the death of his grandmother and lived in his native North Carolina, Talley returned to New York — having gained a significant amount of weight in the interim. Within weeks of resuming his full-time schedule, Wintour called him at his desk and said that he needed to start an intensive exercise regime. It was not a suggestion, but a demand. “I’d gained weight in Durham and brought my binge-eating habits back to New York with me. My clothes fittings made clear to me exactly how big I was getting, and Anna Wintour’s concerned glances did not go unnoticed,” Talley recalled. “If Anna Wintour wanted me to go to the gym, I’d go to the gym. Plus she offered to pay for it, so I had to take it seriously.” Despite a period of a successful lifestyle change, Talley soon reverted back to his old habits. “I do think at a certain point,” he noted, “my weight got in the way of my career.”
5. Years went by without Wintour mentioning his weight again, until an “intervention” occurred, led by Oscar de la Renta, Annette de la Renta, Wintour, her new boyfriend Shelby Bryan, Vogue’s public relations director, and Talley’s pastor at the Vogue offices. “It was explained that my weight was out of control and I was being sent off to rehabilitation at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center in my hometown of Durham, North Carolina. A first-class plane ticket had already been purchased for that same day. I didn’t know what to say,” he wrote. “I didn’t know what to say. Quietly I listened as Anna and Oscar explained their concerns. It was pretty clear most of the concern was coming from Anna and the rest of them had been pulled into this. None had had the forethought to warn me, though. Maintain your dignity, I thought. Just keep it together until you can get out of here.” A year passed by before Talley willingly went to the center. “I eventually gained all the weight back,” he wrote. “Since then, I’ve returned to Duke three times. It’s been a yo-yo battle I long ago realized I will never win.”
6. Talley was pleasantly surprised in 2011 when Wintour asked him to accompany her to receive a Légion d’honneur, a prestigious French merit that he considers to be one of the “pinnacles” of her career. Just before they entered the Élysée Palace for the ceremony, he recalls that Wintour treated him, a friend and colleague of three decades, more like she would have of her assistant. “Anna had a small, soft evening handbag, a pochette, that she thrust at me and said, ‘Here, hold my handbag,’” he wrote of the evening. “I said good-bye to Anna and handed her the pochette. She looked in her bag and said, ‘My cell phone, what did you do with my cell phone?’ What did you do with my cell phone, you’ve misplaced my cell phone, what did you do?’” Talley had to personally search her town car and call her hotel to confirm that she had, indeed, left it in her hotel room. “Silence,” he added. “Then, ‘Oh, okay,’ and she kept going through the party.”
7. Wintour never permitted Talley to bring a guest to the annual Met Gala, except on three occasions: Pat Altschul in 2005, Naomi Campbell in 2006, and Whoopi Goldberg in 2010. “My invitation to the Met Gala under Anna’s rule,” he noted, “was as a staffer.”
8. Vogue decided to get into the podcasting game in 2016, and Talley was tapped to interview designers, editors, and other prominent figures in the fashion industry — at a modest rate of $500 per episode. (For Vogue standards, anyway.) It was when the podcast abruptly ceased, without explanation, that Talley decided to reevaluate his friendship with Wintour. “No explanation or financial severance compensation. Just sphinxlike silence from Anna Wintour,” he wrote. “She decimated me with this silent treatment so many times. That is just the way she resolves any issue. And I soldiered on, through the elite chiffon trenches. But, at the age of 69, I decided I was old enough, and it was time, to stand up for my dignity and take this silent treatment from the great Anna Wintour no more.” When he aired his grievances to Vanity Fair bigwig Graydon Carter, he was surprised that the powerful editor felt the same way. “One day she treats me like a good friend and colleague,” he told Talley, “and the next day she treats me as if she had just handed over her keys to an unknown parking valet.” The following passage speaks particularly ill of Wintour’s character:
I was a friend to Anna and I knew I mattered back in our earlier days together. Today, I would love for her to say something human and sincere to me. I have huge emotional and psychological scars from my relationship with this towering and influential woman, who can sit by the queen of England, on the front row of a fashion show, in her uniform of dark glasses and perfect Louise Brooks clipped coiffure framing her Mona Lisa mystery face.
Who is she? Does she let down the proverbial dense curtain? She loves her two children and I am sure she will be the best grandmother. But there are so many people who worked for her and have suffered huge emotional scarring. Women and men, designers, photographers, stylists; the list is endless. She has dashed so many on a frayed and tattered heap during her powerful rule.
9. Following a long run of being Vogue’s designated red carpet correspondent and interviewer for the Met Gala, Talley was informed that his contract would not be renewed in 2018. “This was clearly a stone-cold business decision,” he wrote. “I had suddenly become too old, too overweight, and too uncool, I imagined, for Anna Wintour.” He was not informed by Wintour herself, but rather an unnamed mid-level Vogue staffer. “Anna should have had the decency and kindness to call me or send me an e-mail saying, ‘André, I think we have had a wonderful run with your interviews, but we are going to try something new.’ I would have accepted that,” Talley added. “Simple human kindness. No, she is not capable.”
He was replaced by young YouTuber Liza Koshy, who had no previous fashion experience. Talley vowed he would “never attend another Anna Wintour Met Gala for the rest of my life.” As for the current status of their friendship, Talley says it’s severed, minus an annual invitation to attend her couture fittings. (He asserts that he only goes out of “loyalty” and to see the bespoke Chanel creations.) Should they ever mend their relationship, Wintour would have to be the one to initiate talks. Talley concluded:
The Empress Wintour, in her power, has disappointed me in her humanity. Our friendship has layered with thick rust over the years. She has mercilessly made her best friends people who are the highest in their chosen fields. Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Mr. and Mrs. George Clooney, are, to her, friends. I am no longer of value to her.