Last year the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute saw to it that we all get a sneak peek inside the amazing closets of fashion iconoclast Iris Barrel Apfel, when they mounted “Rara Avis”. This year, it’s the late Nan Kempner’s turn.“Nan Kempner: American Chic” opens December 12 and runs through March 4, 2007, but the press preview was Monday morning. It drew a steady, curious, and obviously impressed crowd. I took a brief look around and read the first quote on the wall (Diana Vreeland’s assessment that “There is no such thing as a chic American Woman; the one exception is Nan Kempner”), at which time I spotted Robin Givhan. I was curious to hear her ‘take’ on this sentiment (we both agreed it was a rather ridiculous statement even for Diana Vreeland)
Nan Kempner's Closet
The word ‘chic’ is a favorite within fashion circles; it’s constantly being bantered around, and it’s practically lost its meaning (it seems that if someone can’t think of another positive description, they say “it’s chic”). So with that in mind, I was curious as to how the well regarded and astutely observant Washington Post journalist defines the over used term.
After thinking for a second, she quickly said, “Having an effortless sense of style”. But first and foremost, it’s predicated on having a “personal sensibility”. “No stylists!” When I remarked that it obviously rules out movie stars and celebs then, Robin shook her head and said, “I guess that means the stylists are the chicest”. She continued her definition of the ‘C’ word: It means having “integrity.” “Bought not borrowed.” (Well, once again that rules out movie stars, celebutants, and countless social fixtures, right?). Certainly, that applies to the late Nan Kempner, who famously bought her extravagant haute couture treasures. And it certainly applies to Iris Apfel, who told me in our 'Masters of Fashion' Interview, that she personally loathes the idea of ‘borrowing’ which is so rampant in our culture.
FYI: What did Ms. Givhan choose to wear to a press preview on an exhibit called, “American Chic”? A beautiful Dries Van Noten patterned coat. Robin seems to personally favor Dries (when it comes to her own wardrobe), so I guess it’s fair to say she finds his unpretentious, elegantly "untrendy", understated designs to be the height of ‘chic’. She would be right. Now, I selected a vintage leopard printed velvet trench since for me, nothing is more chice than leopard. Speaking of which, the best description of leopard came courtesy Ken Downing, Neiman Marcus’s Fashion Director. At the recent NM Accessories Preview for spring 2007 which was filled with leopard and other animal patterns, he observed that leopard is so neutral and so ubiquitous, it isn’t even thought of as a print anymore but as something that goes with everything.
By the way, Robin is not the only one who defines chic as effortless. In fact, the word, “effortless” was used by Harold Koda, Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute, to sum up Mrs. Kempner’s chic style, in addition to “Classic sensibility, elegant taste, and vivacious personality”. When I asked him which pieces or vignettes on display were most symbolic and illustrative of her trademark elegance, he had no trouble singling out the two outfits that are at the foot of the stairs that greet you when you enter the Costume Institute Galleries: a decidedly sporty crisp white full sleeved cotton Valentino shirt worn with all American blue jeans and red velvet slippers, and an Yves St. Laurent floor length gown with the ease of a shirt dress.
Mr. Koda acknowledged that while the public may have known her for her dressed up, ball gown persona, her uniforms of choice were the shirt (especially the knotted shirt which was a Kempner signature), sweater dressing, (both of which pointed to another Nan-ism, “relaxed and throwaway”). Her daytime urban uniform was the tailored suit culled from names like Yves St. Laurent (her “designer of choice”), Valentino, Balmain (when Oscar de la Renta designed for the couture line). Indeed from my perspective, it was the low keyed, sporty, simpler items rather than the more predictable fussy and over-the-top pieces that were not only the most appealing but modern and defined the notion of "American Chic".
Nan Kempner was as celebrated and well known for her tall skinny “clothes hanger” frame (she was about 5’10”, 110 pounds), which allowed her to wear anything and look great, as she was for her amazing wardrobe. And since eating disorders and unnatural, unhealthy thinness are so much in the news as of late, I couldn’t help but ask Mr. Koda if he thought she may have suffered from an eating disorder. He said she was a good eater but acknowledged that she was a “careful eater” and above all, was “disciplined”. In fact, he said the word discipline applied to every aspect of her life; she had so much self control, she never understood others who had none and were unable to keep their weight down.
But he also pointed out that she was “athletic” (she skied, played tennis, etc.) and “you always saw her racing around” She led an active life and was blessed with a high metabolism and discipline.
- Marilyn Kirschner