Not only is that the best superlative to describe Andre Leon Talley and the documentary The Gospel According to Andre, it is also the word used most often in the film. And quite possibly in this review.

Talley has been at the epicentre of the fashion universe for decades and the film is full of designers and fashionistas who sing his praise. Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Sandra Bernhard, Isabella Rossellini (and her charming pigs), Norma Kamali, Whoopi Goldberg and Rhianna are just a few of the famous faces and names featured. And many more appear in archival footage.

Talley began as a receptionist at Interview magazine and became a crucial part of the Warhol and Studio 54 scene. At the same time he volunteered at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art where, a hilarious story, he became a protege of Diana Vreeland. From there he worked as a writer and editor at Vogue and Woman's Wear Daily, became a fixture in the front row of fashion shows, hosted a radio show on fashion for Sirius XM, was a judge on America's Next Top Model (oddly not mentioned in the film), a fashion consultant, and was just all around fabulous.

The timeline in The Gospel According to Andre is vague - as are most actual work titles of fashionistas, writers and celebrities - but that is because the film has a much more important agenda. It is great fun watching Talley swan around in his elaborate caftans and capes, making pronouncements and being fabulous, but The Gospel According to Andre also gets him to reminisce and chart his history. Born into segregation and being a black man, a big black man (Talley is 1.98 metres tall and, as he says, "I was thin until 40 and then bloated up like a manatee"), Talley had to work hard to make it in the fashion world.

His solution was to get a degree in French and to study fashion and art in meticulous detail. In the film he tells friends of shocking Parisians with his fluency, and Anna Wintour admits that she hired him because his knowledge of fashion history was much deeper than hers. One wonders if he ever told her, as he does the film audience, that his grandmother's church parishioners were his first and defining inspiration of what a fashion show should be. The Gospel According to Andre explores his intellect and his wit before noting and quoting that he had little to no love life, and has never been in love.

Talley has a bitter monologue where he describes how he had to be a neutered black man in order to be accepted in society and the fashion world. He rails against the sexual implications of being labelled a "black buck. How offensive, how rude" and an "African Prince," still resents those who gossiped that he got his start by sleeping with Vreeland, and disparages a Yves St Laurent employee who nicknamed him "Queen Kong." Though he is never as blunt or crass, he has fought against the stigma of the fear of the BBC from childhood. It is a powerful passage, bitingly relevant beyond his rise in the '70s, underscored by the many images of Talley interacting with black designers, models and celebrities, all of whom went through the same or similar discrimination.

Talley says he has always been "flamboyant" and he comes across as a confident gay man. His sexuality is never addressed except for descriptions of the lack of it, and one coy comment reflecting on his life in the early '70s. Fran Liebowitz says of the '70s that "promiscuous doesn't begin to describe it. Sex was like orange juice," then Talley describes his life at the time as "sexless." Fortunately he may be exaggerating for effect. He relates that his grandmother, as big a force in his life as Vreeland, insisted he come home for Christmas because she was afraid he was sleeping with a white woman. Talley chuckles and says, "If she only knew."

The Gospel According to Andre teases Talley's sexuality when Talley recounts first befriending Karl Lagerfeld. Instead of sex, they bond over fashion and that appears to be the pattern of his life. It is the only time that The Gospel According to Andre is deceptive, for the rest of the film, director Kate Novack expertly mixes interviews, photographs and archival footage into a studiedly casual and very incisive portrait. Like fashion, where small details can make or break a design or ensemble, The Gospel According to Andre weaves themes and symbols - veils, the colour red, gowns vs caftans vs capes, the election of Trump - to create a portrait of a man who appears to have it all but has paid a horrible price.

Talley is shown, surrounded by luxury, and it did my heart wonders to see that this arbitrator of taste has decorated the grounds of his home with garden gnomes. A small personal victory found in a film chronicling the triumph of an unlikely but fabulous fashion superstar.


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