Nan Kempner knew how to make an entrance. Once, when she was denied entry to Manhattan’s La Côte Basque because she was wearing an Yves Saint Laurent pantsuit, Kempner famously removed her trousers and entered the restaurant wearing only the jacket.
Now, nine years after her death, two of her grandchildren, Chris and Meggie Kempner, are continuing her bold fashion legacy with a debut fall collection inspired by her and simply called Kempner.
Not that the new offering is replete with the couture confections that Kempner, a perennial on best-dressed lists, by her own admission wore to the opening of a door.
“People remember the over-the-top gala gowns, but my grandmother was also one of the first women to embrace the menswear look, the YSL stuff, and I always loved how classically tailored she looked, so I took that as a huge inspiration,” says Meggie, 27, a former stylist for Ralph Lauren who is the creative right side to her brother’s business-oriented left. “We really wanted to take my grandmother’s story and imagine she was closer to our age, living and working in New York.”
This translates to versatile sportswear—printed tank dresses, cigarette pants and mannish blazers and shirts—that can be mixed with high-fashion pieces and styled in multiple ways for the seemingly effortless look that Nan cheekily called “artificially relaxed.”
Chris, who is 29 and just graduated from Harvard Business School, recalls attending the “Nan Kempner: American Chic” exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art the year after his grandmother died and being spooked by a mannequin at the entrance that brought to mind her studied-unstudied glamour.
“It reminded me of her so much, it was almost scary,” he says. “It was dressed in a white dress shirt tied at the stomach to show her belly button, which she loved to do, a pair of jeans, red moccasin loafers and a red sweater over her shoulders. It probably took her three and a half hours to style herself, and yet she would walk around the Upper East Side like ‘Oh, this old thing? I just threw this on.’”
The siblings, who plan to expand into accessories and fragrance, know that they will have a tougher challenge next season when it comes to channeling their grandmother’s approach to summertime dressing.
“In the summer you’d be lucky to catch her with any clothes on,” jokes Chris. “She loved being naked, even at country clubs, where that is not allowed. I told the story at a friend’s wedding recently of when he visited me once. He walked outside and, surprise, my grandmother is sunbathing without a top. He came back into the room white with terror and said, ‘I just saw your grandmother naked.’” Adds Meggie, “She did not follow the typical rules—she just did what she wanted.” For store locations, go to kempnernyc.com.