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A chance meeting with Emil DeJohn, a professor at the Institute, led to Talley’s speech. At the spring shows, Talley admired the former fashion designer’s bag, and DeJohn told him where he got it, then asked the Vogue editor if he would come to talk to his students. About 150 of them came to hear his life story and ask him about breaking into the business.
Talley, who was wearing a gray Armani suit and a button with a pin with Warhol-esque images of Barack Obama, urged the students to cast their ballots, “no matter who your candidate is. Last week I took a Jet Blue flight to North Carolina, where I am still registered to vote. I thought the plane was going to crash, but I thought, ‘I have to do this. It is too important.’” Behind him were four striking screens, which featured portraits of him by artist and illustrator Denise Fike, a friend of DeJohn’s who had offered to do a portrait for the event, then found so many photos of Talley online that she decided to do several.
In one of many self-deprecating moments, Talley told the audience, “People think I am all that and a bag of chips, and I am not sure why.” He peppered his speech with anecdotes.
Lesson One: “Remember where you came from and how important that is, and that will sustain you,” he said. He was raised in North Carolina by his grandmother, who worked as a maid at nearby Duke University, but always dressed to the nines for church. “She didn’t have a lot, but she had remarkable style,” he added. “When I was 13, an uncle asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said, ‘A fashion editor.’ I had been reading Vogue for some time by then. My uncle said, ‘What is a fashion editor?’ My grandmother defended my decision. She always encouraged me.”
Lesson Two: “Always be curious and do your research.” While he was working for Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1975, she handed him a dress Claudette Colbert wore in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 screen version of “Cleopatra” and asked him to style the mannequin appropriately. He went to the library and decided that Cleopatra should be sunkissed and got special permission to have his model painted gold. “It matched the dress,” he added. “Mrs. Vreeland loved it.”
Lesson Three: Travel and find beauty and style where you go.
Lesson Four: Practice good manners. “I once had to follow a woman from Philadelphia named Mrs. T. Charlton Henry to Paris for her couture appointments at Givenchy,” Talley said. “It was an assignment for WWD. She wrote me a note after and said, ‘The best thing about you is your wonderful manners.’ I saved the note.”
Lesson Five: Fetch coffee if you have to. “When you are lucky enough to land an internship or get your first job, do not be offended when someone asks you to make a Starbucks run,” he noted. “At my first job working for Andy Warhol, I answered phones, ran the stamp machine to the post office, made $50 a week and had to live at the YMCA. But I was literally introduced to the world through that job. Mr. Warhol encouraged me with enthusiasm. He thought everything you did was great.”
Lesson Six: Find a mentor. Vreeland, he said, was his most important. “She taught me everything. Anna Wintour is now my mentor. She is not that person in ‘The Devil Wears Prada.’ She is like Catherine the Great of Russia. She has kept that magazine on top, raised money for the Met and for the Democratic party.”
Talley went into mentor mode himself, presenting Emil DeJohn scholarships to students Carl Hildenbrand and Kevin Coleman, giving fashion citations to five students and meeting with some of them after the talk to see their portfolios. He even called one fledgling designer to the stage to model the hot pink satin pumps she had created. “Give me your card,” he said. “Those shoes are fabulous.”