When André Leon Talley enters a room, he instantly commands attention. I learned this firsthand last night at a cocktail event hosted by the six-and-a-half-foot-tall industry legend himself in partnership with Zappos Couture, where he’s served as artistic director since last December. The moment he (dramatically, floor-length cape billowing behind him) walked through the door, the hum of party chatter died down, and every head turned. In three long steps, he made his way across the room and sat next to me. "What are you? A blogger?"
After introducing myself, it didn’t take long for me to realize that towering height and memorable sense of style aren’t the only things that make Talley stand out—as a former Vogue editor and judge for America’s Next Top Model, he’s a not only a veritable well of fashion knowledge, but has stories from the kind of celebrity bashes we can only hope to briefly glimpse on Instagram. Read on for more details on his fabulous life—including what went down at this year’s Met Ball!—plus the trends he’s most into now and his advice on breaking the ice at a party.
Lucky: I like your hat!
ALT: It’s the Pharrell hat! Designed by Vivienne Westwood—this is the original, I got it from her. She reissued the one she did for him, so you can buy it at Vivienne Westwood.
It’s good for today’s weather.
Well, you don’t pick something because it’s the right day for it—you pick it because you love it and want to wear it! I don’t dress for the weather.
Well, I wouldn’t wear a sable coat in August! I might wear a raincoat or something different if it’s raining, sure, but I don’t dress for seasons. I put on whatever strikes my mood that morning.
What about in the dead of August, though? When it’s a hundred degrees and really humid?
In the heat I wear a Ralph Lauren polo shirt and some Juicy Couture track trousers in cotton. It’s one of my favorite uniforms.
Our editor-at-large Carlyne Cerf De Dudzeele loves those!
Oh yes, it’s a signature moment that’s going to be big. It’s a good moment! But it never went out of style in Beverly Hills! Track-style trousers [are coming back in general]. It’s already trending, I can see it in collections. Big, loose volume: the genie pants are big now, a return to genie pant is coming back quickly.
I‘ve heard you’re a big fan of Uggs, which also seem poised for a comeback.
Yes, I have them on, and they’re embroidered with my initials.
Does Ugg custom-make them for you?
No, I have a lady on the Upper East Side who does monogrammed sheets and pillowcases and duffel bags. It’s a very small store and she has a machine that I think cost around $30,000 that embroiders my Ugg boots the way she does monogrammed sheets and things.
Do you do this to all your Ugg boots?
Yes, all monogrammed, all in different colors. I have to have them be special, otherwise I wouldn’t wear them.
Are there any trends you’d really love to see come back?
Big hair—afros. Big afros from the ’70s, I think, are always a good look. I like big hair. Give me an example, another trend!
No, I wouldn’t like to see that come back.
You like big afros.
Big afros. And maxi coats, I love maxi coats. I think a maxi coat is always a good thing for a woman. Also, I always will champion the return of the flat shoe, any day of the week. Even for evening, an elegant flat shoe.
Are there any trends you can’t stand?
Give me an example.
How about Birkenstocks with socks?
Oh no, that’s fine! That’s cozy and healthy.
Yes, love gaucho pants.
Yes. Love that, Sarah Jessica Parker wears them well.
So you’re pretty cool with most things.
Well, I don’t understand tattoos on women. I know it’s a generational thing, but I just don’t understand a tattoo on a woman in a strapless dress.
Do you mind them on men?
I think that tattoos on men can be fine if they have a certain profession. If they’ve been in the Marines, for example, they’re sailors who’ve served the country. That’s what they do when they’re out in the Navy. But just tattoos as expression of individuality, it’s very hard to find tattoos that I would relate to as fascinating. There is a trend I really like, now that I think about it: custom-made nails with colors, sequins, five colors on one nails. That’s a fabulous trend! I think it’s gorgeous.
Are there any designers you’re really excited about right now?
I’m really excited about a new designer called Jon Koon, a menswear designer. He has a store in SoHo on Wooster street called Private Stock. I’m also very excited about Public School. I think those two are both new and upcoming menswear brands to watch. And Public School just did its first women’s show in February, and it was also great.
Tell me about your signature cape—how did it come to be, and how many do you own?
I don’t know—I’ve never counted them! But they came to be because I’ve worn capes since I was a teenager. I started in college. A black rubber policeman’s cape was my first cape, and I wore that to class.
Where did you find it?
In a vintage store in New York, on Second Avenue.
Where do you buy your capes now?
I have them custom-made—designers make them for me. Tom Ford made my last one, Ralph Rucci makes a lot of them. I’m very lucky to have designers who will make them for me.
Very lucky, indeed! So there’s been a lot of drama surrounding this year’s Met Ball. You’ve been to so many—what’s the most dramatic memory you have?
I don’t have any dramatic memories, personally. But this [last Met Ball] was one of the best balls that I’ve been to, because of Frank Ocean—he sang and it was so elegant. It was a very moving thing for him to be singing in front of a full female orchestra called the Charles James Orchestra—they wore gloves, strapless dresses with black silk top hats. And the conductress had on a strapless dress. I thought that was a very special moment, and I loved it. But I’ve never had any personal dramas at the Met Ball.
Which was your favorite?
This one stuck out in my mind. Simply because of the attention [to detail]: we had to wear white tie, that was a big exercise and it worked—all the men looked good. And I thought the food was great this season, and I loved Frank Ocean. I loved when Diana Ross sang, that was a good moment, and I loved when Jennifer Hudson sang—that was also a great one, too.
What’s the best party you’ve ever been to?
It’s always the next one! The next one I’m going to will be the best party. I’ve been to a lot of fabulous parties I would say, but I can’t choose just one—I have to say the next one will be the best one!
That’s a good attitude to have! Since you’ve been to so many, any tips on awkward conservations with people you don’t know?
Well first of all, I don’t think I’d want to be at anyone’s party if I didn’t know half the people there. But, if I was suddenly stuck next to someone that I really didn’t know well, then I would find a way to focus on them, like, "I love your dress." That would open the conversation. Or: "I love your hair!" "Where did you get your jewelry?" "Is this your first time at a ball like this?" "Is this your first time at this house?" You can open a conversation by being engaging and pulling people out of themselves with a question about themselves. My tip would be to ask a person you’re not quite familiar with something about themselves. "Do you like the flowers on the table?" "Isn’t the room a pretty color?" "Isn’t this room fabulous?" You have to engage people! If not, just sit there until someone engages you.
But sometimes they never do!
That’s fine! Then you’ll be absolutely fine because if you’re intelligent enough you’ll be in your own world, in your own head.
These days, I feel like people use checking their phones as a crutch if they don’t know anyone. I wonder what everyone did before smartphones existed.
Before the phones I think that people maybe had the same awkward moments, but the party was smaller, and people were put with people they knew! So I’m not an advocate of the big party where they are like a thousand people in a big ballroom. I don’t go to those kinds of parties. I constantly go to places where I think I’ll be put with people that I know. But if you’re seated next to a lady [you don't know], just say, "I love your pearls!" Or a man: "I love your cuff links!" "Where is that watch from?" "Where did you get that extraordinary watch?!" You pose a question to open up the conversation, and the floodgates open.
For more fashion and lifestyle wisdom from André Leon Talley, check out ZeeCee by ALT on Zappos Couture.