Nan Kempner (1930-2005) was a driving force in New York’s social scene for more than 50 years. The fashion icon regularly attended exclusive parties, social events and charity galas, and her presence was always requested at the most select fashion shows.
She was born in in San Francisco into a wealthy family by the name Nan Field Schlesinger. She studied at Connecticut College, where she met her future husband, investment banker Thomas Lenox Kempner, whom she married in 1952.
The couple had three children and lived between London and New York, where they owned a 16-room duplex in prestigious Park Avenue, at 79 Street, with walls exquisitely lined with antique silks and hand-painted French wallpaper. She was often seen accompanying her husband on his frequent business trips to Nassau, Paris, Venice, Monte Carlo or Aspen.
Kempner was passionate about fashion and defined her style as “artificially relaxed”. She attended her first fashion show in Paris when she was only 19. She was immediately hooked and became a regular at select couture circles. Also in Paris, she bought her first couture gown, a white dress by Christian Dior, who had recently taken under his wing a very young Yves Saint Laurent. She spent a fortune on clothing and accessories, “much more than I should have, but less than what I wanted”, she once said. Her busy social life allowed her to show off her beautiful wardrobe, though she was often criticized for being extremely thin.
Halston, Loulou de la Falaise, Yves Saint Laurent, Nan Kempner, Steve Rubell.
She reportedly had 106 swimsuits, and although she supported numerous designers like Chanel, Valentino and Oscar de la Renta, her favorite was always Saint Laurent. Throughout the years she collected more than 375 pieces by the French couturier she so adored, and with time they established a solid friendship. She is known as the greatest collector of YSL. The admiration was mutual and the French designer considered her “the most elegant woman in the world”.
Kempner had a penchant for high heels, and still wore miniskirts at 72 during her escapades to the Caribbean. Given her passion and knowledge of the intricacies of fashion principles, she was appointed editor of French Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. She was also a design consultant for Tiffany & Co., and in the 1990s became an international representative for the renowned auction house Christie’s.
Nan Kempner, American Chic.
In December 2006 the Metropolitan Museum in New York dedicated an exhibition as a tribute to Kempner: Nan Kempner, American Chic. The museum displayed a number of the gorgeous gowns that once belonged to the stylish millionaire.
Nan Kempner died in 2005 in her Manhattan home at the age of 74. She was a long time smoker. She led an intense life, surrounded by the most important politicians, movie stars and artists of her time. Andy Warhol painted a portrait of the iconic socialite, and despite the years that have passed since her death, she remains an enduring figure in fashion and in New York social history. ■