NEW YORK — Nan Kempner's affection for haute couture is the stuff of Gotham legends. Once part of a panel on fashion, the socialite, who died last year, wanted to make a point about the beauty of couture's interior construction, so she famously undid her Yves Saint Laurent skirt and tossed it into the audience. Of course, Kempner being Kempner, underneath she had on a lace slip as luxurious as the garment she had just abandoned.
This winter, Kempner's iconic style will be the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. "Nan Kempner: American Chic," from Dec. 12 to March 4, will showcase more than 75 ensembles, including accessories, from the socialite's closet, on loan from her husband, Thomas L. Kempner.
"When Mr. Kempner invited us to make the selection, we realized that she conceived most of the pieces that she kept as archive pieces," said Harold Koda, curator in charge of The Costume Institute, recalling the process of sifting through almost 3,000 ensembles and accessories Kempner had accumulated in more than four decades of buying couture. "It wasn't a working wardrobe. Many of the pieces were clearly intended as museum-worthy."
The exhibit will focus on her favorite designers, including the haute couture of Saint Laurent, Valentino and Oscar de la Renta for Balmain, as well as Jean Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld for Fendi, John Galliano for Christian Dior, Lanvin and Emanuel Ungaro. There is also an accessories component with jewelry and other pieces by JAR, Verdura and Kenneth Jay Lane, among others.
"There is a seeming effortlessness to her elegance, but it required an extraordinary amount of orchestration to create that effect," Koda said. "You saw her in a white shirt over a long black skirt, accessorized with cuffs and earrings, but when you consider the way her collection was organized, it was so vast, you had to be a generalissimo of fashion to coordinate the aspects."
The Costume Institute is arranging the show into five separate vitrines: resortwear, tailoring, the wardrobe and fashion archive, eveningwear and accessories. Visitors will get a glimpse into her closet, with dress rails and shelves serving as a backdrop to underscore Kempner's meticulously planned wardrobe.The exhibit will aim to reflect Kempner's carefully studied elegance, which often centered around a proportion of a long, narrow, straight skirt and a strict, tailored jacket to complement her whippet-thin, almost androgynous frame. "Her figure was like that of a Saint Laurent mannequin," Koda said. "Had she been small and voluptuous, some of her looks could have been perceived as vulgar, but because of her adolescent figure, she was seen as provocative and chic. She could wear something transparent, and the clothing played off her personality."
Pieces on show will range from Kempner's pink ruffled Jean Desses debutante dress to a Jean Paul Gaultier couture gown referencing a pleated Madame Grès dress. The core of the collection, though, comes from Saint Laurent, such as one jacket with a three-dimensional Lesage rose going up to the neck, or a hand-painted leather coat with yellow, green and orange trompe l'oeil lamé stitching.
"The first impression I had was how relatively quiet it was," Koda said. "Her persona was so extroverted and engaging that somehow I expected the clothing to be the same, but I realized quickly that so much of the power of her projection of style was her. As with every great woman of style, it's as much about a great personality as it is about clothes."
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