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Andre Leon Talley

Urbane outfitter

CAMBRIDGE -- Two years ago, Sharon Novak, a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, was outside Barneys in New York and literally bumped into André Leon Talley, Vogue's appropriately titled 6-foot 7-inch editor-at-large.

Novak convinced him to speak at the school, where last week the imposing Talley gave students a few tips on how to succeed, which, crassly condensed, all seem to rest on wearing the right clothes. At the right times.

Talley told the story of Vera Wang's career launch, beginning with her sales job at the Yves Saint Laurent boutique in Manhattan. Wang, always impeccably dressed, so impressed a Vogue editor who was handbag shopping in the store that the magazine invited her to apply for a job. Wang arrived at the interview dressed head to toe in YSL. She got the job, but was told to take her couture down a notch at the office because she was about to get down to hard work. Wang later founded her bridal business after she looked for a wedding gown and could find none that met her exacting standards. Now she's even designing mattresses.

''Vera will probably design the coffin she's buried in," Talley said of his friend.

Talley, a Brown University graduate who grew up in North Carolina living with his grandmother, fell into fashion when he met legendary editor Carrie Donovan at a party in New York in 1975. That meeting led to jobs working with Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a brief posting with Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, a Paris bureau job for Women's Wear Daily, and 20-plus years at Vogue.

Even in the midst of his career climb, he knew all too well how important it was to look the part. Once, he bought a navy blue Rive Gauche coat. Actually, he wrote a bad check to get it. ''Eventually, I paid for it," he told the students.

At other times, he bought horse blankets and wore them as if they were Hermes scarves, and later, when he could afford it, he'd buy Hermes scarves to line his suits. ''I don't do that anymore," he said. ''I've moved on."

But presentation, Talley learned, is -- and always has been -- ''everything." Vreeland, editor-in-chief at Vogue from 1962 to 1971, used to polish the soles of her shoes. Another friend, Lee Radziwill, used to have her hair done at the famous NYC salon Kenneth before getting on an airplane with her sister, Jackie Kennedy. Talley says he hates to see people at the boarding gate wearing sweatpants and flip-flops.

''I am guilty of wearing sweatsuits, but it's Juicy Couture and it's coordinated and it has my initials on it!" he boomed. On the day he spoke at MIT, Talley was wearing his very best suit -- a navy pinstripe lined with red silk. His tie and socks, both red, came from Charvet of Paris, the same couturier that used to make -- along with the Duke of Windsor's shirts -- Talley's boxer shorts, until that became ''cost prohibitive."

Talley, who recently shed 70 pounds (he weighed 355), has had to have his bespoke Savile Row suits tailored for his altered frame.

''My biggest dream now is to go on the Oprah Winfrey show and talk about how I lost it," he says.

No doubt, he's already planning his outfit.