Icons are rare. They are aspirational, unlike any other, and impossible to imitate. Breaking barriers, they represent a belief system that’s uniquely their own, leaving a mark on culture and history at large. An icon is a source of fascination. They make us believe in something or someone – they make us FEEL.
UGG has always been an emotional brand because of how it makes you FEEL. We open SS21 with FEEL ____, an ongoing series of stories that inspire us. A first in fashion and long-standing supporter of the brand, we feature icon André Leon Talley in our icons like the Neumel – personifying the feeling of UGG and the products that define us. In telling his story, we tell ours.
You need no introduction but introduce yourself and where we are.
I’m André Leon Talley and we’re in my house in White Plains, New York, in the Hamlet of Worthington, on my front porch.
How do you FEEL these days and why?
Self-isolating and sheltering in is very challenging. It’s very difficult. One has to maintain an emotional and psychological wall in order not to crack under pressure. The most important thing is that I love being alone and being by myself – I love books, I love to read, so I try to always have a book in my hand at some point in the day – but I’m very aware that the world has changed. The world changed with the election; the world changed with COVID; the world changed with Black Lives Matter. So, 2020 has been a very heavy year. It’s been stressful, very stressful.
Tell us about your home.
Color is important: color in life, color in nature. That’s why I love this house so much. In the beautiful times, the grass is green, and the trees are quite magical here. I have so many different kinds of trees – Japanese Maples, white hydrangeas, tree form hydrangeas. All of that is a very important part of this sanctuary that I created for myself. The buds are already on the rhododendrons and it’s December. So, it’s an ongoing love and respect of nature.
Where in your home do you spend the most time?
I come out in the morning to my front porch, and it’s a big part of the culture growing up in the South. We always live on the front porch in warmer days. You sit outside most of the day, and it’s a great place. It’s like a living room but the sun’s out – you come out, you see nature, you sit, and you relax.
What are your most valued possessions, and is there any specific item that’s brought you the most inspiration?
I’m very proud of my porch furniture, which was a gift from Oscar de la Renta. I’m also very proud of the paintings Garrett Rittenberg and Kim Cole Moore made of me. I’m not a person that’s going to blow my own trumpet, but these are friends of mine who captured me on canvas, and I’m very proud of that.
You are bold, convention-defying, and full of life. What empowers you, and what do you value most?
I value my friends most. I have good friends from all walks of life. I have church friends – I go to church a lot when one is able to go to church, and I love going to church. I go to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, which is the oldest African Missionary Baptist Church in the state of New York.
I love my friends. I have friends all over the world. A lot of my friends have gone – François Catroux, the international decorator, died recently and that was very heartbreaking for me. Julia Reed died in August, a great writer and a very, very good friend. Anne Bass, another very good friend, died in April. You know, life is challenging when one loses good friends and you miss them, but you have to get going because one day I’ll have to go too. I do depend a great deal on my friends.
As an icon, what makes something or someone iconic? Who are your icons?
An iconic person is someone who has achieved a great deal in their life. I don’t consider myself an icon. I consider President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama icons; what they did for the country was amazing. Kamala Harris will be iconic – the first female Vice President ever in the history of our country.
Icons in fashion have a certain kind of style they become known for, and they become legendary. An icon can also be in the arts; icons are great singers – Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Rihanna. Megan Thee Stallion is about to become an icon. I think that these important people who have something that’s unique, they’re iconic.
There are iconic writers, if you want to use it in terms of great writers – Tolstoy, James Baldwin, Victor Hugo, Toni Morrison – but I wouldn’t call them icons. I would say they are literary giants.
Usually, I would say icons should be movie stars, and there have been great, iconic movie stars. You know, Cary Grant, Sydney Poitier, Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman – these are icons.
Describe your style and what is says about you.
My fashion evolved from my growing up in the South. First, I had a sense of style that was traditional and impeccable – suits and white shirts and the luxury of beautiful clothes to go to church in. I evolved from that. I was wearing suits up until about the age of 40, 45.
