The Gospel According to André is a documentary feature from director Kate Novack that provides a survey of the life and career of fashion journalist and icon André Leon Tally. From humble beginnings growing up in the segregated Jim Crow South, to majoring in French Studies at Brown University and forging a career for himself under the tutelage of former Vogue Editor-in-Chief Diana Vreeland, André Leon Tally has proven himself to be a larger than life figure of iconic importance. The documentary is never able to scratch under the surface of Tally’s persona however, and whether by consequence or design, the audience suffers for it.
The documentary is a pretty straightforward accounting of Tally’s life, with few bells and whistles besides some very intriguing archival footage of Tally’s early work in Paris, where he is seen conducting interviews with fashion designers, speaking in fluid French, and throwing out historical fashion references like it’s nothing at all. It’s Tally’s attention to detail and his recall of fashion trends that jumped out at me the most during the course of the film, and it’s those traits that earned him special favor with those he worked with including Anna Wintour, current Vogue editor-in-chief.
The documentary tries to make the connection between Tally’s childhood growing up in the black church community and his interest in fashion seem like a revelation, but anyone even remotely familiar with church fashion–black or white–in the South in the 1960s will understand the influence. Surrounded by “Sunday best” hats, suits, and dresses, Tally always expressed himself through clothing. His flamboyant mannerisms sometimes drew the ire of others, including his parents, but his grandmother, the woman who ended up raising him, always supported her clearly special grandson. This kid was never not going places. Later in his career, Diana Vreeland would be his guardian surrogate and his career champion, among others.
For a man so easily recognizable (he has always been a very tall, and recently, a rather large, black man in fashion), the documentary never quite gets to the bottom of what had to be a complicated existence for Tally. Before his move to fashion, he never fit in with traditional ideals of black masculinity, and even with his move to fashion, his race is always a factor in an industry that never truly embraces people of color. His sexuality is also an important component that adds complexity to his story but again, it is never discussed. I can’t quite decide if the decision to brush over these elements was due to Tally’s own input on what the film would document, or Novack’s disinterest in chronicling those struggles. And while I continue to wait for the day when a person’s race and sexuality have zero impact on their trajectory in life, I have a hard time believing Tally wasn’t deeply affected by both. Yet, Tally also comes off as a man that doesn’t dwell in the negative aspects of life and human interaction. There’s only one moment where the veil is lifted slightly, when Tally looks back at a time when his rapid upward mobility within the ranks at Vogue was thought to be achieved through an unsavory relationship with Diana Vreeland. The camera focuses on his face as tears start to well up in his eyes. Tally is still hurt by those accusations, especially considering it’s clear he closely associates his relationship with Vreeland to that of his grandmother. But the moment passes as Tally brushes off the situation with his trademark “rise above” mantra, another element no doubt garnered from his time spent in his childhood church.
The Gospel According to André provides some interesting background information about it’s subject, along with talking head interviews from fashion greats like Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, and the aforementioned Anna Wintour. And while I learned a little about the man I remember seeing on Project Runway and red carpet coverage galore, I still feel there’s a large part of the picture that remains buried beneath Tally’s trademark kaftans.
The Gospel According to André opens today at the Ritz Bourse.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.