A Conversation with Nancy Chilton

Nancy Chilton and Anna Wintour
Photo by Matt Barron

Nancy Chilton, Chief External Relations Officer at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, announced her resignation on June 4th. Nancy will remain in her role until September 30th, heading up communications for “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” which opens on September 18th and overseeing this year’s scaled-down Met Gala that will officially end New York Fashion Week. Chilton will be establishing her own consulting business, NAC Consulting.

Linda Fargo and Nancy Chilton
Photo: bfa.com

Nancy joined The Met in 2006. Her first job was as Senior Publicist for the Costume Institute, and then she graduated as Chief Communications Officer. In 2018, Nancy was given the title of Chief External Relations Officer. The title was created for Nancy, and it codified her extensive work with sponsors, fundraising, and the like. Prior to joining The Met in 2006, the Cornell University grad was head of publicity for Polo Ralph Lauren. This is when we first met. I had a chance to reminisce about Nancy’s tenure at The Met with Nancy via a phone call.

Marilyn Kirschner: Is there one thing that really stands out in the past 15 years?

Nancy: It’s hard to choose just one because there have been so many incredible moments. A lot of it has to do with the people I have been so lucky to meet. Brilliant designers like Donatella Versace, Nicolas Ghesquière, Alessandro Michele, and Marc Jacobs; cardinals and bishops for “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Sandy Schreier (“In Pursuit of Fashion: The Sandy Schreier Collection,” November 2019 – September 2020) has become a dear friend. We were so thrilled to have some of her pieces, which is only a small portion of what she has.

The variety of people, the connections, and the relationships are all very special. The Michele Obama ribbon cutting was a fantastic moment, honoring Anna for all she’s done for the Costume Institute. Every exhibition opening is exciting. I’m talking to the world about these exhibitions for months before their openings.

Having the press previews and walking into the exhibitions for the first time is super emotional because it’s so incredible. Take the “Camp” exhibition. Watching people’s reactions as they walked into that last big gallery and seeing the jaw drops never gets old.

I reached out to Sandy Schreier and asked her what makes Nancy so special. This is what she had to say:

“When I first met Nancy Chilton, she scared me. I had never met anyone before with such a perfect work ethic. But, it wasn’t an act! Nancy Chilton is perfect. She can and does handle the smallest of problems and the biggest and does it effortlessly. I am in awe of not only her work but of her multitasking, her charm, and, of course, her contact list.” – Sandy Schreier

MK: What will you miss the most?

Nancy: The craziness of what was typically the First Monday in May but which will now be the second Monday in September for one time only. It’s a crazy day that takes an entire year of planning. For the “China: Through the Looking Glass” press preview, we had Henry Kissinger. For “Heavenly Bodies,” we had Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and he grabbed a Met baseball cap and put it on. It’s great moments like this.

Nicolas Ghesquière and Nancy Chilton
Photo: bfa.com

And you have little time to put on your dress and makeup, and then arrivals for the gala start at 6 PM, and you go through that whole crazy night. I just started going to the after-parties, and they are awesome.

When you are the communications person, you are going the whole week. It’s the most amazing day/night of the entire year, and I will miss that. Hopefully, I will be involved in some way. I will see.

MK: Are there any designers you thought would be challenging to work with but were easy?

Nancy: Donatella Versace! When we worked with her on “Heavenly Bodies,” she could not have been nicer or lovelier. The one who I thought would be challenging was Rei Kawakubo. She is known to be cryptic, and she doesn’t speak English often, but when she saw her exhibition in the galleries, she and her team could not have been nicer.

Thom Browne, Andrew Bolton, Nancy Chilton
Photo: bfa.com

The big surprise is that she walked the red carpet. We were told Rei would come in through a different entrance and go straight up to the Museum, but when Rei arrived at the gala, she actually walked the red carpet. Of course, she ran up the stairs so fast only a couple of people got photos of her.

MK: What was your favorite, ‘knock your socks off’ Met Gala red carpet moment?

Nancy: Rihanna’s extraordinary yellow cape gown by couturier Guo Pei at “China: Through the Looking Glass” in 2015 was unforgettable.

MK: How has the Met Gala changed in terms of attendees?

Nancy: Some people come often, but it all depends on their schedules and where they are in the world. Sarah Jessica Parker, Madonna, and Beyonce are regulars, and some industry people come a lot, but it varies, and it’s always a changing mix that keeps it interesting. Every year is different based on the theme. Putting together the guest list is part of the magic that Anna creates. It’s a great mix of people from the worlds of technology, fashion, music, film sports, business, politics, young and up and creatives, Broadway stars. It’s just such an incredible blend.

MK: What would people who don’t know Anna Wintour be surprised to learn?

Nancy: That she is brilliant, fun, has a great sense of humor, and is incredibly loyal. Anna is fantastic to work with, and it’s been an honor and a privilege.

MK: How do you think fashion changed the most in the past decade?

Nancy: It’s been changing gradually, but everything was accelerated in the last year and a half. There is so much more focus on sustainability, more emphasis on comfort, and high-quality clothing that endures. People are more creative in how they dress, there are fewer rules, and there are more up-and-coming fashion designers who are inclusive in their designs and who they design clothes for. It’s become more democratic vis-a-vis gender identity, race, and body type. It’s more about personal style, creativity, and individuality, and who you are through what you wear.

