The juiciest fashion memoir of the year is out. But is it a tell-all, a tragedy or a harbinger of things to come?
There is a scene in “The September Issue,” the 2009 movie by R. J. Cutler about the making of the biggest Vogue of the year, that features the magazine’s then editor at large, André Leon Talley, huffing his way around a tennis court with a Louis Vuitton tennis racket case, Louis Vuitton tennis towel, Louis Vuitton beanie hat and Louis Vuitton sports bag.
It is eerily reminiscent of a scene from “High Anxiety,” the 1977 movie by Mel Brooks, which features its star, Madeline Kahn, wearing a Louis Vuitton-inspired jumpsuit, getting out of a Louis Vuitton-inspired car. The Brooks film, however, is a satire; the Cutler film, a documentary.
Which is to say: In fashion, the difference between fact and fantasy often seems to come down to what you call it. Or how you see it. That shifting line is part of why it’s such a compelling avatar for our ambitions and identities. Ofttimes you have to dress the part and pretend before you play the part.
This is never more apparent than in two new books: one from Mr. Talley himself, and one from Alexandra Shulman, the editor of British Vogue for 25 years. “The Chiffon Trenches,” Mr. Talley’s book, has had gossip and power brokers salivating since excerpts taking aim at his former employer, the Vogue editor Anna Wintour, leaked a few weeks ago.
But really, how to see them?
Though both books are officially memoirs, they are more like historical documents, chronicles of a world that was already on the fade but, post-Covid-19, will be changed forever — if it survives at all.
“The Chiffon Trenches” has been sold as a juicy tell-all about two of the towering figures of 20th-century fashion: Ms. Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld, the Chanel designer who died in 2019; revenge porn in written form. It is that, kind of. But it is also a bildungsroman about an African-American boy from the Jim Crow South who made it to the front row of the Parisian fashion world by way of Interview, WWD, Ebony, Vanity Fair and, above all, Vogue.
It is a tragedy: the story of how one man sold, if not his soul, then his heart, his intelligence and his body of knowledge for the sake of a suite of branded suitcases and Hilditch & Key crepe de Chine shirts. And it is a horror story, about what happens when you confuse your professional life with real life.
So come for gossip: Karl Lagerfeld was strapped to a bed as a child with leather restraints by his mother so he wouldn’t eat at night! Anna cut André out for being overweight and old (though she still invited him to her Chanel couture fittings)! Bianca Jagger traveled with custom-made Louis Vuitton hunting cases designed to hold grouse guns but long enough for her gowns! John Galliano demanded zebra rugs in his VIP dressing rooms at shows!
The book is rife with such tattletale moments about these and other characters beloved of Mr. Talley: Manolo Blahnik, Lee Radziwill, Amanda Harlech.
But stay for the truths inadvertently revealed.
(Full disclosure: I worked at Vogue for a year under Anna Wintour in the mid-90s, but did not know Mr. Talley at the time.)
It is a book full of monstrous personalities whose demands are excused by their talent. Karl Lagerfeld, for example, whom Mr. Talley venerates for his intelligence (he calls him the “Socrates of high fashion”) and his twisted generosity (he made Mr. Talley an ankle-length broadtail coat, then cast off Mr. Talley’s reciprocal gifts, and ultimately cut off anyone who dared display weakness or need).
Naomi Campbell, who treats Mr. Talley and a boyhood friend to a trip to Nigeria for the Arise Festival, to introduce a documentary that had been made on his life, thus giving Mr. Talley the gift of seeing Africa — though when it comes time to return home on Naomi’s private plane, he recounts carefully instructing his companion not to speak until spoken to (she is in a mood), a situation he seems to find completely, horrifyingly normal.
Give me economy any day.
Though Mr. Talley clearly makes an effort to wrestle with topics he spent a lot of his life not acknowledging, from all fashion’s shameful isms (sizeism, ageism — and, above all, racism, a recurring and painful through-line) to his own failed lap band surgery and inability to have a romantic relationship (he was abused as a child by a neighbor), it’s as if simply acknowledging the existence of these facts — the way they marred the otherwise gorgeous vistas of the industry as it unfurled in his mind — is enough. He never really looks at whether the rewards were worth the price exacted.