Fashion Heroes: Nan Kempner

When it comes to being the quintessential American socialite, no one comes close to the late Nan Kempner. 

The very definition of the Park Avenue Princess (in fact, she wrote a book entitled "How To Be A Park Avenue Princess"), Kempner embodies the idea of how to spend it if you have it. She was the perfect hostess with a quick wit, and a fashion icon beyond compare. Legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland once called her the only American woman with any style at all. 

Born to a prominent San Francisco family, she was the only child to Albert "Speed" Schlesinger, owner of the largest Ford car dealership in California, and his socialite wife, Irma. Despite her family's wealth, Kempner came into prominence in 1952 when she married investment banker Thomas L. Kempner and promptly moved into a 16-room duplex on New York’s Park Avenue.

 

Nan Kempner with Yves Saint Laurent

By 19, she became a fixture at the Paris couture shows. Kempner's first couture purchase was reportedly a white Christian Dior sheath. Just like many New York socialites, she kept a slender, lithe figure through a diet of nicotine, deprivation - she used thick lettuce leaves instead of bread for sandwiches - and exercise in her apartment mini-gym. But while she loved fashion and was friends with many of the designers, Kempner's favourite was Yves Saint Laurent. And it was her longstanding client-créateur relationship with Yves Saint Laurent that really made fashion history.

The story goes that, in 1968, when told by the maître d’ at La Côte Basque that she couldn’t possibly dine in a pair of trousers (never mind that those trousers were half of YSL’s first le smoking), Kempner promptly dropped them, gave it to her husband, and proceeded to walk into the restaurant and dined wearing just the jacket.  "I put a lot of napkins in my lap and didn't dare bend over," she once said. Kempner became the muse of Saint Laurent, who described her as the examplar of the true spirit of a modern woman.

So in love was Kempner with Saint Laurent that, over the course of her life, the stylish socialite amassed more than 370 of his outfits. “I spend more money than I should and less than I’d like to, much less,” she once told trade journal Women's Wear Daily in 1972. “I couldn’t keep my husband if I spent more".

Believed to have owned world’s largest private collection of couture wear, selections from her wardrobe were shown at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006. Called Nan Kempner: American Chic, it celebrated the glamour, elegance, and iconic style of one of the most renowned members of the Best-Dressed List’s Hall of Fame.

 

Some of the Haute Couture from Nan Kempner's personal wardrobe was on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a tribute exhibition called Nan Kempner: American Chic

 

Kempner once told New York Magazine that to make it as an “It” girl in New York, one needs to get "tons of sleep, entertain constantly, and be yourself". The New York style icon died on July 3, 2005, aged 74, from emphysema. 

MEMORABLE QUOTES

“When you’re trying on clothes, look at yourself sitting down and look at your reflection from the back side.”
“A woman can never be too rich or too thin”
“When I die, I want to be buried naked. I know there will be store where I am going.”

Vintage Floral Safari Dress, by Saint Laurent Rive Gauche

Dangle Clip Earrings, by Yves Saint Laurent

Vintage Embroidered Jacket, by Saint Laurent Rive Gauche