André Leon Talley In Conversation With Beverly Johnson
There are few figures in the fashion world that command as much attention as Beverly Johnson and André Leon Talley. Their shadows are enough to elicit religious-like praise from a brigade of admirers, and their conversation last night at The Museum of the City of New York was no exception. The occasion was in celebration of Beverly Johnson’s recently released memoir, The Face That Changed It All.
André, swathed in his signature black garb, accentuated every word with his characteristic gesticulation. Beverly was an astounding beauty, with cheekbones so chiseled they practically cut me from my seat in the fourth row. The two reminisced on everything from André’s time working under Diana Vreeland, to Beverly’s pivotal Vogue cover, to her slew of love interests, each with the poised and self-assured ease of what could only be described as pre-fashion week vitality.
It became clear very quickly that they could not possibly discuss their careers and individual successes without first talking about their respective backgrounds, the latter having informed the former.
André was raised by his grandmother in Durham, North Carolina, in a home that encouraged intellectual and creative pursuits of all kinds and was governed by few rules. He recalled one decisive moment, when his grandmother refurbished the guest room. She added a desk and a chair, painted it a “Schiaparelli pink,” and designated it as André’s reading room. It was in that room that he delved into his studies, absorbing issue upon issue of Vogue, inhaling every piece of knowledge that he could get his hands on, and ultimately priming himself for his illustrious career in fashion. After receiving a scholarship to attend Brown University for undergrad and getting a master’s degree in French Literature, he landed an internship at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, working under Diana Vreeland. Though his background was “very humble and very modest,” it was his extensive knowledge of fashion that landed him in the good graces of Mrs. Vreeland, who eventually convinced Andy Warhol to hire him at the Factory for $50 a week.
Beverly’s upbringing, though certainly different, was no less crucial to her success. Raised in Buffalo, New York, she decided to pursue modeling after learning that models make $75 per hour to the $75 per week her father was making as a steelworker. After landing her 1974 Vogue cover — and, in turn, becoming the first black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue — her career instantly took off, and she went on to appear on the covers of 500 different magazines.
In recalling their respective upbringings, Talley and Johnson seemed to suggest that it was not in spite of, but rather because of their modest backgrounds that they have been able to achieve such immense success. They both moved to New York City in the ‘70s with a febrile energy and enthusiasm for success — Beverly entering the industry as a mere “toddler,” as she tells it. And you could hear that same energy in her voice as she recalled her 1974 Vogue cover. Indeed, it was a momentous occasion not just for her career, but for the history of black culture in fashion, despite the fact that, according to both Johnson and Talley, there were more black models in the ‘70s than there are now. “There were black modeling agencies,” she said with delight.
Then came the ‘80s, a “time of excess,” Johnson recalled, with an intoxicated glint of exuberance in her eyes.
Recalling her first husband in the ‘80s, she said, “I needed a place to stay, so I got married.” This was at the height of her career, when she was being whisked off to a different country every other day. “My husband — I think the first one — would cry for me not to go and I would say, ‘OK. I won’t go, I won’t go.’ And then, ‘OK, the car’s downstairs! Gotta go!’
Some of Johnson’s anecdotes were sadly unsurprising. She detailed oft-heard examples of the typical strife of a working model, such as the time Eileen Ford told her in a matter-of-fact tone, “Too fat.” Three days after writing Johnson off, Ford learned about her Vogue cover and invited her back to the agency. Johnson had spent those three days gorging on ice cream, but as soon as she went back to visit Ford, the high-powered agent exclaimed, “You lost so much weight!”
The conversation naturally turned to the ‘90s, a time that has certainly engendered a great deal of nostalgia in many today, but also a time, which Talley reminded us, all but ignored black models. “And now it’s pretty much come back around where they are conscious of the black presence or the Asian presence,” Talley said of fashion today, which he calls “extraordinary” for its blending of cultures and genders. He spoke of the intrinsic style that runs through black culture, the “blackness of [black culture],” which comes from “the energy of our culture, the sophistication, the music, the music of Duke Ellington, the music of the blues.”
And, of course, what would an André Leon Talley appearance be without a hefty serving of his classic Andréisms. “I’m not going to sit there and scribble notes, note take, note take, note take. I look at the clothes and I take mental pictures. I have an elephant’s memory and I can remember the best clothes basically from the most important shows of the greatest designers. And that takes a great deal of knowledge and that takes a great deal of passion.”
When an audience member asks him to tell a story about working under Diana Vreeland, Talley seems to initially suggest that he doesn’t have much to offer. “The only thing I can say to you is that Diana Vreeland spoke in what I would call narratives.” But merely recalling Mrs. Vreeland seemed to trigger in him a handful of utterly delightful memories. “She would say, ‘You must never ever ever hear the heels of a woman’s foot. It’s secretarial,’” he recalls, “And she walked on her toes. When she walked in the room, you didn’t hear clack clack clack. She’d walk on her toes; she would get up, she’d take deep breaths. Her entrance was ceremonial…she was like the queen!”
Asked about social media, Talley began to lament the dearth of in person conversation. This event was a rare glimpse of André Leon Talley and Beverly Johnson simply shooting the shit (“you went to go-sees in Halston!” Talley said giddily) – of raw, stimulating discussions such as this one. And yet, if the art of conversation is truly lost like he says it is, then listening to him and Beverly might be enough to resuscitate it.
Image courtesy of The Museum of the City of New York