To be an American in Paris is a storied role—Ernest Hemingway drank his part, Josephine Baker danced her way through, Nina Simone and Jim Morrison sang for theirs. While André Leon Talley may not have moved to the City of Lights, he has marked the history books and the Parisian capital with a fashion exhibition currently housed in the legendary expat Mona Bismarck’s American Center (through September 22). Titled The Little Black Dress, the show presents a panoply of the iconic silhouette—The takeaway? There’s nothing little about it. Talley first debuted the curated selection in the museum of Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), the creative careers university of which he’s been an active trustee for more than a decade.
Talley has contributed much to the culture landscape—his exacting eye and wit has served the pages of Vogue, surveyed the competition in America’s Next Top Model and now he stands as the editor-at-large of Numéro Russia—but recently he has come into his own as a curator.
At SCAD, Talley is developing the museum’s costume collection along with staging frequent exhibitions, a skill he picked up from his mentor Diana Vreeland. In addition to the Little Black Dress, Talley’s retrospective of his close friend Antonio Lopez now hangs in the art school’s Lacoste, Provence, location (a medieval town completely restored by the college alongside its other famous resident, Pierre Cardin). Both shows, capsules of refined taste, owe their lens to Talley, his tight friendships and his current quest of preserving beauty. During the Paris collections last week, against the backdrop of the stunning Shangri-La Hotel, V sat down for a cup of chocolat chaud with the larger-than-life tastemaker (literally at 6 foot 5, in his own version of a LBD: a floor-length Ralph Rucci caftan) to unlock a few secrets of being fabulous.
You have said, “Life needs to be edited…” “You need to be edited…” heck, everyone needs to be edited; so I was curious: What’s the difference, to you, between editing and curating?
André Leon Talley Editing is eliminating by the process that there’s too much—eliminating a word that is not needed, the structure of the sentence isn’t perhaps correct. It’s a logical process that reality demands; for instance in an article, you have a 1500 line count and there are 2000 words, that needs to be scarified. Editing does that because it’s done objectively.
Curating is more subjective, you can have your own point of view about things. In the show Little Black Dress, I put a ruby red skirt and navy shirt from Mica Ertegün and that suggests to me a very rational thought, because when she selected that dress as an ensemble from Oscar De La Renta, she was going to a black tie dinner and said “I don’t want be in a black dress because that’s what everyone else will be in.” So she approached that very formal idea of what she was wearing with color. Curating is different than editing because it’s subjective and therefore you can make a point of view and create your own rules.
When you brought the Little Black Dress show to Paris, you had to edit it down.
ALT We cut about 30 some outfits, yes.
How did you approach that process?
ALT Well, I worked closely with Laurie Ann Farrell, the director of the SCAD Museum of Art and her associates, and we did the process over email and sent documents through the mail. We edited over a period of months, we would just do it over email or by phone because we already had the line-up of the show in Savannah. So it was very easy to edit out, particularly many of the day dresses, especially short knee length dresses because in Paris it was this space to address the elegance, the silhouettes, the drama that Paris would require in the great house of Mona Bismarck. The exhibit looked great at SCAD in the two galleries with Rachel Feinstein’s coach (there would be no place to do that here in this house) but at the same time here, there was another kind of dimension that the fluidity of the show creates of a text to the viewer about the little black dress in different variations and juxtapositions, wherein the French person who has such a trained eye about style and couture can appreciate the contrast between Proenza Schouler’s lace next to a Yves Saint Laurent couture dress, next to a Ricardo Tisci ball gown, next to something very modern in neoprene by ALEXEY, a Chanel ready-to-wear dress from the ‘80s but looks from the ‘20s, like a Gatsby shift. But editing was extraordinarily important.
Terron Schaefer of Saks once said his career started at Filene’s by putting the beautiful shoes on the first floor and hiding the ugly shoes in the bowels of the store—a retail strategy that veers on the curatorial. How did you avoid the “department store” trappings in this show?
ALT You avoid the trappings by focusing on your game plan. I’ve rarely done window display in a department store—I have in the past for my friend Manolo Blahnik—but a window suggests commerciality to lure people into buying things. An exhibit is not trying to get you to buy things, you’re trying to get someone to dream. Therefore, a dream attuned to your own senses, with the drama, the lighting, the placement, you can turn a mannequin just a little bit and it can suggest a dialogue, maybe one with a person who’s not there or a girl seated in a cluster suggests that this is a crowded room at a party.
That’s such a Vreeland idea.
ALT I could not have done this if I had not worked for Mrs. Vreeland. My first job in New York was being a volunteer to Mrs. Vreeland; I was young, she was my inspiration, my mentor, I worked on so many of the shows that she did. Even after I got my first job, I would go back to the museum. So she taught me how to do this and to put narration into clothes. It’s easy to do if you’ve worked with Diana Vreeland.
I’m curious about the red you used in the exhibition both in Paris and in SCAD.
ALT I’ve always loved red; of course Mrs. Vreeland loved the color (her whole apartment was red). So the color comes from her carpet, I tried to get that color. Actually, it took a while to get the red right. The red is supposed to be one that has a lot of orange in it, like the one in Savannah, but there were many ones here that were too bright, too orange, too red. So I found down a fabric in the store inventory of a friend of mine, Rita Watnick in California, and she a bolt of it rolled up on a sewing table. So, I sent that swatch.
I was also curious about the younger designers that you featured in the show, for example Cushnie et Ochs.
