Fashion Legend André Leon Talley Talks Travel
Find out about this celebrated Vogue contributing editor, curator and writer's favorite stays and mode of travel in his candid interview with the Travel Channel.
A 6’6” caftan-clad fashion superhero, André Leon Talley is one of the enduring legends in a fashion industry that can often feel flush with flashes in the pan.
The curator, raconteur and Vogue contributing editor has enjoyed one of the most fascinating trajectories in any industry, spring boarding from a sheltered childhood in the deep South of Durham, North Carolina where his beloved grandmother nurtured a love of beauty and self-expression into the rarefied world of haute couture. Along the way Talley studied French literature at Brown University where he hung with a crowd of fashionable party people, followed by stints working with Andy Warhol, at Interview magazine and with another fashion legend and editor, Metropolitan of Art Costume Institute consultant and grande dame Diana Vreeland.
Talley is also the star of a new documentary, The Gospel According to André (now in theaters) that breaks the fashion doc mold by tackling issues of race, personal history and a life defined by both pitfalls and magic, and the sometimes cruel vagaries of the fashion world. The film, directed by Kate Novack, is a fascinating peek behind the curtain of both Talley’s outsize personality and the complex and occasionally ugly dimensions of the “chiffon trenches,” as the always eloquent and colorful Talley calls the fashion business. Speaking from his White Plains, New York home in his unmistakable mellifluous sing-song voice, Talley regaled the Travel Channel with some of his favorite restaurants, hotels and travel rituals.
Was it difficult or cathartic to survey your past in The Gospel According to Andre?
It was very cathartic. I thought it was best to do it now at the age of 69 because it can be like a celebration. Many people had come to me before to ask to do documentaries, but I never found someone that I felt comfortable with. But I felt extremely comfortable and trusted Kate Novack and also liked it because it was her first full feature documentary that she directed. We were both new to the subject and that was a very good fit.
Your trajectory has been fascinating. Anything you would have done differently looking back?
I would have certainly wanted to have written the definitive autobiography of Yves Saint Laurent when that opportunity was given to me by the late Pierre Bergé [co-founder of the YSL label] and I didn’t come through. I was not mature enough to accept that kind of assignment. In hindsight that is the one thing I would have liked to have done…I really was a very, very big fan of Yves Saint Laurent. But that’s the only thing I regret.
You travel frequently to Savannah through your ongoing collaboration with the Savannah College of Art and Design as a trustee, curator and student mentor. Any favorite restaurants or places you always go back to in that city?
I love Savannah because it’s not at all what I expected when I first went there over 20 years ago. I think it’s a very elegant Southern town full of charm and grace and the people are so polite. The favorite restaurant that I go to is The Lady and Sons, Paula Deen’s restaurant.
Do you miss Southern food living in New York?
I certainly do. I miss the good old-fashioned Southern cooking of my grandmother: I miss the wonderful hot biscuits, the wonderful collard greens, the wonderful roast chickens, the wonderful holiday meals.
Do you consider yourself a Southerner?
No, I consider myself a man of the world.
One of the themes of the documentary is how important looking good and style was to black identity in the Jim Crow South. It’s obviously part of what inspired you to go into fashion and speaks to the idea of self-invention and presenting a picture of yourself for the world you long for not the one you live in. Can you talk a bit about that element of fantasy which fashion often taps into?
Clothes I learned early on can indeed become armor. You can hide behind your clothes, you can hide your insecurities, your strengths, your weaknesses, a good mood or a bad mood. They are the tools in which you go out to battle every day and either succeed or fail.
How often are you approached by people who recognize you when you travel? Do you like it, or prefer people keep their distance?
I don’t mind it, as long as they’re polite and they don’t ask for selfies. I don’t like taking selfies at all.
What’s your favorite way to pass the time when you are en route?
In the car, I listen to classical music on the radio. I love classical music. I love listening to Mozart, I love listening to Beethoven. I love listening to Aaron Copland…I don’t read that much anymore on planes anymore because I’m so anxious and nervous, I just want to get off the plane so fast.
Favorite mode of transportation?
I tend to try to go as much as I can in America by car. When I go from New York to North Carolina, I try to go by car. The last time I went to Charlotte, I went through West Virginia and that was a whole new experience, I’d never been to West Virginia. It was so full of cows and farms, it was quite marvelous. It was about 10 hours, it was a slow trip but it was a wonderful trip. I hire a driver and it’s just the most civilized way to travel. Most of the time you’re thinking, just sitting back and daydreaming. It’s not a waste of time, it’s a luxury!
Dustin Pittman/Penske Media/REX/Shutterstock
Paloma Picasso and Rafael Lopez-Sanchez talk to André Leon Talley during a benefit runway show of Chloe by Karl Lagerfeld held at Christie's.
