THE film The Gospel According to André (Cert. 12A) is a testament of Christian faith as lived out in the fashion world by André Leon Talley, former American editor-at-large of Vogue. Born in 1949 and brought up chiefly by his grandmother in a black area of Durham, North Carolina, Talley lived in an enclosed community where Mount Sinai Baptist Church was, he says, “the most important thing in life” — not least because of his early fascination with worshippers’ choice of clothes.
The theologian the Revd Dr Eboni Marshall Turman tells us that church was the only place that affirmed African-American life and identity. The congregation put on their Sunday best. “They changed from their uniforms, perhaps, or the work clothes that guided their lives Mondays to Fridays, and on Sundays that was the day we would bring our absent selves to God.” But church, as perceived by his mother at least, was not the place to dress to extremes. When Talley wore a Phantom of the Opera cloak to worship, she disowned him. It led to his exit from the South.
After a college education, he moved to New York, where he could become who he truly was. Through the mentoring of Diana Vreeland, the renowned fashion columnist and editor, he was able to give expression to his Christian values in words and photo shoots. The heightening of reality which fancy clothes present us with remains for Talley a means of uplifting the soul. “I don’t live for fashion. I live for beauty and style,” he says.
And, he might have added, for the struggle against racial oppression. When asked why he has put up with prejudice for so long, he replies that it is through his faith and that of his ancestors. Its impact has largely been internalised. Where we do see him strike blows for his Christian sense of God’s righteousness is in some of his most remarkable features.
Yves St Laurent’s Broadway Suit collection was inspired by Porgy and Bess. He interpreted the music through designs for this. Talley saw the clothes as an evocation of his early church life, somewhere people could flourish. His Gone with the Wind-themed feature employed startling role-reversals. The main characters — Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie, Ashley, etc. — are represented by black models dressed in fine apparel. Whites play the slaves. Talley describes it as an affirmation that God is going to turn the present situation around.
This was before Trump’s election, a victory that he dreaded. What hope is now left for so many of God’s neglected children? A late scene juxtaposes this despair with Talley worshipping in Duke University Chapel. The preacher is Dr Turman. Her text (Deuteronomy 28, perhaps), she explains, assures us that where there are curses there are also blessings. “It’s telling us to keep alive. . . Strategize together, children.”
Talley continues to find his own Christian way of doing just this. The film, directed by Kate Novack, is aptly named.