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André Leon Talley: ‘It’s Not the Designer That’s Racist, It’s the System That’s Racist’



Yesterday evening, Eric Wilson of The New York Times posted an item with the perhaps sarcastic title, "Some Gains in Runway Diversity."

Wilson noted that Derek Lam and Alexander Wang (both were called out for featuring only one black model each at their respective Fall 2013 shows by Bethann Hardison's runway diversity campaign) showed more diversity in their runway casting. "This Fashion Week, Mr. Lam and Mr. Wang each had two black models, so you could say that was a 100 percent improvement," he wrote. "Or you could say, as André Leon Talley did before the Oscar de la Renta show on Tuesday, that 'two is not enough.'”

Hardison's coalition counts supermodels Naomi Campbell and Iman as close allies. Their campaign for greater runway diversity has attracted plenty of media attention (all three women appeared on Good Morning America earlier this week) and other prominent black members of the fashion establishment have stepped in to voice their support and condemn acts of racism in the industry. 

One of these people — a towering inferno in the fashion world, as he likes to be called — is André Leon Talley, quoted in Wilson's aforementioned blog post. In a new video interview with Chris Witherspoon at the TheGrio, Talley spoke at length about the often silent racism he's encountered over the course of his brilliant career.

Formerly the Editor-at-Large at Vogue, Talley recently moved on to Numero Russia. He suggests the transfer was a matter of salary, and connects issues of money to implicit racial bias:

"There is a lack of diversity on the runway and in the fashion industry. 

When the economy tanked in 2008 at Condé Nast, where I'd been for almost three decades, at least twenty-five years, my salary was cut — so were many other salaries. But it never went up to what it was before that. So I had to look at other means of compensation to supplement my income, to keep my lifestyle. Because everyone assumed I was living the lifestyle of the upper echelon, but I was not. Because I wasn't getting that pay grade. 

Let's talk about salary. Let's talk about money. Let's talk about the silent racism. 

When I left Vogue once and came back, I said to the Managing Editor of Vogue at the time, 'Could I have my title back as Creative Director?' 

And she said to me, the white woman, 'No, you can't, because it'll make the other people who are already creative directors upset.'

So the black man had to acquiesce to keep his job. He left his job and came back with the good graces of Anna Wintour but he couldn't get his title back. I had to go to the, you know, 'Editor at Large.' So, you know. You have to swallow those bitter pills. Because you have to survive in their world. And their world is the world of silent racism."

Asked whether individual fashion designers are racist, Talley said no, but he did call out Donna Karan and Calvin Klein designer Francisco Costa for their nondiverse runways.

"The designers are not racists. The designers are world-class sophisticated people. It's not the designer that's racist, it's the system that's racist. It's the system of intolerance. It's silent, it's asleep, it's dormant. It's a nightmare. It's a nightmare, it's not a dream achieved. And certainly: Donna Karan is one of my friends. Francisco Costa is one of my friends. Many of the designers who don't use people of color. And Vogue has been a great friend…they've been good to me. But how many people of color have walked through the halls of Vogue in a position of leadership and responsibility, as I did? I can count them on my hand. How many people of color have had positions at the MOST important fashion magazine in the world? Vogue. American Vogue."

Talley then took issue with a recent New York Times article which referred to the former Vogue staffer as the publication's "resident peacock."

"I would say the system is racist, not Vogue itself. Not Condé Nast, the system. Who would think that someone would call me, a man who's gone to Brown University and wrote my Master's thesis on Flaubert, Baudelaire and Eugene Delacroix, is referred to as a 'resident peacock of Vogue' in The New York Times? Calling Serena Williams a 'gazelle' is an act of racism. It's offensive! People who are white do not understand it. If you say it to a white person, they think it's a compliment. It's not a compliment to be referred to as a peacock. I don't care how proud and fabulous a peacock is. If you want to have a metaphor for me, call me a 'towering inferno' or call me the 'towering queen or king' or whatever you feel like calling me. But referring to me as a peacock is the same as saying, you know, 'Oh, he's a sturdy horse,' or, 'He works like a pack mule.'"

Watch the interview below: