The Dispossession of André Leon Talley

An attempt to evict the fashion icon shines a spotlight on some of the very blurry lines in fashion.

André Leon Talley, the flamboyant and pioneering Black fashion editor who rocked the industry last May with his memoir, “The Chiffon Trenches,” in which he took potshots at such sacred cows of style as Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld, is back exposing parts of fashion’s muddy underbelly — albeit inadvertently.

Since 2004, Mr. Talley, 72, has lived in an 11-room white colonial in White Plains, just north of New York City.

At that time, George Malkemus, the former head of Manolo Blahnik USA, and Anthony Yurgaitis, his business partner and husband, bought the house for about $1 million on the understanding that Mr. Talley would live in it and pay Mr. Malkemus and Mr. Yurgaitis money each month.

Mr. Malkemus and his husband called this “rent,” and the three men signed a two-year lease to that effect, renewable for up to eight more years.

That lease expired in 2014, and was never re-signed, and the amount of money Mr. Talley paid each month varied widely according to his income stream.

And then, in November 2020, Mr. Malkemus and Mr. Yurgaitis filed to evict Mr. Talley. In late January, Mr. Talley filed a counterclaim, saying he believed these payments were an equity investment intended to result in his ownership of the house. These cases were first reported by The New York Post.

Having now paid $955,558 according to an accounting exhibit attached to the filing, Mr. Talley’s petition requests the house be placed in a trust so he can prove his right to ownership. Mr. Malkemus contends that he is owed $515,872.96, and that — well, it’s his house.

In some ways, the suits are simply the latest cautionary tale about the problems of mixing work and friendship. But more broadly, the problem with the house throws light on a pattern of behavior long endemic to the fashion world, in which gifts, favors and influence were the currency of exchange. Often, it was hard to tell what was business and what was personal.

It may seem relatively minor — a free bag here, in the hope that an editor may be photographed carrying it to her seat in the front row, hence serving as a quasi-advertisement for a brand, or a free trip to a show in a faraway country, with a first-class ticket and hotel, in return for a review that otherwise wouldn’t happen because of tightening budgets.

But as Mr. Talley’s situation shows, such arrangements, always unspoken, helped carve out a wider slippery slope. And it’s easy to lose your footing and slide all the way to the bottom.

An Industry Where ‘Gifting’ Is a Verb

According to Mr. Talley’s filing, Mr. Talley and Mr. Malkemus met 38 years ago through Manolo Blahnik, the shoemaker who had become close to Mr. Talley when Mr. Talley began his career in fashion, and whose work Mr. Talley effusively supported. In his memoir, Mr. Talley includes a photo of himself in a tweed jacket that was a gift from Mr. Blahnik; he writes, as well, that he “never did a shoot without Manolo Blahniks.”

In the book, Mr. Talley describes meeting Mr. Malkemus when Mr. Blahnik was looking for a licensing partner in the United States. Thus began a long-term friendship that, like many of Mr. Talley’s friendships, blurred the line between the personal and the professional.

Indeed, his most formative relationship in fashion, according to his memoir, may have been with Mr. Lagerfeld, a designer whose work he covered, at whose estates he often spent holidays, and whose gifts to Mr. Talley included a Fabergé pin and a giant Louis Vuitton trunk.

“If you were in Karl’s life, he dressed you,” Mr. Talley writes in his book. “Paloma Picasso and Ines de la Fressange were dressed free of charge at Chanel and Fendi. As was Tina Chow.” As was Mr. Talley.

Though this was an extreme example of the favor exchange in fashion, it was far from unique. In her memoir, “Clothes … And Other Things That Matter,” Alexandra Shulman, the former editor of British Vogue, writes of being “gifted two Chanel jackets by the label’s London press office soon after my arrival at Vogue,” in 1992, which “would have cost about £1,000 at that time.”

Ms. Shulman also describes editors arriving in Paris to discover “wardrobes stuffed with Chanel hanging bags.” Though she herself did not receive them, she did get an offer — also not long after she arrived at Vogue — from Catherine Walker, one of Princess Diana’s favorite designers, to make her an evening dress, which she happily accepted.

Even today, products, including the latest sneakers and cosmetics and bags, are regularly received by certain power players in the industry — generally editors at glossy fashion magazines or social media influencers — from brands hoping for favorable coverage.

The gifting is rarely as crude or straightforward as pay to play; there’s often no stated quid pro quo. And editors would insist it does not affect their taste or judgment, which is their currency, despite the fact that in many other businesses, gifting of this nature may prompt accusations of bribery and corruption.

But in fashion, which was and is an industry where salaries are notoriously low and the pressure to represent the brand is notoriously high, it has long been considered part of the sector’s basic economy and an approved relationship-building tool (that often, for the brands, is considered a marketing expense).

According to the fashion news website Fashionista, for example, the average pay for an assistant market editor at a print title, whose job is to help select which items end up in published roundups and reviews, was $25,000 in 2019. To supplement these low incomes, those editors may sell items they have been given to them as a way to make extra money, a practice fueled in recent years by the booming online resale market.

Sometimes models will be paid for their runway or photo-shoot work with clothes or accessories rather than cash, either because they are just starting out or because they are doing a favor for a designer who otherwise could not afford to pay them.

