The Fashion Sale of the Century
André Leon Talley, the barrier-breaking Black fashion editor, was famous for his love of extravagant things and extravagant gestures. For striding through the world in a fabulous designer caftan and towering fur hat, a set of monogrammed Louis Vuitton trunks at his side as he unfurled his pronouncements: on beauty, designers, the meaning of life.
So after he died in January 2022 with no heirs, the speculation began: What would happen to the collections he had amassed over the decades and squirreled away in his homes in White Plains, N.Y., and Durham, N.C., an Aladdin’s cave of artifacts that represented a certain style of luxury in the second half of the 20th and early 21st centuries?
Would they be left to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Mr. Talley had begun his career assisting Diana Vreeland in the Costume Institute, and where he often presided over Vogue’s Met Gala red carpet livestream? Would they go to the Savannah College of Art and Design, where Mr. Talley had curated Oscar de la Renta and “Little Black Dress” exhibitions? Would they be used to establish a scholarship in his name at Brown University, where he received his master’s degree?
“André was very, very specific,” said Alexis E. Thomas, the executor of his estate. “He left a very clear will.”
And that was: Sell. Sell it (almost) all. The proceeds to be split between the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and the Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, where he grew up. Communities that represented his private life, where he had been an active (and activist) member for decades, and where he marched for change alongside.
“Basically what André did was monetize his fashion assets to secure the financial sustainability of two very important Black institutions of faith,” said Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation and a friend of Mr. Talley’s since 1995.
Exactly what that means will be on view this week as Christie’s unveils “The Collection of André Leon Talley,” a 448-lot auction that will begin a three-city tour on Jan. 18 in Palm Beach, Fla., just after Martin Luther King Day. The tour will continue on to Paris (during couture) and New York (during fashion week) and culminate in a live auction of 68 lots on Feb. 15, during Black History month (the rest of the sale will open online starting Jan. 27). The timing is not coincidental.
It is to underscore the final grand gesture of an editor who was often name-checked as an inspiration by Black designers, models and editors, but who was also accused of not doing enough to force fashion’s gatekeepers to face their own complicity in the industry’s racism; of pandering to their bias and blindness in order to keep his most favored status and trading his intellect and knowledge for the allure of a Charvet shirt, or a Chanel tennis racket.
“André, like most of us, just wanted to be loved,” Mr. Walker said. “And one of the reasons he really loved his church family is he was embraced unconditionally, and that wasn’t the case in the fashion world, which sought to put him in a box of the caricature of the fashion diva.” Even if it was a caricature he helped create and maintain.
“Internally he was constantly negotiating that reality,” Mr. Walker said. “He had a consciousness that was informed by the history of racism and his own experience of racism both growing up and in the industry. He was a very private person and a master of compartmentalization, largely as a reaction to that. He didn’t reveal himself to many beyond the news release. But on the bookshelves of his White Plains house were scholarly books on 17th-century French court dress next to first edition copies of Paul Robeson’s biography and Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s history of Black America.”
Both sides of Mr. Talley’s life will be on view in the sale, which is, in some ways, an effort to create a bridge between the two. It will allow people to see, Ms. Thomas said, “the worlds that André did not expose.” Whoopi Goldberg has written an essay for the catalog; the designer LaQuan Smith will be speaking at the Palm Beach event; and in New York the Abyssinian Baptist choir will perform.
Christie’s has put a current low estimate on the sale of $702,200. Historically, however, personal estate auctions often far exceed the estimates because of the unquantifiable emotional dimensions involved. At the recent Joan Didion sale at Stair Galleries, for example, a pair of Céline sunglasses valued at a few hundred dollars sold for $27,000. At Christie’s own sale of the Joan Rivers estate, a silver dog bowl engraved with her pet Spike’s name estimated at $500-$800 ended up selling for more than $13,750. During the auction of the estate of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, a pillow valued at $1000 to $1,500 went for $71,250. Last year Christie’s held a sale for DJ Kool Herc that ultimately brought in 226 percent more than the estimate.
“You know, we have no clue what will capture people’s imagination, what will get people to bid against one another,” said Elizabeth Siegel, the head of private and iconic collections at Christie’s. “Will it be one of Mr. Talley’s amazing caftans, or will it be a portrait of him?”
Some of the lots in the Christie’s sale, including a Dapper Dan brocade caftan, circa 2007; Baccarat candlesticks; a Karl Lagerfeld sketch; an aquamarine, sapphire and diamond pendant; a Prada green crocodile coat, circa 2006; custom-made Manolo Blahnik reptile and silk evening shoes (size 13); Versace gloves; a Louis Vuitton wardrobe trunk; and Versace scarves and leather and metal cuffs.Credit…Photographs via Christie’s Images
It could be one of the handful of Warhol-signed screen prints (Mr. Talley worked for Mr. Warhol at Interview after his time at the Met) or one of the many photographs by Horst P. Horst and Cecil Beaton and Louise Dahl-Wolfe. Or it could be a gold brocade caftan by Dapper Dan or one of six Prada crocodile coats. It could be a pile of colorful Versace scarves or a quilted Chanel bag; a diamond Dior watch or gold Verdura cuff links. Or a pair of Baccarat candlesticks or the African wood stools and reclining chairs that mixed it up with the gilded marble-top Louis XV console once owned by Mrs. Charles W. Engelhard, Annette de la Renta’s mother. Simply sorting through the contents of Mr. Talley’s two homes, Ms. Siegel said, took “a team of specialists.”
“Once you went up the stairs in White Plains, you got to go into a back bedroom where there were just racks and racks of clothing,” Ms. Siegel continued. “There were books stacked everywhere.” Ms. Thomas talked about hundreds of pairs of shoes, sunglasses and gloves, of sketches from Karl Lagerfeld and Manolo Blahnik. (The auction comprises the majority of Mr. Talley’s possessions, though a certain percentage did go to SCAD.)
Some of the lots are in better condition than others — the Hermès drinking glasses that Mr. Talley never really used because he never entertained, for instance, and the Hermès bicycle he never rode but kept in storage at the Ritz in Paris — but all of them share a provenance that straddles both fashion and Black history. (It is a combination that Christie’s is also hoping will make the auction house relevant to a new audience.)
“I used to always say, ‘André, why don’t you just sell some of this stuff that you have — you could be living like a king,’” Ms. Thomas said, a coded reference to the fact that Mr. Talley was famously bad with money, seeing it largely as a means of acquiring the things he loved rather than paying, say, a tax bill (a pattern that contributed to a dispute over the ownership of his White Plains house that was settled just after his death). “He was always saying, ‘No, Alexis, that’s my legacy.’”
And so it will be, though perhaps not in the way anyone would have expected. Ultimately, Mr. Talley wanted his memory contained not in the objects he acquired but how he chose to dispose of them.
“That,” Ms. Thomas said, “is what André wanted the world to know about who he was.”