The month of February is known as African American History Month or Black History Month. While it’s essential to educate ourselves about Black history throughout the entire year, this is an extra special time to commemorate important African American figures and historical events.
This celebration of Black history started as a week, chosen the second week of February to honor the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, who were both activists and pioneers in the abolition of slavery. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s turned the celebration from one week to an entire month. It was President Gerald Ford who declared BHM official in 1976!
We will be publishing several posts weekly in honor of great pioneers of color within the fashion industry throughout history (full schedule available here!). Expect new fashion inspired by Black excellence posts every Tuesday and Thursday for the entire month of February. Check out our social media for even more content dedicated to influential African American fashion figures!
About André Leon Talley
To kick off our BHM fashion edit, it’s only right to begin with a great pioneer in the fashion industry, André Leon Talley. Having recently passed away at age 73, Talley was a man of extravagant style and a friend to designers stretching from New York to Paris. His distinct style and slight Southern accent made him a fan favorite wherever he appeared, whether it was on the Oprah Winfrey show, fashion runways, or even red carpets. His enthusiasm, eye for design, and unique writing style make him one of the most memorable and influential men of color to grace the fashion industry.
His story begins in 1948 in Washington D.C, where he was born. He was then raised in the deep South, by his grandmother, who was a cleaning lady at Duke University. He was able to use his first-hand experience, being raised in a racially segregated church in North Carolina, where he would marvel at the duds worn by those who attended church in their Sunday best, to create his style. Talley used his studies of language and literature to articulate it through style columns. After receiving his education in French literature he set out to meet the fashion icons of his dreams and then never looked back.
Influence on the Fashion Industry and the World
Talley drew inspiration from glamorous and edgy silhouettes to create his unique style—A combination of floor-length robes, tailor-made caftans, Russian ushankas, and snakeskin boots. In combination with his upbringing and attending Central University, an esteemed Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in North Carolina, and Ivy League Brown University, Talley developed a refined style all his own. In addition to his extravagant style, he was a Black male standing well over 6 ft that would influence the fashion industry culturally, in a way it had not yet seen before.
His fashion career started as an unpaid apprenticeship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met), then to Andy Warhol’s Interview, which was an early dream of his. Despite Talley and Vogue being almost synonymous, Talley gained widespread attention in 1978 as the Paris Bureau Chief of Women’s Wear Daily (WWD). From WWD to Ebony, he landed a job at a magazine with an editor working to create a global presence. They traveled Europe together, busting down racial barriers while meeting with haute couture designers. It was with Ebony that Talley was able to design freely without navigating through the fault lines created by widespread publications. It was the work Talley did at Ebony that likely contributed to landing his next major role, and a highly esteemed one at that: Editor of Vogue. Talley shed light on black designers while he was an editor for Vogue largely through his Vogue Stylefax column, which placed emerging designers into the mainstream.
Although Talley and Vogue are often attached, Talley had a much wider impact on the fashion industry, particularly in pioneering the way for African American designers. While he was the magazine’s first black creative director, his impact went much deeper. He went beyond the typical mold, adding more color to the pages and bringing more awareness to African-inspired garments and culture.
In 2000, Talley began to cultivate a relationship with the Savannah College of Art (SCAD) located in none other than the deep South, earning the lifetime achievement award in fashion that year, which was then renamed after him. Every year after, Talley had a hand in picking the recipient and served as a trustee and mentor for aspiring designers. This relationship further helped Talley fulfill his vision to liberate the fashion industry. While Talley was largely ignored in New York and Paris, ironically, he was able to build a meaningful hub in the South, bringing his vision full circle in the last two decades of his life.
He spent the past few decades in White Plains, New York, but his true home was the front rows of Fashion Week. Talley certainly made his stamp on the fashion industry, inspiring minorities to express themselves on their terms. His long-lasting impression is of one that moved cultural mountains.