Press release

Nan Kempner's Chic, Iconic Styles to be Focus of Winter Exhibition at Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute

Exhibition dates: December 12, 2006 – March 4, 2007
Location: The Costume Institute
Press preview: Monday, December 11, 10 a.m.–noon

Nan Kempner – the late New York style icon, connoisseur of the couture, and member of The Best Dressed List's Hall of Fame – will be the subject of the winter exhibition in The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, from December 12, 2006, through March 4, 2007. Known for a seemingly effortless style that nonetheless displayed a meticulous attention to detail, she was a passionate client and collector of such designers as Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, and Oscar de la Renta from the 1960s onward.

Over five decades, she acquired thousands of articles of clothing and accessories. The exhibition – Nan Kempner: American Chic – will be comprised of a selection demonstrating the work of the designers she most admired, as well as the strategies of dress implicit in the creation of the personal and distinctive style of a woman celebrated for her fashion sense.

The clothing in the exhibition from Mrs. Kempner's personal collection is on loan courtesy of Mr. Thomas L. Kempner. A number of the ensembles were recently donated to the collection of The Costume Institute by Mr. Kempner.

Harold Koda, Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute, noted: "For Mrs. Kempner, the rigorous refinement of the haute couture was mediated by the informal strategies of American sportswear. While her taste was decidedly Francophile, by conveying a less rigid and prescribed version of elegance, Mrs. Kempner infused chic, that French concept of fashionable stylishness, with her own distinctly American inflection."

The exhibition will include more than 75 ensembles organized in five categories in separate vitrines: resort wear, tailoring, the wardrobe and fashion archive, eveningwear, and accessories. The wardrobe and fashion archive will be presented as an evocation of Mrs. Kempner's dressing area. While the display will feature important masterworks from Mrs. Kempner's collection foregrounded in the vitrine, the organization of her dress rails and shelves as a backdrop will suggest the intimidating complexity of coordination required to create the stylish ensembles for which she was known.

Among the designers represented will be Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, and Oscar de la Renta, as well as John Galliano for Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld for Fendi, Lanvin, and Emanuel Ungaro. Accessory designs and jewelry by JAR, Verdura, Kenneth Jay Lane, and others will also be on view.

Nan Kempner (1930-2005) – who was called by Yves Saint Laurent "la plus chic du monde" and by Vanity Fair "the world's most famous clotheshorse" – was an inveterate follower of fashion from childhood, when she collected dolls and attended fashion shows with her mother. After making her first couture acquisition of a Dior sheath in Paris in the 1950s, she for nearly 40 years never missed the couture shows there. She was married to Thomas L. Kempner for more than five decades, and the family – which eventually included three children – divided their time between their Manhattan apartment and a home in Purchase, New York. In the 1970s she was known as an integral part of the social set that Women's Wear Daily called "the Cat Pack." She entertained and also traveled extensively, particularly to such favorite destinations as London, Paris, Gstaadt, Venice, and the Caribbean, and in 2000 published a book about haute entertaining as practiced by her friends, members of the international set, called :RSVP: Menus for Entertaining from People Who Really Know How (Clarkson Potter).

Over the years Mrs. Kempner was affiliated with Harper's Bazaar as its fashion features editor, the French edition of Vogue as a correspondent, and most recently as an international representative of Christie's. She was a member of The Costume Institute's Visiting Committee, and supported the Lighthouse for the Blind and the Society for Memorial Sloan-Kettering for Cancer.

An elegant blonde with a raspy voice and self-deprecating humor, she said of herself, "I'm a drunk when it comes to clothes." Five-foot-nine-inches tall and always slender, she was said to be the inspiration for the term "social X-ray" in Tom Wolfe's novel Bonfire of the Vanities and Valentino once remarked of her, "Nan always looks so wonderful in my clothes, because she has a body like a hanger." But it was her sense of style that captivated the designers whose work she loved, wore, and collected. As Diana Vreeland expressed it: "There's no such thing as a chic American woman…The one exception is Nan Kempner."

The exhibition is organized by Harold Koda, Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute. Special assistance and coordination of the Nan Kempner collection has been given by Donzie Barroso. Exhibition design is by Daniel Kershaw, Senior Exhibition Designer; graphics are by Sue Koch, Senior Graphic Designer; and lighting is by Richard Lichte and Clint Coller, Senior Lighting Designers, all of the Metropolitan Museum's Design Department.

A variety of education programs will be presented in conjunction with the exhibition, which will also be featured on the Museum's Web site at

The exhibition will be on view in The Costume Institute galleries of the Metropolitan Museum.

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October 18, 2006

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