Christian Lacroix Evening Jacket and vintage YSL skirt

A few years ago during a visit to San Francisco’s de Young Museum, I discovered Nan Kempner (1930–2005) and she has been my style muse ever since. As an avid reader of Vanity Fair, I had heard of Kempner before, but I did not quite understand the influence she had on fashion. Everybody wanted to dress her: the great Madame Gres, Coco Chanel, Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent, Mainbocher, Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, Tiffany & Co…. She was the original ‘It’ girl. She only missed one Parisian couture show in 40 years and always got to sit front row. She always carried her passport in her handbag because “You never know where you might have to be.” She always kept suitable ensembles at hand. A true fashion lover, she kept everything she ever wore, cataloging it like an art collection, in her Park Avenue apartment. She wasn’t just a mannequin: she knew how to wear clothes. She began mixing vintage and contemporary, old world and new world, sportswear and couture, creating what became American Chic. Nan also contributed to fashion as a fashion features editor for Harper’s Bazaar, a correspondent for the French edition of Vogue, and an international representative for Christie’s.

Nan’s jackets
As soon as I got home I re-organized my closet according to colour.

Nan’s sweaters

in YSL
In Bill Blass


“There’s no such thing as a chic American woman. The one exception is Nan Kempner.” -Diana Vreeland
“Nan always looks so wonderful in my clothes, because she has a body like a hanger.” – Valentino


Nan‘s first donation to The Costume Institute was her Jean Dessès coming-out dress. She often said that she intended her collection to go to The Metropolitan Museum of Art — her “neighborhood” museum — and to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

“My husband, Tommy, thinks it’s hysterical, because he used to think it was an extravagance, and it now turns out that I was an art collector. Can you imagine?” -Nan Kempner

I am not embarrassed to say that the de Young exhibit was probably the greatest I have ever seen. Rooms and rooms filled with one-of-a-kind couture gowns nearly brought tears to my eyes (and a fair bit of envy).

Madame Grès
Evening Gowns, 1971 (left); 1969 (right)
White pleated silk jersey; Bordeaux pleated silk jersey
Yves Saint Laurent
Evening Ensemble, autumn/winter 1983–84
Cape: yellow silk faille; gown: black silk velvet
Evening Gown, 1984
Red with white pin dotted silk chiffon
Nan’s fur
(photo courtesy of natalie zee drieu)
Nan’s B&W ensembles
(photo courtesy of natalie zee drieu)
Nan’s kimonos
(photo courtesy of natalie zee drieu)
“I tell people all the time I want to be buried naked. I know there will be a store where I’m going.” -Nan Kempner
Madame Grès, if you are in heaven, can you dress me too?

Nan Kempner: American Chic