DIR: Kate Novack • WRI: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters • DOP: Bryan Sarkinen • ED: Andrew Coffman, Thomas Rivera Montes • PRO: Kate Novack, Andrew Rossi • MUS: Ian Hultquist, Sofia Hultquist • CAST: André Leon Talley, Manolo Blahnik, Naomi Campbell
On the surface, The Gospel According to André appears to be a retrospective documentary surrounding André Leon Talley, an ebullient and extravagant figure within the fashion world since the 1970s. He’s worked alongside Andy Warhol for Interview magazine; styled Met Gala gowns for Diana Vreeland; became editor-at-large for US Vogue under Anna Wintour’s reign. Yet, this documentary offers far more than a generic fly-on-the-wall exploration of the fashion world and André Leon Talley’s significant involvement in it.
Raised in a racially-segregated North Carolina, Talley was reared by his strict grandmother, who enforced strict morals, which he later adopted in his own approach to his career. A young Talley spent time as a youth in the local library reading editions of Vogue that assisted in igniting a love for fashion and it delighted and encouraged him, as a black person, to see pictures of black models being celebrated in the fashion world. He became obsessed with fashion and high societies of the past aspiring “to be like the people who dared to be daring”. The documentary then allows us to see how he progressed from his college days experimenting with his image to becoming a forerunner of fashion writing and styling at Vogue, and within fashion itself.
Instead of retrospectively examining the career moves Talley made, director Kate Novack explores the theme of race and racial injustice within Talley’s life. He is a flamboyantly-dressed gay black man and he’s separated him from the conservative world he originally belonged to. Talley mentions how his mother refused to walk into their church together on a Sunday morning as a result of a cape he wore and he became an opposing figure within an already-segregated community. He then also experienced being considered a “black buck” or called “Queen Kong” by established fashion professionals, as he felt they saw him as someone who whored and slaved his way to where he is today due to being a black man.
More positively, Novack explores where Talley has used previous racial injustices and utilised them to create a more prosperous image of black culture. There is a segment where we see a Vogue editorial from Talley where he twists the characters in Gone with the Wind and uses fashion to create an alternate film dubbed ‘Scarlett in the Hood’, with Naomi Campbell styled as a black Scarlett O’Hara and with white people representing the servants. We also see Talley discuss how Yves Saint Laurent deriving inspiration for a collection from a song popular within black culture emotionally resonated with Talley and he was proud that African American people were further represented on runways and in magazines.
The documentary itself is a conventional one with a mixture of observational and archival footage and with pieces-to-camera from established fashion industry notables such as Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, and Anna Wintour. They speak of his profound influence within fashion and Anna Wintour claims she needed him alongside her at Vogue as her fashion knowledge was far inferior to his. The conventionality of the documentary’s production is not replicated thematically and Talley is an erudite figure who speaks of his life as a black person, as well as someone working in fashion. With the documentary based in 2016 around the time of Trump’s election win, there is an effective political charge here that works within the documentary’s overall narrative.
Audiences might expect a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the fashion industry seen in documentaries such as The September Issue or The First Monday in May, or just to simply voyeuristically explore the hyper-reality of the fashion world. From his own gospel, André Leon Talley is too savvy and intelligent to create such a documentary. Here he proves he has substance behind the style.