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Review: The Chiffon Trenches by André Leon Talley

Have you ever wondered how accurate The Devil Wears Prada’s portrayal of working at Vogue under Anna Wintour was? Are you curious about which major designers do the most cocaine? Have you ever considered how Princess Diana would react if you spilled red wine on her ballgown during dinner? Do you daydream about what it would be like to share a private jet with Naomi Campbell? Would you like to know whether Karl Lagerfeld’s cat had its own personal maid and dentist? Have you ever questioned how many times one can use the words “resplendent” or “sangfroid” within a single chapter?    

If the answer to any of the above questions is “duh”, then good news, dear reader: you’re in the right place. The answer to all my queries and more can be found within the pages of André Leon Talley’s new memoir. 

The memoir starts with a bang. The introduction reflects on Beyonce’s 2018 Vogue cover, which featured her own writing instead of a traditional interview and the work of the first Black photographer to ever shoot a Vogue cover. Talley, a Black American man, reflects on the power of this quiet statement made by Beyonce and connects it with his own personal history. He grew up in the Jim Crow South, when being a young Black boy with a love of Vogue magazine, Jackie Kennedy and imaginative fashion choices was no walk in the park. Talley writes, “it’s a dangerous and perilous tightrope walk, and yet you must rise to meet the day.”

The book follows Talley’s upbringing in his grandmother’s house, his education in French studies at Brown University, his introduction to the legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, his work at Interview Magazine under Andy Warhol, and then his success at major fashion magazines: WWD, Vogue, Ebony. Talley brushed shoulders with the biggest names in fashion early on and made a lasting impression. He credits his deep knowledge of fashion, sense of style and, above all else, his excellent Southern manners for his acceptance into the ranks of Karl Lagerfeld, Andy Warhol, John Galliano, Oscar de la Renta, Manolo Blanhik, Paloma Picasso and many others.   

Is the narrative tinged with some grandiosity? Of course it is. Talley spent years being told that he was influential, important, an insider. As he writes, for a time he was the most important man in fashion journalism. It’s understandable that he sees himself this way and writes about himself this way. He writes about all expenses-paid trips around the world with designers and models, nearly always securing a front row seat at a fashion show and being considered an expert on style choices by many an elite New Yorker or Parisian.  

There are also some heavy moments within the book, although they are scarce and given only a few pages at a time. Talley writes about childhood sexual abuse, losing friends to the AIDs crisis, and his struggles with binge eating. He also writes about the devastation of decades-long friendships ending, most notably with Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour. Perhaps it’s deliberate that Talley only affords these experiences a few words. It seems likely, to me at least, that at 70 years old Talley is tired of reflecting on the sadness and cruelty he experienced in his life. 

The photographs featured in this book deserve their own rating to be honest. The photos are shot by heavyweights like Arthur Elgort and Jonathan Becker, and they are absolutely incredible. Talley selected beautiful shots that show old Vogue photoshoots, Met Ball red carpet moments, portraits of influential fashion elite and ‘casual’ photographs with his designer friends. 

Overall, the book is good. It’s not great, but it’s not terrible. It was heavily advertised as a “tell all” and it was implied that there would be a lot more gossip about Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld than actually appears. Most of the information provided is already known publicly. Anna Wintour is a cold, decisive business woman who rarely shows concern for other’s emotions? DUH. Karl Lagerfeld was extravagant with money, difficult to be around and quick to cut off friendships? DUH. There are rumours that the man left his fortune to a cat. Of course he’s a little eccentric and impossible to understand. I will concede that there are some incredible anecdotes in the book, particularly at the beginning of the story, in Talley’s twenties. But is the book the drama-fest that some eager fashion fans were anticipating? No, not really. Is it a well written masterpiece? No, not really. Talley writes some sections beautifully, but then repeats certain words and phrases so much that he starts to sound like a parrot. As I said, it’s good, not great. 

I’ll attempt to put it in fashion terms: I was expecting Chanel but got J. Crew instead. 

Pairs well with: couture Chanel, The Devil Wears Prada, a burgeoning career in feline dentistry.


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