You know his face. You’ve seen him in countless documentaries about fashion. You’ve heard him talk about iconic fashion looks. He is Andre Leon Talley and for the first time, The Gospel According To Andre takes us behind the scenes and tells us the interesting story, not just behind his contribution to fashion, but the story of the man and how he rose from his Durham, North Carolina, roots to the pages of Vogue Magazine into its world of culture and beauty. Tom Ford, Diana Vreeland, and of course, Anna Wintour, as well as friends from his childhood all feature in Kate Novack’s delightful, fascinating and emotional journey of the man who is one of the most recognizable faces in the world.
I caught up with Novack as she takes on her first solo project with The Gospel According To Andre.
What was your first memory of Andre Leon Talley?
I feel like I came of age in the 90’s and always had an ambiance awareness of him as someone who was on MTV’s House of Style and on the pages of Vogue. I loved the movie Unzipped which was in 1996 and there’s this great scene of him in Paris which really captured my imagination at this formative moment in my life. I think that’s my first recollection of him singeing himself on my imagination.
You directed this solo. What made you choose this as a solo project?
I was enjoying producing a lot. I produced Page One: Inside The New York Times with Andrew Rossi who is also my producer on this film, and we’re also married. Andrew had directed First Monday In May.
Which is one of my favorite must-see annually documentaries.
Well, when that movie came out, Andrew and Andre did Q&A’s at the Paris in NYC. I went to one and a young African-American man stood up at the end of the screening and told Andre that he had moved to New York to study fashion, and he said, “My parents don’t believe that what I do is real but I know that it is because I saw you.” It was so clear that the fashion story that had been told pretty widely was not the full story. I thought it was important for it to be clear that Andre’s journey perhaps was not as easy as it had looked.
I think the moment was right. He’s this amazing character who holds the screen and you can’t look away from, but his story is important and it was that combination.
That backstory is really important to hear and see especially if you follow him but you didn’t read his book. Was it easy for him to revisit that story that shows pain and joy?
I think it was really difficult. He’s going to be 70 years old in October and has lived a very full life. I don’t think he had the time or inclination to sit and think back on about his life and where he had come from. I don’t think he thought about how that had sustained him through his adult years. I think in some ways the movie is about the process of a human being thinking back on his or her life, but also about fashion.
From Paris, how did the documentary happen?
Andrew is a very effective producer. After that screening, we sat in our kitchen wondering why a movie about Andre had never been made. He’s had star turns in every fashion documentary and I wanted to make that movie. He came back and suggested we’d have lunch so it was Andrew who brought Andre to the table. I pitched him and it was sincere. I made it clear to him that I loved fashion and that story was fabulous and I wanted to movie to operate as a fashion documentary, but I also wanted to tell the story of his experience as an African-American man in America and understanding where he had come from and what it had been like for him to be one of the few African-American men in his industry. The mechanics of it was that Andrew really had the relationship. Andre sent us an email saying, “I don’t know why, but I feel very trusting of you both.” He sent a list of every movie he ever loved and gave us an insight into who he was.
What I enjoyed seeing him open his soul to you and you see that trust.
When you make a documentary, it’s always about building trust over time. I think he trusts his instincts. I think he had a good instinct and he went with it. Some moments were easy, others were not. It wasn’t easy to go back to the house where his grandmother died. He always compares the process of making the film to open heart surgery so I think it was hard for him at times.
You have great figures who were part of the film. How did you decide who to approach?
I always wanted to bring audiences inside the various eras of his life. Whether it was speaking to Norma Kamali about what New York was like in the 70s and what it was like for Andre to arrive on the scene. Or whether it was talking to Anna Wintour and working with him, or his best friend from school, his life has taken so many twists and turns. I think it was Andre who suggested Fran Lebowitz who is such a star in the film. Ann Taylor was his female friend from high school and his first muse. I had read how he described her in his book and I really wanted him to help me find her. There were certain people like Anna Wintour who needed to be in the film and we built from there.
Did he throw surprises at you?
Andre is a volcano of surprises, so he did. I think that there was just surprise after surprise. Bruce is his friend from elementary school, but I didn’t expect to film the two of them together and Bruce is talking about eating five hot dogs a day while Andre is talking about eating caviar with Valentino. To me, you feel like Andre and Bruce are these two little boys. I was not sure how introspective he would be.
I knew he’d be larger than life, but I think maybe the biggest surprise is when he talks about being Queen Kong and he becomes emotional. That was in the Conde Nast archives. I did not expect that the scene would land in that place but it did. You never know when and where and how someone is going to be moved.
Going through his work at Vogue and going from seeing Vogue from the 60s that had moved him when he was a boy, all the way through to Michelle Obama on the Vogue Cover, a story he wrote, was moving for him, but I didn’t expect that.
You found his Brown University thesis?
Those things are so telling. We lose track of what we cared about when we were young. I tracked it down. It was about African women in the paintings of Delacroix and the writings of Charles Baudelair. I’m a little bit of nerd in terms of the research, but how telling is that?
Will I. Am says he’s the “Nelson Mandela of Couture.” How would you describe him?
Oh my goodness. “A rock halo of creative history and a gentle soul.” It’s not as creative as Will.I Am. [laughs].
The Gospel According To Andre is out on May 25.