All a tiny bit self-pitying, whingeing and self-indulgently score-settling? It is rather, especially as Talley was 69 when he was finally dropped from doing the Met Gala interviews, and flounced out in a huff. Beneath it all, though, we see the damaged boy. His final poignant sentence sums up the way his whole life has been one big emotional cry for help: ‘I only wanted love.’
An Elephant in Rome
" January 1, 2021 Read this issue IN THIS REVIEW AN ELEPHANT IN ROME Bernini, the Pope and the making of the Eternal City 224pp. Pallas Athene. £19.99. Loyd Grossman Acheerful bricolage of biography, art history, trivia and travelogue..."
— Times Literary Supplement
To me, these stories read as rebuke, even revenge: backhanded take-downs of spoilt and thoughtless women; one admires the invisible quotation marks framing the word “croissant”. But is that how he means them to read; or are we to picture him without malice, oblivious to their pejorative effect? It’s hard to gauge Talley’s ingenuousness, or the limits of his naivety. At times, he seems too thin-skinned and indulged to survive in any professional sphere; at others, case-hardened from a lifetime of slights and insults on New York’s Upper East Side, where he was called “Queen Kong”, and was commonly supposed to have got where he was by sleeping with designers.
Aside from all the gossip, name-dropping and insider information in this memoir, we are reminded that Talley was the only prominent black man in fashion journalism from 1988 to the appointment of Edward Enniful as editor of British Vogue in 2017. That disgraceful and unpalatable fact alone makes his story all the more relevant today, and Talley’s achievements so remarkable.
It’s an eye-popping epic of full-on score-settling, giving a unique insight into a famously cut-throat industry. Talley was plucked from obscurity by Anna Wintour, the fearsome and steely editor of US Vogue, to be her creative director. Or senior courtier. His story is as camp as Christmas and twice as indulgent. But he is also poignantly honest about the dreadful racism — and bizarrely, too, the homophobia — he encounters on his way through the chiffon trenches.
This memoir was marketed as a “tell-all” about Lagerfeld and Wintour, Talley’s notoriously icy boss. There is some of that: Lagerfeld tells Talley that his mother strapped him to a bed with leather restraints to prevent him from eating at night as a child; Wintour is “never really passionate about clothes”, but about power. Yet Talley remains frequently discreet on behalf of the powerful, Wintour included. It’s never clear, exactly, when Talley falls out of fashion.
This is not to say that The Chiffon Trenches doesn’t have its… moments. Laugh as Talley primly turns down the chance to participate in Warhol’s Oxidation series, AKA his “piss paintings”. Cry as he describes the fearful cold at the Shropshire home of John Galliano’s muse, Amanda Harlech. (Honestly, he would have died had the Ritz not sent his Fendi shearling from London overnight.) Hold your nose at the idea of Anna Piaggi, of Italian Vogue, at a Paris disco with a basket of dead pigeons on her head. Yes, there are poignancies: the abuse Talley suffered as a child; the friends who die from Aids. But because he always rushes straight back to his own wonderfulness – that time Diana Vreeland told him he was a genius! – they do not detain the heart for long.
For someone who made at least some of his living from being a writer, he is not given to analysis, preferring observation instead. Mind you, when the observed are as wildly exotic as the creatures here, it’s an entertaining trip to the zoo. The self-entitlement of so many of its characters shimmers off every page, but no one seems happy. Lagerfeld – like Leon Talley, a binge eater – was apparently tied to his bed as a child to prevent him raiding the fridge in the middle of the night. (With mothers like that…) No wonder the TV adapters are queuing up.
Leaked excerpts, including revelations about Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent and Naomi Campbell, have left fashion followers gasping, desperate for the book’s release. What awaits is a tell-all in which it is difficult to discern who the biggest diva is — the author included. Because Talley has penned what no other insider has dared: an exposé of the cut-throat world of fashion and a direct attack on its most powerful woman. Given the huge success of The Devil Wears Prada, Hollywood has come knocking for more, with Hulu and Amazon rumoured to be interested in a TV series; Talley hopes he’ll be played by Will Smith.
For all its name-dropping, backstabbing, outsize egos, vivid description and use of words like “bespoke” and “sang-froid,” “The Chiffon Trenches” is less about the fashion elite than it is about a black boy from the rural South who got swallowed whole by the white gaze and was spit out as a too-large black man when he no longer fit the narrative. But the white gaze has done its work, and Talley’s disconnect to blackness — his own and others’ — is palpable. As in the introduction, where he writes about “great strides” for black folks in fashion, his mention of efforts by the black former model Bethann Hardison to diversify the industry feels hollow. “People forget to think about diversity,” Talley writes, “but they forget less when there are people in place who put them in the moment where they must really think about it. A moment of awareness of black culture.”
Indeed, a moment.