Measure of a Man

updated 05/26/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/26/2003 01:00AM

As a 6'7" African-American man, Vogue creative director André Leon Talley doesn't have to do much to stand out among the weed-thin white women who are his fashion colleagues. But just in case, there is his impressive collection of Louis XIV-style shoes, recently custom-made for him in size 14 by pal Manolo Blahnik. "I said, 'Oh, Manolo, I have just been to Versailles, and I want something with a red heel and I want it to be very courtly,' " recalls Talley, who ended up with pairs "in every conceivable color and fabric."

More statement makers: He's fond of capes and diamonds (he once appeared at an awards show wearing a $200,000 Fred Leighton tiara as a choker) and toted a trunkload of furs on a five-day trip to Russia. "André," says designer Diane Von Furstenberg, a close friend, "is very flamboyant." Talley, 54, agrees. "It is who I am," he says. "It is instinctive."

Instinct had help. As Talley reveals in his new memoir, A.L.T., two key figures helped shape his ermine-lined sense of self: His grandmother Bennie Frances Davis, who raised him in Durham, N.C., and legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. Davis was a Duke University housekeeper who could chop wood, skin squirrels and choose the perfect suit for churchgoing, Vreeland a lacquered visionary who hired someone to polish the soles of her shoes. As unlikely as it sounds, says Talley, after the 1989 deaths of both women, he saw "they had so many similarities," including an appreciation for all things well-ironed. (Davis pressed towels, sheets—even André's boxers; Vreeland had her staff iron the bills in her wallet.) More important, each taught Talley that "luxury is not just what you're wearing," he says. "It is what your spirit reflects."

The only child of Alma, 79, and William, a printing-press operator and taxi driver who died in 1993, Talley was an infant when Alma's mother took over his upbringing. "It happens a lot in black families when the parents are young and struggling," he says. Living in a home where the laundry was boiled in a tub outside, Talley nonetheless showed an early fondness for life's finer things. "I don't think I ever saw André in jeans," his cousin Georgia Purefoy says. "He was always into looking good."

At 12, Talley began trekking to the white part of town to buy Vogue, from which he would clip pictures to hang in a pink-walled room. "I made my own escapist world," he says. Davis supported his dreams. "As long as I did my chores and was a good person, she couldn't care less if I read Vogue," he says. "My grandmother gave me the confidence to be who I am."

By 1974 that meant taking a shot at what he calls "the big life." With a master's degree in French literature from Brown, which he attended on a full scholarship, he headed to New York City and landed a job assisting Vreeland, who was by then organizing exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. They became kindred souls who could "wax enthusiastically about Diana Ross," Talley says, or have three-hour talks about espadrilles. "She recognized something in me," he says, "and encouraged it."

A series of journalism jobs led to a Vogue gig in 1983. But he remained in constant contact with Vreeland, who, he says, had become "my surrogate mother." When Davis died of leukemia in March 1989, Vreeland was his comfort. But later in the year Vreeland, nearing 90, lost her eyesight and took to her bed. Talley spent most nights reading to her before she died in August after a bout of pneumonia. "I was heartbroken," he says.

Today Talley, who is unattached, lives in a quiet suburb outside New York City. His closets are filled with Prada and Lagerfeld—the same names that appear in his personal phone book. A frequent partygoer, he rarely eats in. Still, he says, "there is nothing like the luxury of home." In a cupboard in his kitchen is an unopened jar of Bennie Frances Davis's molasses.

Allison Adato
Rebecca Paley in New York City

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