André Leon Talley beckoned us to perch on either side of him. He was sitting in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library before his Wednesday Master’s Tea, his Chado Ralph Rucci coat with images of dancers from Pina Bausch’s company (“not pornographic”) draped around him. Talley — who graces the Vogue masthead — is demanding. In the fashion world he only needs three letters, A.L.T., also the title of his 2003 memoir. He sat down with us before and after the tea to talk about lunches with Karl Lagerfeld, his fantasies of fresh linen and “gardening by pointing.”
Q: How does one stay fashionable in college?
A: Look at you: I don’t know who made that skirt but I think it’s wonderful, and I don’t care where it comes from, but it’s different and you matched it with sort of a rugby-esque sweater. There are no rules. In college there are no trends. You are the trend.
Q: You speak a lot about history and references to the past and past clothing. During the talk, an audience member questioned the relevance of Vogue, saying the magazine isn’t “cutting edge.” What is cutting edge, and how do you connect that with history?
A: Well, I was being very polite to the young lady because cutting edge can be today. As I said, the past is always here, the past is not gone. So what she is considering cutting edge is avant-garde, something she’s never seen. But Vogue has cutting edge. It is cutting edge in its approach to photography. It’s cutting edge in its models. It’s cutting edge in the choices of clothes. She said it’s “too safe.” If you pick up this month’s Vogue, they are showing long clothes for spring, long skirts. When was the last time you saw women being told by a fashion magazine you can wear a long skirt in the day. I think the cutting edge thing, it’s subjective and I was trying to be very polite to the girl.
Q: You speak a lot about fashion and history, of fashion being a portal. Do you have a favorite fashion fantasy that you escape to?
A: No. That’s why I have to watch movies. It depends on who I’m into right now, like right now I’m really into [Akira] Kurosawa and I just purchased his 25-volume set of DVDs. I don’t encourage you to do it — it costs $300. The biggest fantasy that I have at the moment is getting into my Ralph Rucci tunics. The fantasy that I live through every day is my own ability to entertain myself in my head, and it gets more difficult the older one gets. But when I was your age I was off the charts, and I think Andy Warhol saw that.
Q: On Monday, Michael Kors and Anna Wintour presented a discussion about underage and underweight models and the alleged epidemic in the modeling industry at the Harvard Business School. What do you think of the current state of the modeling industry with models being underweight or underage? Do you think there is an epidemic?
A: I’m not aware of the epidemic of underage models or the epidemic of models with eating disorders. I feel like there has been such an awareness made through the CFDA, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and Vogue. And Anna Wintour is very much an advocate of healthy models’ well-being, mentally as well as physically, and I’m not totally in tune to that. I do think there has been, in the last four years, a new consciousness about what models should aspire to be as models.
Q: And what is that?
A: Well, they should aspire to a healthy model and that means eating properly, sleeping, getting rest, eating. There’s been a myth that the model doesn’t eat anything but lettuce or she’s on caffeine or whatever. I do think you cannot have underage models working in the industry because there should be laws in place to keep children or pre-teens in an environment that’s pre-teen.
Q: I wanted to ask you a little bit about the buzz surrounding your title change at Vogue.
A: What are you all reading? What is — when was that?
Q: I read that on New York Magazine’s Web site.
A: And what did they say?
Q: They just said it’s changing from editor-at-large to contributing editor. What does that change mean?
A: That change means that I’m going on a contractual basis, I’m still at Vogue, I’m still doing the same things that I do. But because I’m going to be on “America’s Next Top Model” it gives me the freedom to do what I want.
Q: On the subject of “America’s Next Top Model,” who’s the tougher boss? Anna Wintour or Tyra Banks?
A: Both, honey. Both. Both women are very strong powerful women and they inspire me. Anna Wintour is an extraordinary lady and so is Miss Tyra Banks. She has her standards too, and I have to raise myself to that standard.
Q: In these tough economic times, is luxury still important?
A: Very, but luxury isn’t just clothing. You have to understand that what makes me tick is not just what I’m wearing. Luxury is the luxury of seeing the green outside in nature. Luxury is the smell of fresh sheets on a line, which no longer exists because nobody’s washing their sheets and hanging them on lines. You can’t hang them on a line in New York because there’s too much dirt. Luxury: it’s not about going and buying the most extraordinary set of luggage or the most extraordinary ring or 6-ply cashmere sweater — that’s luxury too — but luxury can also be you having lunch with your best friend Karl Lagerfeld. Luxury can be a bouquet of flowers that you pick out of your own garden. You know, Voltaire says cultivate your garden.
Q: What’s your greatest luxury?
A: The greatest luxury is to be a kind, good person and to impart to humanity something that will enrich their lives, to have a moment with someone that you’ve imparted richness. And the greatest luxury in my personal life is my four poster bed and the sheets on them. If I’m going to spend money today, it’s on the most extraordinary sets of sheets. I think your bed is important.
Q: Looking back on your many years in fashion, what are you most proud of?
A: There are many things I’m proud of. I’m proud of my memoir. I’m proud of having been on the stage with Martha Graham doing “The Owl and the Pussycat.” Did you know about that? Did you do that research? I’m very proud having been in “Sex and the City” in a cameo. I’ve very proud of my texts on Michelle Obama. These are moments when I have been very proud. I have also been proud of my career. I’ve been very proud of maintaining my friendship with Karl Lagerfeld and other great designers, world class designers. I have many things to be proud of. But the thing that I am most proud of is that I constantly get up and inspire myself to get on with it and keep going.
Q: Do you think “Sex and the City 2” is going to work?
A: I hope so. They didn’t ask me to be in the second one, but I’m looking forward to it.