The Chiffon Trenches by André Leon Talley
Published by Ballantine Books
Publication date: April 28, 2020
Genres: fashion, Memoir, Non-fiction, Pop culture
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One of the things I love almost as much as books is fashion, which could come as a surprise given that my current wardrobe is layered knits and sweatpants. I may not be wearing it anymore, but before I became a librarian I worked in a department store as a buyer and as an account executive for a men’s apparel company in NYC. I dreamed of being the editor of a fashion magazine, so finding out that one of the most influential men in fashion had finally written a memoir was a happy day. André Leon Talley’s The Chiffon Trenches is as exactly as I hoped it would be—as bold and opinionated as the man himself.
Raised in 1950s North Carolina by his grandmother, Talley was in love with all things French from an early age. That and the fashion magazines he read at the library were his passions. His study of French earned him a scholarship to Brown, where he hoped to get a master’s and PhD in the language and become a teacher. Until a friend he made at school got him a job as a volunteer in NYC working with Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan’s Costume Institute in 1974. He left the South and never looked back.
Talley’s gift for understanding designer’s, the meaning behind their work, and being able to translate it for the regular woman meant his star kept rising. He moved on to WWD (Women’s Wear Daily—the newspaper read religiously by anyone working in fashion) becoming their European fashion editor. Finally, he met Anna Wintour and when she landed at Vogue he went with her, staying as a part of the magazine, in various roles, from 1983 until 2013.
In The Chiffon Trenches he writes of his move to Paris for WWD at the age of 27:
This was what I had dreamed of, but I had never dared to believe I would be in this exalted position so young, so naïve, so innocent. I had arrived in a place where I was accepted and where I now belonged. My blackness was not important. What mattered was that I was smart.
This was an exciting time for him, one his childhood in the segregated South led him to believe was impossible. Sadly, the racism continued even in his professional life.
If the professional details of The Chiffon Trenches are juicy tidbits about the humans behind the facades in the fashion world, then the personal details of Talley’s life are more somber. He writes with honesty about a childhood that left him unable to accept himself sexually, systemic racism, and his struggles with his weight. For all his flamboyance, he is a man who moves through the world with a firm sense of propriety and the importance of etiquette. It is this almost fastidious attention to detail that led to his abiding friendships with notorious perfectionists, Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour. Both would be great supporters and friends and both would ultimately withdraw their friendship without notice.
For all of the above reasons, The Chiffon Trenches is marvelous reading. There are historical tidbits in every chapter, like Diana Vreeland’s only drink of the day being a shot of Dewar’s at lunch. The habit of the uber-rich of selling or regifting presents they don’t like. Or, the secrecy behind Lagerfeld’s legendary weight loss. Anna Wintour only wears Manolo Blahnik shoes. These more superficial anecdotes pair well with Talley’s deep reverence for the art of clothes and all things fashion, much in the same way an oversized bright accessory is all that’s needed with a perfectly constructed dress. If you love fashion, you’ll love both.
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