It is refreshing when a documentary that is seemingly about one thing actually becomes something much deeper and more profound. Kate Novack’s latest documentary follows André Leon Talley, a well known figure in the fashion industry, whose larger than life persona, flamboyant dress sense and clear adoration for all things fashion has earned him respect among the likes of Anna Wintour and Tom Ford. It wasn’t easy for him to get here, however, and this film shows some of the struggles that he faced on his road to success.
Born and raised in Dakota, North Carolina in the 1950s, Talley worked his way up from nothing, into a world that wasn’t readily accessible to the black population in those days. Whoopi Goldberg, interviewed for this film, describes how “he was so many things he wasn’t supposed to be”, and this meant he faced a lot of scrutiny from his contemporaries. This an interesting study of the history of fashion, but also one of its prominent figures experience of racism in 20th century America.
What is moving about this film, is the very evident adoration that Talley has for his work. He gushes about the way the fashion industry was a safe place for him, far more accepting than many other lines of work at the time. However, he did encounter some unpleasantness, and there is a sad moment when Talley recalls hearing that his work mates had been calling him racist names behind his back. He has not always been comfortable discussing his roots, and it is clear that there is a vulnerability under the elaborate robes that he dresses himself in. Anna Wintour describes how she always felt that his clothes were his “armour” that he needed to “present himself to the world”.
As well as multiple interviews with key players in the fashion industry, it is also a detailed look at what goes on behind the scenes. Beyond this, below the surface, there is a much more substantial message about race and the history of discrimination in America, and the world. This is brought right up to the modern day as we watch Talley react to Donald Trump being voted the 45th President of the United States. Talley is funny and likeable, a big character, and his journey back to his early years and his humble roots make for a really enjoyable experience.
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