From the Well-Stuffed Closets of Mrs. Thomas L. Kempner

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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.’”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

A YSL silk faille opera cape that Kempner wore to a party at the Met in 1983.Photo: Levi Brown

“I don’t think she ever lent her clothes. First of all, listen, she was so thin. I don’t know how because she was eating a lot. In fact, she was known, when she finished her plate, to attack the leftovers on her friend’s plate.”

“The last time Nan came to Paris, friends hosted a private dinner party for her in their home. She arrived in a sublime dress, with her cane in one hand and a breathing apparatus, because she was already in very bad shape. But she so loved parties that at one point she left her cane in the corner and took off her breathing mask and began smoking and drinking as if she had not a care in the world.”

“She loved tailored clothing, and had a huge number of suits in black and beige, but then she loved color, too. For evening, even though she had incredibly opulent, romantic ball gowns, she preferred formal clothes that skimmed the body, whether by Valentino or St. Laurent, clothes that have movement. And even with an evening gown she would generally purchase with a jacket or a coat, she would pair it with some sort of outerwear so she could play with it.”

“I was doing a sitting at the New York Times, where we had the thought to rent a Winnebago and go around the city and give people crowns. Driving down Lexington Avenue, we saw Nan right in front of Swifty’s. She was wearing a Bill Blass camel-hair coat with three-quarter sleeves. I thought, It’s the queen of the Upper East Side! She put the crown on and waved for the camera.”

“She went to the Dominican Republic to spend Christmas vacation. At Kennedy Airport, she fell; she was wearing those huge, big high heels, and she fell. Nevertheless, Nan got into the plane. She arrived in the Dominican Republic, in the area of Punta Cana where we live. They take her to a nearby hospital, do X-rays, and realize she had broken her pelvis. Nevertheless, she decided this was not going to spoil her vacation.

“The doctor told her that it would heal itself if she stayed there very quietly. So my wife, Annette, and I called, and we said, ‘Nan, we want to come visit you.’ And she says, ‘Well, just come anytime.’ We arrived, and she was lying in bed, dressed in the most extraordinary way, with the most beautiful pajamas, with necklaces. I mean, totally dressed up.

“When she got a little bit better, she was supposed to come have dinner with us. Annette called Tommy and said, ‘You know, I understand Nan can’t come over for dinner, so don’t worry about canceling.’ And Tommy said, ‘She will not come only if she’s dead.’ She arrived dressed up, fully made up, which I knew must have taken a tremendous effort, in big high heels. Annette told her, ‘You are going to take those heels off right now.’ But that is what she wore. The outfit didn’t call for bare feet; otherwise, she would have been.”

With contributions from Tina Isaac, Emma Pearse, Denise Penny, and Stacia Thiel.

From the Well-Stuffed Closets of Mrs. Thomas L. Kempner