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Lessons from My Father: Reflections on the Legacy of Andre Leon Talley

On January 2nd, my biological father, J. Georges Sulmers, died, suddenly, at the age of 75. And merely a few weeks later on January 18th, my symbolic fashion father, Andre Leon Talley, died, suddenly, at age 73.

Credit: Vanity Fair

As fathers go, both were flawed individuals. Both were trailblazers, making a way out of no way, battling all grades of discrimination and adversity to become one of the first in their fields. And both, over the course of their lives and missteps, have taught me 5 key lessons.

Read on for five truths these amazing men taught me:

  1. True Growth is about Evolution and Correcting for the Past.

Both of my fathers made mistakes in their youth. Call it arrogance or a feeling of immortality, but they were both equally guilty of sometimes making selfish decisions, thinking of themselves and not of the repercussions it may have on other people. While Talley was widely idolized in the African American community for his singular success, he was also widely criticized for seemingly rarely bringing others up with him. In his latter years, sensing his unique impact, Talley started to make a change, championing even more designers than he had ever before. It takes true grace from others to forgive our fathers for their misdeeds, and embrace the efforts they made in their latter years to right their perceived wrongs.

2. Trail blaze; keep your head down and do the work.

My Dad, one of the first black commercial airline pilots in the United States, once told me a story of a racist manager, who drilled him for hours on how to work the various whizzing controls in the cockpit. Instead of bristle against the man’s unfair aggression, he kept his head down and did the work. Similarly, Andre Leon Talley did the work, with his byline appearing in Vanity Fair, HG, Interview, Ebony and Women’s Wear Daily. He also wrote several books, including Valentino, A.L.T.: A Memoir, A.L.T. 365+ and Little Black Dress for Assouline, and contributed to Valentino: At the Emperor’s Table and Cartier Panthère. In The Gospel According to Andre, Talley tells of being called “Queen Kong,” but instead of revolt, he bottled his emotions inside and pressed forward.

Andre Leon Talley at the Narciso Rodriguez Fall 2000 Collection, Milan, Italy. 02/22/2000 CREDIT: GLOBE PHOTOS, INC.

Neither could have done what they did if they had allowed discrimination and adversity to rankle their spirits. The opened doors so that we could walk through. 

3. Dress the Part

My Dad loved nothing more than donning his captain’s Uniform. Similarly, Mr. Talley made waves with what became his uniform: billowing kaftans in a gorgeous array of prints and colors.

4. Save Your Money

One of my Dad’s favorite topics was money, and he always told his children to save every penny. Mr. Talley, in his elder years, was riddled with financial issues, and was reportedly on the brink of eviction. A lesson both he and I could learn from my Dad: Save Up for a Rainy Day

5. Live to your Fullest Potential

Our only assignment on earth is to live to our fullest, highest expression as a human being. Both of my Dads did just that, following their childhood passions to fruition. Their illustrious careers inspire me to go for what I want, no matter what. Their sacrifices paved the way for women like me today. And I remain forever grateful for the lessons gleaned from both.

Love & Light,

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