Anyone bedazzled by the world of haute couture will undoubtedly be familiar with André Leon Tally, the larger-than-life fashion tastemaker who’s the subject of Kate Novack’s documentary. But even those who have little interest in the glamorous world in which Tally is a mainstay are likely to find the story of a black man growing up in the segregated society of Durham, North Carolina and making his way in the glitzy New York scene of the 1970s fascinating, especially since Tally talks with gusto about his life, and Novack is successful in capturing unguarded moments when he drops the celebrity mask and lets his emotions show.
Together with editors Andrew Coffman and Thomas Rivera Montes and cinematographer Bryan Sarkinen, Novack has confected a canny collage of found and new footage and interview excerpts that sketches the details of Tally’s life while providing ample evidence of the operatic persona he’s developed and the celebrity he’s become. One might wish that she had prodded him to open up a bit more about his attitude toward the parents who handed him over to the grandmother he reveres to raise, or about the pain he felt when snarky observers called him “Queen Kong” or speculated about his relationship with his patron Diana Vreeland, who hired him at Vogue (where he eventually became editor-at-large). His offhanded remark about not having had a love life cries out for elaboration. And the film would certainly benefit from some trimming of the gushing remarks made about him by colleagues in the fashion world and celebrity admirers like Whoopi Goldberg and Will.i.am.
Removal of some of that tributary material would also provide space for detailed description of Tally’s specific contributions to the fashion sense during the four decades over which he’s been a major figure. We get a great many shots of him coming to designers’ shows or appearing for television interviews in his billowing capes and flamboyant outfits, but his comments on particular dresses or a specific designer’s annual line are surprisingly limited. Which trends did he encourage, and which did he write against? The data the film provides on such matters is surprisingly sparse, and as a result one’s ability to judge the true extent of his influence is limited. One is left with only a generalized sense of his clout, as it were.
But there is compensation in hearing Tally reflect on growing up in Durham—his comments about the central place that the church held in his grandmother’s life, and, more amusingly, about the hats that the women of the congregation wore in a sort of weekly runway of their own, are touching as well as funny, with a comparison to Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” (complete with a film clip) that seems especially apt. The treatment of his rise in the New York celebrity culture of the seventies—complete with footage of Andy Warhol and Studio 54—is also engaging, though the steps by which he ascended to the top ranks of the fashion scene are dealt with in a fairly cursory way.
On the other hand, Novack affords Tally ample opportunity to express himself, not only about his current life—a scene at his White Plains home shows him directing workmen as they cut down a dead tree in his garden, cautioning them not to damage the surrounding shrubbery, and he discourses about the local wildlife (rabbits and deer okay, skunks and raccoons not)—but about current events. The film was shot in 2016 in the run-up to the presidential election, and Tally’s preference for Hillary Clinton, and shocked disappointment when Donald Trump wins, are abundantly clear. Yet he maintains his professional perspective when he watches Trump’s inauguration, and praises the outfit Melania wore, wryly observing that his assessment will probably earn him hate messages on social media. There are few opportunities for disagreement with his many pronouncements—the titular comparison to scripture is apt in that regard—but one does get to hear his views unimpeded.
The film also provides a glimpse into Tally’s struggle with his weight, observing him during a stay at a North Carolina lifestyle center, where he obsesses over the number of calories in a biscuit. The sequence adds another personal dimension to the portrait it paints.
The result is an engaging documentary on a major figure of modern haute couture that covers both the professional and personal aspects of his life reasonably well.