THE NUTTY PROFESSOR
Byline: Kevin West
NEW YORK — Students in their pile jackets and overstuffed knapsacks choked the Main Building lobby at New York University in Greenwich Village. Upstairs, more students lined the corridors — chatting or cramming before their 6 p.m. classes.
Room 407 at the end of the hall sheltered an incongruous group: the famously well-dressed Nan Kempner — decked out in multicolored Yves Saint Laurent couture — flanked by society jeweler Kenneth Jay Lane and Oscar de la Renta frontman Boaz Mazur — both in bespoke tuxedos. Nearby, Richard Martin of the Costume Institute scrutinized the packed classroom he would soon address.
They were gathered to help David Ingram, director of personal shopping at the Barneys New York 17th Street store, teach the sixth of eight classes in his course “Orchestrating Fashion,” offered through NYU’s School of Continuing Education. Ingram allowed his 50 enrolled students to bring guests to the special lecture, swelling the audience to almost 130.
“At the end of the night, we’ll have to call Mrs. Kempner professeuse de haute couture,” said a delighted Ingram as a few latecomers took their seats. Kempner called Betsy Bloomingdale on her cell phone to report her new title.
Meanwhile, Lane explained Kempner’s qualifications.
“Nan has always worn couture,” he said. “Nan wore couture diapers.”
As Ingram was about to introduce the evening’s speakers, Lane fell into a coughing fit that seemed dire.
“The late Mr. Lane,” Kempner announced to the class.
“We weren’t late, Nan,” he retorted.
“No, but you soon may be,” she shot right back.
Martin spoke first, describing the relationship between client and couturier as one of both patronage and collaboration.
“These extraordinary women who buy couture are connoisseurs and, to a degree, co-creators of the designs they wear,” he said. The students nodded and a few scribbled notes.
Lane, his coughing fit passed, spoke next. He called Kempner a woman of great style and recounted how she once bought a mass of jewelry from a vendor on the street.
“She bought the whole tableful for about 50 cents,” he recalled. “On Nan, these things looked fantastic. She still wears them sometimes.”
“And when people ask me about them,” Kempner interjected, “I tell lies.” For her teaching stint, Kempner wore the real thing by Verdura — ropes of tumbled rubies like cranberries with even larger chunks of emeralds — or at least that’s what she said.
After a few more stories — “Diana Vreeland and I were traveling in Spain right after she was booted out of Vogue,” began one — Lane introduced Kempner to the class. Although she claimed she didn’t know what to say, Kempner took to the podium like a lecturer at the Sorbonne.
“Couture is an art form and a form of history,” she announced. “And every piece is unique, made for you entirely by hand.
“I want to show you,” she said, “what’s really special about couture.” And with that she stepped from behind the podium, undid her skirt and let it fall to the floor. The students gaped. Then she slipped out of her jacket and tossed both to the students.
“Have you ever had $20,000 tossed at you?” Ingram asked, giddy with excitement.
“Take a close look. Each stitch is done by hand,” reiterated Professor Kempner, unflappable even in her underwear, a pale-pink couture slip made for her wedding to Thomas Kempner 45 years ago. For the remainder of her lecture, she wrapped herself in a port-red shahtoosh that she had earlier worn around her shoulders.
The final speaker was Mazur, who handles special-client relations for Oscar de la Renta’s House of Balmain. He described the rarified world of couture from the usher’s perspective.
“For the couture show, the placement is very important,” he confided. “If you seat a major customer in the second row, then she will not buy anything. Nan always sits in the first row.”
After class, Kempner gathered up her clothes and re-dressed by the heater. “Oh, what fun. This evening had everything,” she said wryly. “Cameras and a hundred people who had to sit there and listen to me talk.”