ALT They are two young girls who are exceptional—I love their innovativeness, their sense of style and modernity. I also love what Prabal Gurung does. That leather dress with cutouts worn by Sarah Jessica Parker is marvelous. I love Zac Posen, Joseph Altuzarra is wonderful too. They all do amazing things. It’s not just about the giants and the big masters.
And your placement of the dresses obviously creates a dialogue, so explain to me a bit about that.
ALT You have to draw similarities in certain spaces — if you have two lace dresses, you should at some point try to connect them in the space for the person who’s looking at it and not just throw lace right at them. But if you have two girls on a bench, and one has epuilled lace and the other has tulle tangled with lace, that makes a suggestion that this is a thing about lace. Two big tulle dresses [like the Oscar de la Renta and Vera Wang gowns] should be near each other but not next to each other. The day of the LBD opening, I was moving things until 5 o’clock—I pushed Cushnie et Ochs over to Vera Wang, because there was no dialogue between the woman standing up and the Vera sitting there all by herself. You have to make a connection, a logical theme in your mind.
Both of your SCAD shows are so personal; Little Black Dress is based around a theme, and the Antonio Lopez is much more of a retrospective.
ALT Through remembering Antonio’s work and knowing him, having gone through his archives… It was difficult, we had beautiful things and had to take them down to 50—I had near 90 examples of his great work, I knew him—but the space demands. If I could have had two galleries worth of Antonio’s work, I would have done it. I spent time thinking “Will this connect to the SCAD student?” “Will this connect to the viewer?” and there were some things that were totally fabulous but perhaps too erotic. You just have to look at everything, and after the second or third time, you’ll know what goes or this stay, or you move something there or you don’t move it all.
Are you going to go to Lacoste to see the Lopez show?
ALT I’m not coming to Lacoste ever!
ALT I’ve heard there are scorpions there. And there’s no way I’ll be going down cobble stone streets! I don’t do Provence.
Where do you go?
ALT I go to places where I’m treated with respect and taken care of. I go to Regensburg, Germany, with my friend Gloria Von Thurn und Taxis, who has a house at a lake. I have not seen insects there. I may have seen a few spider webs, but that’s it!
Well, it’s a good thing you’re based in New York.
ALT Oh, I have many things in my house that I haven’t seen!
Sign of a true New Yorker! Tell me a great memory of you and Antonio.
ALT Antonio was an exceptional human being, a man of great style with marvelous skills, and a true genius of his craft, a superb dresser. We’d start working at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and go through ‘til 4 o’clock in the morning. One of my greatest memories was he took me to meet Charles James. I was not in New York when he died, in October of ‘78, I was in Paris at the collections, but I used to go on Sundays with Antonio and Juan [Ramos] to church in Harlem and then I would go down to Mr. James’ apartment in the Chelsea Hotel and watch Antonio sketch clothes of Charles James sometimes on boys and sometimes on girls. At a certain point, Antonio loved to sketch his designs on boys because they had the thin anatomy that even a model wouldn’t have because Mr. James’ things were so architectural. It was a marathon of knowledge. Antonio introduced me to Mr. James, which was a great privilege because he was by then already in retirement. Actually, it’s going to be an exhibit next year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Are you working on that?
ALT I was planning to do that exhibit at SCAD if I had found the money, but once I found out it was going to be the Metropolitan, I had to drop the idea. I’m not Anna Wintour—these things cost money and are expensive.
What exhibitions are you working on next?
ALT I am working on the idea, again, based on my personal experiences of who in my life are well dressed. All these clothes [in Little Black Dress] came mostly from my friends, like Ann Bass who I remember wearing the YSL, and Gloria’s Chanel, I remember her wearing that one too. So I just call up my friends or the designers and ask to send one of their client’s clothes. So, I’m thinking about doing something highly personal called “Women of Style”—modern women of style, not dead women of style. But I’m not doing anything until I have the money.
Speaking of money, how is everything going at Numéro?
ALT Very wonderful, creatively magical! I’m responsible for covers, choice and one or two big fashion stories every issue. I have four issues under my belt, and so far it’s been marvelous. I love it very much. I hope it gets distributed in America because nobody sees it and I don’t get enough issues to send it out to everyone!
Well, rumor has it you’re going to be the next Andy Cohen.
ALT No, I don’t think that’s true. But I admire what he does, he’s an extraordinary man, he’s very talented, dashing and debonair. Andy has done great things for what he has done, which is to create a brand. My deal is not to be the next Andy Cohen and is not even in its set stage; it’s in its incubating stage. So I have nothing to report. If it doesn’t happen, I’ll be fine too.
Since you just described Andy in all those wonderful adjectives, how would you describe yourself?
ALT A very hard-working person. I hope that I’m appreciated. I work very hard and give a lot of myself. I basically don’t have a personal life, I have very little time to see my friends—I don’t even have time to talk to my friends on the telephone, I’m so tired! Even so, I think I’m a very warm person, a giving person, and loving person to people in my life.
I’m very proud of the Mona Bismarck exhibition. When you sit back to think, Paris really is a tough call. I’m here the week of couture, Dior, Chanel, Lacroix, Schiaparelli, Valentino—these are things I’ve grown up with and suddenly I’ve come full circle by doing an exhibit in the Mona Bismarck, the house and legacy that is something so big in fashion, and a special place in Paris. I’ve read mostly everything you can read about Mona Bismarck; I’ve seen her clothes at the Metropolitan, with Mrs. Vreeland when she donated many of her Balenciagas; I’ve seen her bills, like for her furs from Paris, in the Museum of the City of New York, and I look up at her famous house up on the corner, so it’s a lot of take in.
images courtesy scad