Impossible Conversations: Nan Kempner

Posted by Jeffrey
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Nan Kempner in her master bedroom decorated by Michael Taylor. Photo by Derry Moore for Architectural Digest.

Here is my “IMPOSSIBLE” meet and greet with one of the world’s greatest style icons. The “fashionable” conversation is as I would imagine it to be if we spoke this past week. Nan was one of the world’s greatest clotheshorses who amassed a king’s ransom in clothes as well as a museum quality collection of haute couture. (375 pieces of YSL alone)

She lived in 16 rooms on Park Avenue, entertained with spaghetti dinners as well as place card dinners serving royalty; literally had rooms filled with clothes and made it her mission to have one helluva good time. She was irascible, charming, charitable, wicked, loving and she is most of … all greatly missed.

I of course, speak of Nan Kempner who died 9 years ago this month but spent a lifetime indulging her great passion ... clothes. She was the real deal... a style icon ... an original! Reed thin, she was as ubiquitous in the rarefied worlds of genuine international society as KK is in the world of tabloid schlock news. She did all the right things, spent time in all the right places and was famous for saying “she wouldn’t miss the opening of a door” and she spent her life living it. Her conspiratorial laugh, her hacking cough and the aroma and clouds of smoke from her Parliaments are missed in so many ways.

“There are no chic women in America. The one exception is Nan Kempner." Diana Vreeland

La plus chic du monde” Yves St Laurent

Here she is ... giving us one last tasteful tease of Nan!!


Jeffrey Felner: What is your current state of mind?
Nan Kempner:
Honestly, I couldn’t be happier here. I can smoke all I want, I don’t have drag those tanks around and I get to see so many of my nearest and dearest friends. I am sorry I had to leave my wardrobe behind but then again there would be no room for anyone else’s clothes here if I brought all of mine and I always believed that “there's a store where I'm going”

JF: What do you think of the present state of fashion?
Darling there is no fashion anymore,   I mean look around you...what do you see? Trash, these days all these broads looking for free clothes. Even editors today are looking for freebies and they haven’t a clue, there is no one to equal Diana and then again look at the clothes... trash silly stuff for the tasteless

JF: What was your crowning achievement?
My crowning achievement might be my wardrobe and my collection of the most fabulous couture clothes that anyone could ever covet or want … and then again there were my closets which were about the closest thing to heaven that there was.. Everything in its place everything impeccably cared for and how lucky for me that I was always rail thin and everything fit... season after season. And last but not least was that I was smart enough to keep my marriage afloat despite Tommy’s peccadillos and extracurricular activities… 50 years!! I’d say that is an accomplishment of Herculean proportion.

JF: Who was your favorite designer?
My dear, my dear... where to start… this can take a while since it would be impossible to just name one. Yes of course Yves, on those gowns those delightful delicious confections and those bows, and Bill, those suits and cocktail dresses and Main, as in Mainbocher, and Halston, I had those cashmeres in every color, Marc, as in Bohan, and Gianfranco and so so many... after all “I spend way more than I should ... and way less than I want” some might call me greedy and some might call me voracious but I just love everything and everyone who is beautiful

JF: Do you think fashion and social standing are related?
I believe that women who are of a certain station in life must look the part. After all, one’s presentation is most imperative as to how we are treated and how we are perceived. I know I may have over done the clothes horse thing but hell what fun I had. I never missed a couture season for decades. I just adored Yves and he was so kind as he always let me buy the samples at a discount and he was so much fun when he came to NYC and we smoked and drank and laughed. But I digress. I helped raise over 75 million bucks for Sloane Kettering... how would it look if I paraded around in sweats and warm up jacket... heaven forbid!!

JF: Who or what do you think is totally overrated?
Nowadays I think all the fashion magazines have lost their luster they are just vehicles for advertising and revenue... not like when I was at French Vogue or at Bazaar, not like when Diana was holding the reins… even the so called status brands have lost their luster as they are far too democratic in their availability and selection of merchandise.. It was so much more chic when things were less available and more out of reach... how divine it was to not see yourself coming and going...no less to see yourself in the same turn out as some bridge and tunnel wretch.

JF: How would you like to come back in a second life?
I want to come back as the mistress or even the wife of some Middle Eastern potentate or some Russian oligarch and just spend myself silly 365 days a year. I want unlimited budgets everywhere and I want everyone in Paris to know me as the clotheshorse I am!! And most all I want to go out every night and never be tired!


For lunching in town, a crocheted wool cardigan in tones of brown and beige, beige shirt (both Saint Laurent); five-year-old flannel pants (Valentino) - “I let out the cuffs for higher heels.”  Photo by Christopher Niquet.


Photos showing how Nan Kempner organized her closet by color, even using wire hangers to accomodate more clothes closer together, "Nan Kempner- American Chic Exhibit".


(L) Nan Kempner on her wedding day in 1952. She was married in the St.Francis Hotel. (R) Nan Kempner in her debutante dress.


(L) Nan Kempner, Malcolm Forbes' 70th birthday party in Morocco. (R) Nan Kempner in an Yves Saint Laurent evening coat posing in her living room.


(L) Nan Kempner and Kenneth Jay Lane at a preview at Christie’s, photographed by Rose Hartman, New York, 1989. (R) Nan Kempner wearing camel hair coat and cuffed plain-front pants by Yves Saint Laurent, with cashmere sweater and chain belt with tiger eye by Halston; a beret, and holding a long print silk scarf, January 1974.


(L) Valentino and Nan Kempner. (R) Bill Blass and Nan Kempner (wearing Gown by Madame Grès) at the Plaza, 1970. (R) Nan Kempner and Yves Saint Laurent at a launch party for Opium perfume, 1978.


(L)  Nan Kempner's blouses in her damask lined armoire. (R) Necklaces drape the mirror atop a Chinoiserie desk in Nan Kempner’s dressing room.


Halston, Loulou de La Falaise, Yves St. Laurent, Nan Kempner, and Steve Rubell.

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