As a whole, such practices foster an environment where everyone involved is conditioned to rely not on the kindness of strangers, but on the largess of business acquaintances.

The Business of Friendship

Then, too, a sort of grace and favor arrangement often existed in the magazine world with employers and certain star employees. At Condé Nast, where Mr. Talley began working in 1988, salaries were often supplemented by clothing allowances, car services and deep expense accounts.

Indeed, Mr. Talley writes in his memoir that when he wanted to buy a home for his grandmother in Durham, N.C., Anna Wintour, his then-boss, asked S.I. Newhouse, the Condé Nast chief executive, to give him an interest-free loan.

And when he gained a health-threatening amount of weight, Ms. Wintour arranged for Vogue to pay for a three-month visit to the Duke Diet & Fitness Center. He later went back two more times, each time thanks to Condé Nast.

Lines are further blurred by the fact that in fashion, professional relationships are often nurtured in nonprofessional settings: on a beach for a photo shoot, where everyone is staying at the same resort; over dinner at Caviar Kaspia in Paris, to celebrate a show. It was general practice, in glossy magazines, to hire certain “contributing editors” because of their social connections so that they could urge their friends to become subjects.

Indeed, it was in part because he so clearly enjoyed Karl Lagerfeld’s favor, Mr. Talley writes in his memoir, that he was so important to Vogue. And he enjoyed Mr. Lagerfeld’s favor, in part, because he so clearly, and vocally, believed in his talent.

Against this backdrop, the idea that a friend, albeit one whose business was visibly intertwined with Mr. Talley’s business, would offer to step in and help him buy a house when he got in trouble probably didn’t seem outlandish. Especially because Mr. Malkemus had acted as his proxy before.

In 2004, according to Mr. Talley’s affidavit, Mr. Talley was forced to leave his New York apartment because of mold. In part because Mr. Talley (for whom money was worth thinking about simply as a means to purchase the beautiful things he craved) had run into financial trouble three times before — he filed for bankruptcy in North Carolina in 1997 and 1998, and in New York in 1993, largely because of failure to pay taxes — getting a mortgage would be complicated.

So Mr. Malkemus and Mr. Yurgaitis offered to act as proxies for Mr. Talley: to buy the house and hold the mortgage — or so says Mr. Talley’s lawsuit, which claims he was operating in good faith that he would one day become owner of the property. He had also paid, his affidavit said, to maintain and improve the property, including spending $12,000 on a new boiler and $30,000 to replace the roof.

Given that in 1999 Mr. Talley claims Mr. Malkemus helped him buy a car in much the same way — for reasons not specified in the affidavit Mr. Talley was “unable to do so myself,” so he wired Mr. Malkemus approximately $45,000, the papers say, and Mr. Malkemus “went to a dealership and used those funds to purchase the vehicle on my behalf” — there was precedent.

There were also signs of potential future problems, with Mr. Talley apparently believing the $120,000 he gave Mr. Malkemus as part of the purchase was a down payment, though in the lease it was identified as a “security deposit.”

Home as Brand

Nevertheless, the arrangement continued. In 2019, however, Mr. Malkemus and the Manolo Blahnik company ended their relationship, and Mr. Malkemus took a new job, as chief executive of the Sarah Jessica Parker shoe brand SJP. In March of 2020, according to the affidavit, Mr. Malkemus and Mr. Yurgaitis raised the possibility of selling the White Plains house with Mr. Talley and asked him to leave. He said no.

Meantime, in the background, another lawsuit began rumbling after an Italian manufacturing company owned by Manolo Blahnik filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition against Mr. Malkemus, alleging €949,567.00 (about $1.2 million) in unpaid bills. That suit was dismissed in December. (Mr. Blahnik declined to comment for this article.)

With suburban New York housing in high demand in the pandemic, Mr. Malkemus and Mr. Yurgaitis continued to ask Mr. Talley to vacate the house. According to their lawyer, Edward David, it was only after Mr. Talley retained counsel that they served him notice.

“The home is far more than just where I sleep and keep my belongings — it is, in its own right, a part of my life,” Mr. Talley says in his affidavit. “Losing it would uproot the life that I have made here. It would be both devastating and disruptive.” That is not just because of its emotional meaning, but because the house is also, the affidavit reads, part of Mr. Talley’s “brand.” (It provided part of the backdrop in a recent Ugg advertisement featuring Mr. Talley.)

After Mr. Talley’s filing to stop the eviction and win title to his house — or at least to be paid back for his original investment, with interest — Mr. David, said that “George Malkemus and Anthony Yurgaitis are two of the kindest people I have ever had the pleasure of representing. Their reputation for honesty and fairness is beyond reproach.

“This is a case of Mr. Talley being a recipient of that kindness and taking extreme advantage — nothing more. The facts will become clearer in the next few days and months. We still hold out hope that this case will be amicably resolved.” Mr. David also said he would be filing a counterclaim in early March.

Erik Weinick, Mr. Talley’s lawyer, emailed a brief statement: “It is unfortunate that this dispute has led to litigation,” he wrote, “but as the pleadings show, Mr. Talley has an extremely strong case and is looking forward to prevailing in court.”

And the messy coziness of the fashion world itself may be placed on trial.