Fashion can be an unforgiving mistress, but the playbook referenced by the title of this affecting profile of André Leon Talley is also the Bible itself—or, more accurately, African-American rituals related to it. Raised by a doting, house-cleaning grandmother in deeply segregated North Carolina, he was first transfixed by the big-hatted church ladies of his childhood. And it went from there.

Casual clothes-watchers and Vogue-fanciers who recognize this extremely corpulent, gaudily dressed character from Met galas, America’s Top Model, and various docs featuring long-time champion Anna Wintour may be surprised to find what a strikingly debonair beanpole he was in his youth. He earned a master’s degree in French literature from Brown University—something that later came in unexpectedly handy when he was breaking down couture barriers in the Paris of the 1990s. Before that, he worked a desk job (and then as a writer) at Andy Warhol’s now-defunct Interview magazine. He worshipped aging icon Diana Vreeland and became her amanuensis when she was curating the Met’s then-new fashion department. (Which is how we ended up with those glamorous fundraising balls.) Eventually, he would become a groundbreaking editor at Vogue, W, and other publications.

A solo feature debut for director Kate Novack (who also produced Page One: Inside the New York Times), the movie isn’t always scrupulous about, or terribly interested in, the chronological particulars of Talley’s long-distance rise. It also tries to get under his heavily ponchoed skin. (His face lights up when he describes the purchase of “My first cape!”) But that’s not easy, as the toll of being the first at everything in his field—a gay black man with a Continental education—seems to weigh heavily on him as he pushes 70.

Whether he’s showing off his spacious country house, or chatting with some old friends on returning to his childhood home, it’s clear that money and health worries, plus a life’s worth of snubs and disappointments, hold sway. Watching the election of 2016 on TV doesn’t seem to help. (He did go on to personally dress Melania, however.) Remarkably for a man of his grandiose character and appetite, Talley admits he has never enjoyed a sustained romantic relationship, and is not happy about it. Working so hard and so well at being unique has, unfortunately, kept him unique.

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