Nan Kempner photographed in a YSL jacket by Bryan Adams in 2005.
Nan Kempner was destined to be a clotheshorse. Born to a wealthy San Francisco family, she was an only child and a third-generation couture client. Her first ensemble, bought by her mother, came from Christian Dior when she was 19—during the period when Yves Saint Laurent was designing there. She married Tommy Kempner (who was always referred to by his first and last name, even by his wife) fresh out of Connecticut College. He was an heir to the Loeb banking fortune, which meant plenty of dough for cashmere, fur, leather, and silk, particularly from Paris and the big names: Valentino, Ungaro, Chanel, and, most famously, Saint Laurent, for whom she became an American muse. From 1961 until her death in 2005, she never missed his show.
And she bought! Famously thin—five foot nine, 110 pounds—she was Tom Wolfe’s inspiration for the term “social X-ray,” and she could wear a collection straight off the runway. Her closet, says friend Alex Hitz, “was a wonderful room upholstered with a beautiful cotton batik fabric that hid all the shelves. There was a lot of stuff in the storage. And then, I think, another bathroom was taken over. And then the guest room got it. It was overflowing.”
This week, “Nan Kempner: American Chic” opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. A veritable history of twentieth-century sportswear, it contains 3,000 pieces (a few hundred of which are pictured in the slide show). “She was able to play,” says Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Costume Institute, “like an artist with a very vast palette.” Kempner took it less seriously; judging by the friends’ comments gathered here, for her, fashion was a joyful game.
“Nan Kempner, to my eyes, always represented this modern, free, independent, and elegant woman. She is probably the woman who best wore my clothes, with whom I shared the longest and greatest complicity.”
YVES SAINT LAURENT, DESIGNER
“Nan always said that the best part of a party was getting dressed first. Then, once she got there, she was ready to go home. She told me she did a lecture in a fashion school and the students asked what made something haute couture rather than luxury ready-to-wear. She took off her skirt from YSL and threw it in the audience and told them to have a look. She was quite a show-off, basically. She did not mind showing a lot of herself.”
LOULOU DE LA FALAISE, FRIEND
“After a couture show, we would always go back to the atelier to go shopping. Well, we would go back to Valentino’s and she would try on every single solitary thing. Finally, after a good hour and a half, I’d just say, ‘Nan! I’ve got to go.’ I was always waiting for her in the ateliers.”
LYNN WYATT, FRIEND
“Once we went to the airport together. She must have had 70 suitcases. Hatboxes and all types of luggage, things that people don’t even travel with anymore. She had emphysema at the time but was still able to function. She got out of the car at the airport, and she had asked for a wheelchair. And she said, ‘Now watch this,’ and with all those suitcases, and all the hatboxes, they were falling all over the place to help her.”
ALEX HITZ, FRIEND
“We were sharing a suite at the Crillon in Paris and this thing arrives. You would’ve thought it was a refrigerator, but it was a blouse and a skirt. It took up a whole closet in the Crillon.”
PAUL WILMOT, FRIEND
“She had these trousers that were embroidered with a turquoise thread. She’d wear them with a white blouse and look so elegant. But one day she called me and said, ‘Turns out I’ve made a mistake. I put them on backwards this morning, and they are just fabulous this way.’”
CAROLINA HERRERA, DESIGNER
“She had such a relationship to clothes, it was extraordinary. She could wear them, she could afford them, and she was daring in her way of dressing. These were looks from the runway, but in a combination that she picked out. She was never overdressed or underdressed. Just right for the occasion, which is something you don’t often see.”
ARIEL DE RAVENEL, FRIEND
“We lived in Switzerland for two months out of the year, and she would always come for two weeks. She was a good, able skier. She got dressed up in the most peculiar clothes. One ski vest had sequins and ostrich feathers on it.”
PAT BUCKLEY, FRIEND
“If she was great in fashion it was because she was so American. She loved the history of fashion, which was decidedly more European, but she could Americanize it, put what I would call a more American touch. The tomboy in her would allow her to look casually elegant all the time. She looked like she was a good friend of your older sister or somebody. Comfortable, relaxed, and with a twinkle that invited you to get closer.”
CHRIS MEIGHER, FRIEND