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New book exposes the cold reality of life in the chiffon trenches by Anna Wintour's one-time right-hand man

Non-fiction: The Chiffon Trenches

Andre Leon Talley

Harper Collins €19.75

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The Chiffon Trenches Andre Leon Talley

The Chiffon Trenches Andre Leon Talley

The Chiffon Trenches Andre Leon Talley

There is an anecdote quite early on in the latest memoir of legendary American fashion journalist Andre Leon Talley, The Chiffon Trenches, in which he describes standing outside a party thrown in honour of Diane von Furstenberg, documenting it for the pages of his then employer, Women's Wear Daily. Unable to score an invitation, he knew all the faces, he writes, from years of studying fashion magazines as a child.

Growing up in a "humble, modest household" in Durham, North Carolina, it was in the collection of style magazines at his local library that Talley first discovered this world of glamour, which seemed to him to offer a protective place: "My world became the glossy pages of Vogue… where bad things never happened."

It is not until much later into the narrative that we discover why the young boy might have felt the need for safety.

He was raised by his grandmother (Mama) and his great-grandmother in a physically undemonstrative but loving, supportive home; his parents divorced when he was nine (nobody told the young Andre; he eventually figured it out). They feature only in passing in the book: his mother unmoored, unable to show her love; his father warm but largely absent.

Throughout his childhood, Talley was sexually abused by older men in his neighbourhood - he says this explains his lifelong avoidance of physically intimate relationships and in later years his struggles with binge-eating. "When it came to sex, I was repressed. It was a conscious choice I had made. Sex confused and bewildered me," he reflects.

He never told his grandmother what had happened to him, afraid he would be sent away, or censured.

"This dark zone of trauma consumed me and stunted my emotional evolution until I spouted up like a bean stalk and left for college, far away from my abusers."

Moving to New York in the 1970s, Talley's career in fashion, which peaked on the steps of the Met Gala ball as Anna Wintour's right-hand man, began when he won a place as an unpaid volunteer to Diana Vreeland.

Having studied French culture at Ivy League Brown University, he could hold his own in such circles: he was insecure but never shy, he writes of himself. Vreeland's sponsorship saw Talley land a job in Andy Warhol's Factory, first as a receptionist, whose duties included collecting Warhol's lunch, then later as fashion editor.

Warhol, he writes, provided access to the "elite echelon" - he met everyone from CZ Guest to Caroline of Monaco. This was just the beginning of a lifetime filled with the great and tthe good; this book would be of interest alone for its wealth of celebrity appearances and anecdotes: Naomi Campbell, Marc Jacobs, Bianca Jagger, Yves Saint Laurent, Halston, Diana Ross, Manolo Blahnik, Paloma Picasso and Jennifer Lopez, to name a few.

At the heart of this book is the story of flawed friendships, and the revelation that much of what you have heard of the back-stabbing, shallow nature of the fashion world is true.

The two major figures in his life are designer Karl Lagerfeld and editor Anna Wintour.

Talley first meets Lagerfeld when he interviews him for Interview magazine. After they are done, Lagerfeld invites him into his private rooms and showers the journalist with silk shirts he no longer wants. So begins a decades-long relationship.

When Talley moves to Paris working for WWD, their days begin and end with phone conversations. When he is depressed, Lagerfeld puts him up for weeks. But like everyone in the Chanel designer's circle, Talley is eventually summarily dropped by the man he considered a brother.

What this book will get most attention for is its depiction of Wintour, given our collective fascination with this woman. She is colleague, mentor and friend to Talley, who is one of the only Vogue staff members to attend her wedding.

Like Lagerfeld, when the time comes and she decides she is done with him, she is brutal. "I have huge emotional and psychological scars from my relationship with this towering and influential woman."

At the time of writing, he is still invited to her annual couture fittings for the Met Gala, but he writes that he will be surprised if the invitations continue after the book's publication. That said, he notes rather poignantly, "not a day goes by when I do not think of Anna Wintour".

Fashion, as depicted here, is not the safe place he imagined as a child, but an exhaustingly cold environment in which to exist.

This is also a book about being the first black man to reach the upper echelons of this world, and Talley, whose book begins with an anecdote of Beyonce's historic September cover of Vogue in which she controlled the entire project (choosing the photographer, writing the copy herself), traces the systemic racism in his world.

"I didn't have time back then to contemplate my plight as a black man making it in the world... Only now, looking back, do I realize the blinders I had to keep on in order to survive."

There is an accusation that he has been stealing sketches from Yves Saint Laurent to pass them to Givenchy for a fee. "This was the kind of racism I experienced in fashion. Subtle, casual jabs that white people inherently made towards people of colour… Racism was always underneath, sleeping below the epidermis of everything I did."

At times, the author's style of writing is more to record than reflect, and you occasionally wish for some deeper observations.

But in chronicling his pain, writing so honestly of the abuse he suffered as a child, the racism he experiences, his struggles with binge-eating, Talley creates an authorial voice that is genuine, brave and compelling.

In the context of a world which seems to prioritise shallow, cold values, Talley stands out as a warm, sympathetic voice the reader will quickly engage with.

Sunday Indo Living