Nancy Chilton
Photo by Vanessa Lawrence

The increased casualization of life has really changed things a lot, in my opinion. I went out to lunch today, and I wore my nice suede sneakers. I am not used to wearing hard shoes. Everything is more open, things are less frowned upon, and the rules are looser, which gives more room for creativity.

MK: Speaking of which, how would you describe your own personal style? (I have always admired Nancy’s chic, very pulled together, and very consistent look)

Nancy: A lot of it is a holdover from my Ralph years. I tend to be more understated and functional. When you are very busy all day, you don’t have time to change, so it’s all about functionality. I love clothing with pockets, something that gives you confidence but is also practical. After standing on marble floors for hours, “Farewell High Heels” is my motto. I tend to do a mid-heel. The Roger Vivier Belle Pump is my go-to shoe; it is so comfortable.

Nancy Chilton with Alina Cho
Photo: .bfa.com

My work uniform for years: a low-heeled Vivier shoe or ankle boot, skinny jeans with silk top, a blazer, and sparkly earrings; all very comfortable but well dressed. It’s fun transitioning back to a more public wardrobe and having something to get dressed up for now.

MK: OMG, Nancy, didn’t you know what skinny jeans are out? (Editor’s note, I wear them as well, and we shared a laugh over the preposterous notion that they, or anything, is ‘out’).

MK: What designers do you personally gravitate to?

Nancy: Alber! I have a number of pieces from his wonderful tenure at Lanvin, including a favorite winter jacket. I have a lot of Prada, which is older, and I also love Proenza Schouler, Narciso Rodrguez, and Marc Jacobs dresses. The rest is a blend. I love the mix of high and low.

MK: Your short architectural hairstyle is one of your enduring signatures. How did that come about, and who initially cut your hair?

Nancy: Long story short – In 2010, I had a cycling accident, which necessitated a craniotomy. I’m lucky to be alive, thanks to the incredible neurosurgeon Dr. John Boockvar. After the surgeries, part of my head was shaved, and the other half had long hair, so I wore Hermes scarves for months to hide them. When I was ready for a haircut, Alexandra Kotur (who had been my intern at Ralph Lauren and was then working at Vogue) recommended Tim Rogers, who cut my hair for 10 years. Sadly, he moved away, and now Tommy Buckett cuts my hair, which is perfect since Kate Lanphear’s cut was my inspiration, and Tommy cuts her hair.

Nancy Chilton, Keith Baptista and Hildy Kuryk
Photo: bfa.com

MK: Are there any designers who you feel are underrated?

Nancy: There is so much competition for attention, but thanks to the upcoming exhibition, many young talented American designers, like Christopher John Rogers, Conner Ives, Prabal Gurung, Telfar, Pyer Moss, and many more will have their chance in the spotlight.

MK: Who was your most significant ally at The Met?

Nancy: Pulling off what we do every year takes a city, not a village. Over the years, Andrew Bolton has been a fantastic colleague, friend, and boss. The Costume Institute team is tremendous, and The Met’s communications team is remarkable. We work together very closely on many things, as we do with development, special events, education, and of course, the Vogue team. Anna’s loyalty and vision have been very helpful. I am lucky to have worked with Vogue’s Communication Directors (like Patrick O’Connell, Hidy Kuryk, and Megan Salt) on the gala over the years.

MK: Are you taking any people from The Met with you in your next endeavor?

Nancy: I am a sole practitioner at NAC Consulting.

MK: What got you to the Met in the first place?

Nancy: I left Ralph Lauren when my husband was transferred to London for his job. Upon our return, I had just read Diana Vreeland’s autobiography. I was thinking how great it would be to freelance, and living down the street from The Met, I thought it would be such a perfect job for me. I knew Harold Koda, and I also knew someone in the director’s office who introduced me to my predecessor, Bernice Kwok-Gabel, who left to go to Hermes. I sent my resume and interviewed for the position.

MK: Is there anything you dreaded every year???

Nancy: The way my feet felt when I got home from the Met Gala. The strategy was to bring three pairs of shoes that morning, so I had a mid-heel for the press preview, a flat for the afternoon, and more of a heel for the beginning of the gala. I changed into my gala dress in my office. Very glamorous. Not!

MK: What particularly excites you about fashion right now and makes you feel optimistic?

Nancy: The future of fashion, new visions, and celebrating young talent is exciting and inspiring. We did a virtual press event for the upcoming exhibition, and Andrew spoke about some of the pieces. They are just spectacular. For example, Connor Ives created this amazing dress from recycled sequins.

MK: What is the percentage of established designers and emerging talent in the exhibition?

Nancy: Part 1 will be pretty balanced between the old and the new guard. The final list changes until the last moment based on the gallery design, space, and what works well together, so it’s hard to know what’s in the show right now.

MK: What is your proudest moment/biggest achievement?

Nancy: I think working with Andrew to elevate the image and the prestige of the Costume Institute globally over the past 15 years. And there are so many things that went into that equation. One of them was the documentary; “The First Monday in May,” which took hundreds of hours of filming.

Nancy Chilton, Sharon Hurowitz & Harold Koda
Photo: bfa.com

Sitting in the screening room and seeing that movie and how great it came out was a major moment of pride. When people ask about the relationship between the gala and the exhibition, what is the role of The Costume Institute, and what my job is like, I just tell them to watch that movie.

We would like to thank Nancy for her time and we wish her the best of luck in her next endeavor. And, if you haven’t watched “The First Monday in May“, I urge you to do so!

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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