I evolve my own style based on my own historical research into iconic people like Louis XIV or Louis XV, or the French courts, or the traditional wear of North African men – shirts to the floor or djellabas or kaftans or baboosh, the slide without the back. So, my style has evolved over the years into comfort and basically that’s why I like UGG, because it’s a comfortable shoe, and it’s almost like wearing a bedroom shoe for the whole day. That just makes life easier.
I love beautiful luxury shoes. I have wardrobes of Manolo Blahnik shoes made just for me and wardrobes of John Lobb shoes (which I could not afford today) and Berluti shoes and Tom Ford shoes, but as beautiful as your foot looks in these custom-made shoes, there’s nothing as comfortable as wearing an UGG slipper.
You were one of the first in fashion to embrace UGG as a brand, even wearing the Classic Boot front row at fashion weeks. What do you love most about the brand and why?
I thought at first UGG had a connotation of being tacky. People said, “Oh, I would never be caught wearing an UGG.” I said it for a very long time too, and then I found an UGG and put it on. It’s extraordinary and it’s a confidence boost – the Classic Boot is just great. I have no shame. I am very proud of UGG and I love wearing UGG. I have wardrobes upon wardrobes of UGG! I think that it’s a great shoe, and I’m sure that it’s a great shoe all over the world. I just think it’s a very, very wonderful shoe.
You’ve said, “You don’t get up and say ‘Look, I’m Black and I’m proud,’ you just do it and somehow it impacts the culture.” Out of all your achievements throughout your life and career, which are you proudest of and why?
My last book is my proudest achievement to date. Chiffon Trenches was a New York Times bestseller, and I’m proud of that – that’s a big achievement. I was nominated for a Grammy for the audiobook, and I’m so proud to be in a category with Patti Smith and Mary Trump PhD, the lady who wrote the book on her uncle. I know that I won’t win, but just to be nominated is a win. It came as a huge surprise to me. I haven’t listened to the audiobook myself, but people said it’s wonderful to hear me reading it, and that makes me very happy.
Many know you as former editor-at-large of Vogue and its first Black creative director. How did your experience shape who you?
It will always influence me. Vogue will be with me for the rest of my life, every day – I dream Vogue. I’m dreaming Vogue all the time. I have dreams about Vogue at least three times a week.
Vogue has been a very important part of my life, and I am very proud of Vogue. I’m very proud of what I achieved there. I’m very proud of Anna Wintour and my relationship with her, and what she has done and what she’s contributed. I felt that I made a difference to some people. I know that if Anna Wintour did not name me creative director in 1988, there would’ve been no way that Edward Enninful would have become the first Black editor-in-chief for British Vogue.
So, she made that contribution by having named me. I was the first Black man to ever get that high-ranking position in the world of Condé Nast. Before that time, I think the highest-ranking member was a Russian Baron named Nicolas de Gunzburg, who was a Vogue editor for years and years under Vreeland.
What has kept you hopeful?
Recently, I think that one finds hope in everything. One finds hope in the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris – that was a defining moment for the country and for democracy. I voted for the Biden-Harris ticket, and I think that it will be a very strong administration to bring back the normalcy of what we had before the Trump administration. I’m very hopeful about that. I’m very hopeful about Joe Biden, and his cabinet is going to be full of diversity. There’ll be people who have achieved: they’re not just cronies who have gotten jobs, but people who know what they’re doing. They’re seasoned – they’ve worked in governance, and we need that.
Other than that, I just wake up every day grateful that I’m still up and I’ve not got COVID. COVID is something that is frightening; it’s the great unknown. I’m so sad for the over 260,000 people who died. When you see these stories on television, it just breaks your heart.
Any words of wisdom?
Well, the meaningful message is that you must have empathy for other people. You must be aware of humanity. You must show kindness to other people.
Editor’s Note: Unequivocally legendary, André Leon Talley is a fashion journalist, best-selling author, and former editor-at-large of Vogue. Ahead of his time, he was the magazine’s fashion news director from 1983 to 1987 and then its first Black creative director from 1988 to 1995. In May of 2020, he published his second memoir titled The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir about his humble beginnings and influential career at the helm of fashion, backdropped by experiences with racism, prejudice, and bias. An iconic tastemaker, he represents a spirit, sensibility, intellect, and attitude that never goes out of style.