Nan Kempler: Queen Spree

Clotheshorse Nan Kempner.


Socialite Nan Kempner lived to shop. “I would be silly not to admit I’m a clotheshorse,” she said to Women’s Wear Daily in 1972. For the most part, Kempner stuck to big-name designer fare. “You don’t want to buy a surprise,” she explained to W in 2000, “because then the surprise is how awful it looks on you.” But that didn’t stop her from taking sartorial risks: Once, when denied entry to La Côte Basque because of her pantsuit, she simply removed her trousers and entered wearing only an Yves Saint Laurent tunic.

Born to a prominent San Francisco family, she married investment banker Thomas L. Kempner in 1952 and kept house in a 16-room duplex on New York’s Park Avenue. She became a fixture at the Paris couture shows after making her initial trip at age 19; her first purchase was a white Christian Dior sheath. “I spend more money than I should and less than I’d like to, much less,” she told WWD in 1972. “I couldn’t keep my husband if I spent more.”

Kempner’s chic life gave her ample opportunity to show off her purchases—she hit the town nearly every night. “My theory is, once you go out, you have to go to them all,” she said to WWD in 2004. Her lithe figure made her an ideal clothes hanger, and she claimed she didn’t diet. (She had always assumed she was the inspiration for Tom Wolfe’s term “social X-ray,” though the author later denied it.) Comments Kempner made to W in 2000 about avid eaters sparked a flurry of irate letters. “I loathe fat people. I really have a hang-up. I can’t stand flesh,” she had confessed over chicken salad at Swifty’s. “Don’t misunderstand—I know how lucky I am. They should bottle my enzymes.”

And perhaps bottle her zeal for fashion as well. Kempner supported many designers, but Saint Laurent was her favorite; over the years she amassed 374 of his outfits. In 2006, the year after her death, selections from her wardrobe were shown at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in an exhibit called “Nan Kempner: American Chic.” Although Kempner is gone, she may still be shopping in the great beyond. “I tell people all the time I want to be buried naked,” she told WWD in 1972, “because there must be a store where I’m going.”

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