Providence inspired André Leon Talley before he was a star. Now his legacy inspires students here

Talley picked students from the crowd and asked them to talk about themselves. He even invited some of them to his annual New York Fashion Week party, where Naomi Campbell and Marc Jacobs were also guests.

Talley earned a master’s degree from Brown and was earning his doctorate in French when he left school to start a career in fashion journalism in New York. There he rose through the ranks to become editor at Vogue – the first black man to rise so high on the masthead of a major fashion publication.

Talley died this week at the age of 73. But Brown’s students continue to remember him, inspired by his career and recent College Hill appearances.

Jack Nelson, a recent Brown graduate, attended the 2019 film event but was not called on stage that day. Instead, Talley waved at him after a Q&A to say he liked Nelson’s bag, which had colorful faces and was designed by one of Nelson’s friends. Talley invited him and about 15 other students to a fashion show and dance party celebrating self-expression and queer identities through fashion, Nelson said.

Talley coordinated the event, connecting students with transportation and designers to dress them for the party.

Nelson wore a flowing dress by RISD designer Desiree Scarborough to the party. Nelson said he will never forget the moment Talley asked him to shoot for him that night.

“I’ve never felt so fabulous in my entire life,” Nelson said. “And since then, I kind of chased those feelings away.”

The party was a turning point for Nelson, who doubted a career in art was really possible until he heard Talley speak. The event gave Nelson the confidence to pursue art history, and he now works in New York for Christie’s, the art auctioneer.

If he could take a lesson from Talley’s life, Nelson said, it was that “almost everyone you meet will underestimate you, at some point, and it’s your responsibility to prove to them that they are wrong”.

Then Brown students Jack Nelson, left, and Sasha Pinto, right, at a party hosted by André Leon Talley.Courtesy of Sasha Pinto

Pinto, who helped organize the film event with Talley, stayed in touch with the fashion icon after the festival and party. She then invited him to events for another group she was involved with, [email protected]

They corresponded frequently, with Talley calling Pinto “fashion girl” and Pinto always signing with “your favorite girl at Brown”. For Christmas last year, she even sent him some fudge, but thought it odd that he hadn’t reached out. She was sad to learn Wednesday morning that he was dead.

An avid Vogue reader from a young age, Pinto had long admired Talley and, as someone wishing to pursue a career in fashion, she believed he was a clear example of someone who never gave up.

“He knew he was the only black man in the front row and he knew he was being discriminated against,” Pinto said. “But he didn’t let that stop him.”

Sydney Taub, Senior at Brown, interviewed Talley for a Fashion Week virtual event hosted by [email protected] in Spring 2020 and focused their conversation on power, privilege, racism and love – themes that have spanned her life from her upbringing in the Jim Crow South to her struggle through the predominantly white fashion industry.

“I really wanted to take this opportunity to learn from him as someone who changed the way the fashion industry looked, but also as someone who paved the way for BIPOC creatives in the present,” she said.

Taub first became familiar with Talley growing up and watching him judge “America’s Next Top Model.”

“He always had this very larger than life presence about him. He looks very majestic,” she said. “He was very confident and authoritative in the way he spoke, and he kind of just lit up a room.”

Taub’s perceptions were confirmed when she hopped on her first call with him to go over technical logistics ahead of their conversation. Taub recalls Talley being warm, reassuring, and asking them to wait for their live chat to discuss his questions so he could be as genuine as possible in his answers.

Before joining the livestream, Talley had some advice for him: “Be yourself, and I’ll be very warm, enthusiastic, and sincere in response.”

“André is someone who is very powerful, very passionate about what he does,” Taub said, explaining that there is so much for him to learn. “But he’s authentic and he’s very true to his roots.”


Colleen Cronin can be reached at [email protected]