INTERVIEW/PROFILE with FILMMAKER KATE NOVACK & ANDRÉ LEON TALLEY
André Leon Talley, a towering sultan of style, an encyclopedic historian of fashion, and a persistent advocate of African-American inclusivity in said industry, is the titular subject of Kate Novack’s exhilarating and finely crafted film, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ANDRÉ, that delivers immediately upon arrival; taking audiences through a complex life, with deft, clarity, and deep care. Centering on a larger-than-life style icon who emerged from humble beginnings to take flight and break into a hyper-elite world, the documentary follows Leon Tally who graciously navigated his position to become one of the most influential talents and respected curators, evolving into a trusted spokespersons of his elite industry, and beyond.
In a most liberating way for Talley, knowledge is elegance — the world is a constant learning site for him, “Elegance is always right at your fingertips. I learned from my mentors — Mrs. Vreeland and Mr. Fairchild — I learned the luxury of clothes from Mrs. Vreeland, the luxury from inside out …You have to read and read and read everything, from Balzac to Jean Cocteau to Gustave Flaubert. You have to listen to all of the great musicians — Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Duke Ellington, Mr. Coltrane, Billie Holiday. Everything is of great worth in the inspirational moment of achieving a state of grace through knowledge!”
With the Kate Novack’s New York Premiere of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ANDRÉ at the Tribeca Film Festival, we’re now thrilled to learn some pearls both about and from Mr. Leon Talley, a modern day philosopher of fashion, grace, and activism. May we continue learn and hear from this luminous living legend, ever-more…
By: Lisa Collins
Additional Contributor: Matthew Domescek
ABOUT THE FILM:
“André Leon Tally has been a fixture in the world of fashion for so long that it’s difficult to imagine a time when he wasn’t defining the boundaries of great style. Kate Novack’s intimate portrait, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ANDRÉ takes viewers on an emotional journey from André’s roots growing up in the segregated Jim Crow South to become one of the most influential tastemakers and fashion curators of our times.
Novack’s film draws fascinating, heretofore unexplored connections, between the elegance of André’s beloved grandmother and the Black Church of his youth and his later iconic, barrier — breaking work at publications like Women’s Wear Daily, W, and Vogue. Weaving together a wealth of archival footage from the most glamorous moments in fashion history with André’s poignant reflections on his life and career, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ANDRÉ is a cinematic monument to one of the most unique figures of 20th Century American culture.
Produced by the team who brought viewers THE FIRST MONDAY IN MAY and PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES and featuring commentary from fashion luminaries including Anna Wintour, Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ANDRÉ is an indispensable addition to the growing canon of fashion documentary.”
ON FILE: DIRECTOR KATE NOVACK AND ANDRÉ LEON TALLEY TALK:
Q: What first drew you to André Leon Talley and the idea of making a film about him?
KATE NOVACK: Ultimately, it was my belief that André’s life story deserved to be documented. But my grandfather was in the dress business. He manufactured clothing for designers, and I remember visiting his factory in Lowell, Massachusetts. So fashion was kind of in my DNA. I’d seen André in so many fashion documentaries — I think that my last count was fourteen. And he wasn’t just in them. He had these scene-stealing roles. But they always had the feel of a performance.
My producer and husband, Andrew Rossi, directed THE FIRST MONDAY IN MAY, which André was in. I went to some of the Q&As for the film that Andrew and André did together. Afterwards, I said to Andrew, “Why has there not been a film about this man?” André talks about a hymn that he always loved in church, that still brings him to tears, called “Precious Memories.” I listened to that song, and it was so moving. It’s about the way that memory can act as a sustaining force. That was really the entry point and the vision, and that song now plays a prominent role in the film.
Q: There have obviously been numerous fashion documentaries — and ones that André has been in. How did you approach this film and try and carve out a little space so that it has its own identity?
KN: I wanted the movie to always operate on two levels, both within the genre of ‘fashion documentary’ but also as a piece of American history, because I think that André is an important figure in American cultural history. He is one of the very first African American men to have a position of visible importance within the fashion industry. We have a long history of African American performers in front of the camera, but many fewer behind the camera shaping the images we see.
I love fashion documentaries, and so many of them are so moving. I think that fashion can be really moving, and I think that André’s love of fashion is very, very pure. As a boy, he fell in love with fashion, so I think that I always wanted it to be a movie that could allow viewers to experience, say, the beauty of what Yves Saint Laurent was doing on the runway in Paris in the 1970s, but also the place where André’s love for fashion came from which was the Black Church and the women in his family.
Q: This is the first film you’ve directed solo. How did you make that decision?
KN: There were always different ideas that Andrew and I, in our production company, had discussed as possible movies that I would direct. But I really was inspired by André’s story, and it just felt like the right story at the right moment. It felt like a moment where the story of this African American man — because, in many ways, I view the movie as being as much about one African American man’s experience in America as it is about fashion — was important and urgent. There’s a line from Eboni at the beginning of the movie about how André is a legend in mainstream culture, and he’s also a tall Black man in America from the American South and that there would always be great tension there. That really became an organizing principle in the film.
Q: When Kate first approached you about the documentary, how did she explain what she wanted to do?
ANDRE LEON TALLEY: Well, first, Kate and I met through Vogue — first they went through Vogue, because I had been interviewed by Andrew for
THE FIRST MONDAY IN MAY, and I had been the sort of ambassador for that film at a few screenings. So it was through the auspices of Vogue that Kate came to me with Andrew. I loved THE FIRST MONDAY IN MAY, and so I felt it was the perfect fit. If Kate had not come through Vogue, I might not have said ‘yes’ so quickly, and I don’t regret that I said yes.
Q: Did you have any idea of what to expect from the experience?
ALT: No. I did not have any idea about what to expect from the experience, and it was a rough going at first. It’s very intrusive, it’s like you are exposed, like chest surgery. It’s like you open the cavity of your chest and you expose yourself on a surgical table. I had no idea what it was going to be. I just trusted Kate enough and became very trusting of her, and her trajectory, her sophisticated research, and respect of my story, of my life. She delved into the past enough to impress me to continue to go through with it.
Q: You’re someone who has spent a great deal of time on camera, but being in a documentary is not the same thing.
ALT: It’s not the same. I’ve opened my heart and my soul and my life. And I am a very private and shy person, although I come off as a very flamboyant person. I use clothes as armor, clothes are my security blanket and my clothes and outfits are my armor against the world of the chiffon trenches. So the documentary has been a very enriching experience. I think it’s a very sensitive and extraordinary and yet elegant story of my life, as told by Kate, but it was very, very brutal for me to continue to go through all the machinations and all the sit down talks and everything. It’s totally different from being on a talk — show or panel or being interviewed by Charlie Rose on PBS with Karl Lagerfeld. It’s all very different and it’s very, very challenging and overwhelming, but I think that it’s a document that she wanted to do, a story she wanted to tell and I’m glad that I did it.
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*A NOTE FROM VISIONAIRE:
To celebrate Kate Novack’s and André Leon Talley’s superb collaboration on THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ANDRÉ, Visionaire presents you with our own quick mixtape teaser to toast André’s legendary presence, in the fashion world, and maaaany many places, beyond!…
When THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ANDRÉ hits theaters, trust us — run!