Travel is often when you see some of the worst style: sweatpants, athleisure, pajamas, casual clothes no matter what the context. Any recommendations to get people out of this travel style rut?
No, I don’t think I have any recommendations except that when you go to the airport you must absolutely dress for comfort. In some places it’s considered very sophisticated to wear pajamas as long as they are well tailored, and you are covered up and they are not falling down and you aren’t exposing the family jewels. I also love clothes that I can put in the wash and put in the dryer and they don’t have to be ironed.
As long as it’s neat and clean. Dirty, sloppy is never acceptable.
What’s the last great place you traveled?
Of course Paris. I love Paris. Any trip to Paris, even a stopover in Paris at the airport and Air France, you realize that you’re on the soil of France and it’s just extraordinary and exhilarating and inspiring.
Favorite hotel in the world?
My favorite hotel in the entire world is The Ritz, in Paris. There is no other hotel that can compare. I love the Ritz. The comfort, the attention to detail, the staff—they make sure you have anything you want. It could be 5 o’clock in the morning and they can make sure that if you want an aspirin you will get an aspirin, and someone will bring it to you within five minutes. And I love the color of the peach sheets and the peach towels.
Most outlandish Ritz request?
Back in the day I used to store furniture in the Ritz that they would bring to my room. I used to store mirrors and paintings, they would already be set up in my room when I arrived they would actually hang them; things I’d purchased in France.
Your signature garment, the caftan, was discovered on a trip to Morocco. How else has travel inspired your personal style?
My personal style has been very much influenced by France of course, the culture of France, the history of France, the history of French furniture, the history of the way people lived in the 18th century. But more importantly the native Moroccan is an extraordinary person. I learned so much [in Morocco]; they have such beautiful artisan crafts, they have beautiful woven rugs, and beautiful pottery for dishes, beautiful food— tagine and couscous—Marrakesh has been a big, big, big part of how I live. I love Marrakesh.
What is one essential item, either sentimental or practical, you always travel with?
An Hermes blanket and a very good tote.
What is the Southern dish that immediately reminds you of home?
What is your current favorite NYC restaurant?
I love Majorelle. It’s actually inspired by North Africa and the French artist [Jacques] Majorelle. The Majorelle Garden in Marrakesh is very famous, it was bought by the Yves Saint Lauren Foundation.
I go to Majorelle once a week. It’s French cuisine and it’s my new favorite restaurant. It eclipses all other New York restaurants for me.
What do you order?
I like the vichyssoise, I like the grilled sea bass and the special soufflés they do.
You speak pretty openly about loneliness in the film; how do you keep that feeling at bay when you travel, which can often be a very lonely experience.
I feel fine, because when I travel I’m very, very occupied with my appointments, my schedule and there’s always something to see, some new restaurant to go to or something to discover, explore, buy a book, go to a bookstore. So I stay occupied more when I travel than when I am at home.
You have curated many notable fashion exhibitions on Vivienne Westwood and Oscar de la Renta in Savannah and Atlanta for the Savannah College of Art and Design where you are a trustee. Would you ever consider living in the South again?
I may. I think I may consider doing that. Because life is very hectic when you have to go into the city. I may try to live in North Carolina close to where I grew up. But the problem with being in the South is things don’t happen so fast.
Any recommendation for making a hotel room instantly cozy?
Absolutely! If you can get through customs, you take a blanket or pack a quilted cotton coverlet or a throw to throw across the bed to make it look colorful. And then another thing you can always ask the hotel if you don’t want to travel with is to give you scented candles. Or you add some flowers, they’re essential, to have flowers.
You are fluent in French; has that opened any doors when you travel that might have been closed if you only spoke English?
Absolutely. If I didn’t speak French I would not have had the success I had when I first went to Paris. Because the people were impressed that I was a tall black man speaking fluent French. Without question I would not have had the success.
Do you vacation or is travel always about work?
I don’t travel for pleasure anymore. I travel for work and then I combine the pleasure. I was in Charlotte, North Carolina recently and I had the most amazing trip for two weeks where I curated a show on Oscar de la Renta at the Mint Museum. It was a pleasant surprise; Charlotte is so sophisticated. I met such charming people! I made new friends: Chandra and Jimmie Johnson. He’s a NASCAR racer.
André Leon Talley’s Top Hotels
Live like a fashion legend and book a stay at one of his favorite hotels.
The Ivey’s Hotel, Charlotte, North Carolina
The Brewery Gulch Inn, Mendocino, California
The Ritz, Paris
The Carlyle Hotel, New York
The Mamounia Hotel, Marrakesh, Morocco
The Siena Hotel, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
The Fearrington House Inn, Pittsboro, North Carolina