The Gospel According to Andre: ALT History, by David Bax
“Fashion is fleeting. Style remains.” This distinction between fashion and style is the kind of thing you’ll see on any menswear (and presumably womenswear) blog worth its salt. Yet, when spoken by fashion world heavy hitter Andre Leon Talley, they become something more profound. That’s likely because the emphasis is almost subliminally placed not on fashion or style but on that final word, “remains.” Kate Novack’s The Gospel According to Andre is less a portrait of its subject than a testament to his staying power. Through decades, across trends, spanning political upheavals and presidential administrations, all over the globe, Talley has remained the thing he most excels at being, himself.
Novack spent what appears to be large chunks of 2016 and 2017 following Talley around through his world of red carpet appearances, consultations, meetings, radio shows and more, while also interviewing him about his life so far. His motto, that “It’s a moral code to dress well,” may suggest a monastic worldview–and it’s certainly true that he is devoted to couture–but both Talley and The Gospel According to Andre are open and interested in what’s below the surface of people and their lives. Novack’s warm embrace of fullness and complexity keeps the movie well out of the territory of hagiography or lightweight uplift.
Novack is aesthetically straightforward but prefers somewhat wider shots than the standard documentary talking heads look. She’s refreshingly willing to let content dictate form, rather than follow the too common prescriptive mode in which nonfiction filmmakers only allow themselves to extract from their subjects that which they expect. There is, though, in one section of the movie, what I assume is some visual adornment; the image flutters with light near the end of shots, like the camera is approaching the end of its load of film.
Talley is a tall, gay, black man from the South and Novack doesn’t shy away from discussing how difficult and alienating his childhood was, including the time his mother refused to enter church at his side because he was dressed too flamboyantly. Even more crushing, his appearance and background made him an outlier in the fashion world too. In the movie’s most heartbreaking moment, Talley recounts being referred to as “Queen Kong,” starts to cry and then quickly changes the subject.
That everyone on every side of the equation reflexively sees the world of high end fashion as something completely different from the world of poor, black, Southern people highlights what may be The Gospel According to Andre‘s mission statement, that we are all living in the same world and the fewer walls of any kind between us, the better.
Whether he’s rubbing elbows with Michelle Obama, catching up with his blue jean wearing, beer swilling old childhood friend or hanging out with Isabella Rossellini and a bunch of potbellied pigs, Talley is never anything other than himself. Novack is aware of the imagined incongruity of Talley in these places and outright rejects it, making The Gospel According to Andre not only a portrait of its subject but a challenge to our assumptions about more than 50 years of American blackness.