Carolyn Bessette Kennedy: Calvin Klein Publicist to Private Princess

LONDON — Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, the Calvin Klein publicist turned wife of John F. Kennedy Jr., may have died in 1999 in a tragic plane crash, but her style continues to resonate in pop culture.

Kennedy died two years after Diana, Princess of Wales, and speculation swirls around what would have been of both women today — tall, svelte and blonde — in a world with so much pop culture and political crossover.

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In Sunita Kumar Nair’s debut book, “CBK: Carolyn Bessette Kennedy: A Life in Fashion,” the legacy of the New York native is traced through her clothes and the people close to her.

1996 - New York - John F. Kennedy Jr and wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy morning walk (Credit Image: © Globe Photos/ZUMA Wire)
John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy in 1996.

The idea came to the London-born creative director and stylist when she noticed a recurring pattern of Bessette Kennedy popping up through different stages of her life, almost as a ghost.

“The first time was when I was a student at the University of Manchester at a petrol station, she was on the cover of a weekly magazine wearing a Prada look and I remember feeling very visceral about it, there was something really extraordinary about it. With how dirty and horrible petrol stations are, it made her stand out even more visually because she was so elegant and metro,” said Nair in an interview.

Six years after the death of Bessette Kennedy, Nair relocated to New York and worked under W magazine (then part of WWD), researching for a show, when she came across Aileen Mehle’s society pages in WWD that documented Bessette Kennedy’s every look and move.

1995 - Carolyn Bessette Kennedy yellow rain coat slicker - The Kennedy's Labor Day Weekend. Hyannisport, Mass (Credit Image: © Globe Photos/ZUMA Wire)
Carolyn Bessette Kennedy in 1995.

After 15 years of rummaging through the archives, Nair realized no one had ever put Bessette Kennedy’s life into a book the same way that had been done with Italian socialite Luisa, Marchesa Casati Stampa di Soncino or American photographer Slim Aarons.

“There’s a timelessness about her and that’s her appeal. There’s no label to put on her. She never put a label on herself, she’s this open canvas that you can interpret what you want from her looks,” said Nair, who explores nine ideas from Bessette Kennedy’s sartorial life, ranging from her crisp white shirts and minimal wedding dress to the nonchalance of her everyday wardrobe. The picture on the book’s cover is a Bruce Weber photograph that was used for the cover of Vanity Fair’s September 1999 issue.

Gabriela Hearst pens the tome’s foreword, comparing Bessette Kennedy to cutting “a flower in the wild and you place it in another scenario, and you see the magnificence of it.”

(from left first row) The singer Sting and his wife Trudie Styler, Lady Diana Spencer, singer Elton John  attend Mass in memory of Gianni Versace at Duomo cathedral, Milan July 22, 1997. In the second row on the left Carolyne Bessette Kennedy (long blond hair) and on the center fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld (white hair); Versace died in Miami on July 15. © Carlo Cerchioli..(da sinistra in prima fila) Il cantante Sting con la moglie Trudie Styler, lady Diana Spencer, il cantante Elton John assistono alla messa in suffragio di Gianni Versace in Duomo, Milano 22 luglio 1997.  In seconda fila a sinistra Carolyne Bessette Kennedy (capelli biondi) e al centro lo stilista Karl Lagerfeld (capelli bianchi). Versace è morto a Miami il 15 luglio.
The tale of two blondes: Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and Princess Diana at the funeral of Gianni Versace in 1997.

Her Narciso Rodriguez wedding dress cemented her style, at a time when the style of choice was froufrou skirts and off-the-shoulder bustier dresses.

There was a small rotation of designers hanging in Bessette Kennedy’s closet; the main suspects were Ann Demeulemeester, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Miuccia Prada, Valentino Garavani and Yohji Yamamoto.

The Japanese designer told WWD at the time of Bessette Kennedy’s death that she was the one person he wished to meet.

“When I look at someone who wears what I created, I always discover a new thing. She was dealing with my clothes in her own way. She inspired me a lot,” the designer tells Nair in the book.

New York, N.Y. - 08/21/1996- Carolyn Bessette shops in Soho.
-PHOTO by: Ken Katz/

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Featuring: Carolyn Bessette
Where: New York, New York, United States
When: 01 Jan 1998
Credit: Ken Katz/
Carolyn Bessette Kennedy in 1996 in Soho.

Demeulemeester recalls that when Bessette Kennedy wore her leather skirt with the camel coat, she couldn’t believe it because “I have such a link to it. Firstly, I own one myself; it’s an intimate thing choosing clothes, as I don’t wear whatever.”

“WWD hailed me ‘Queen Ann’ with this runway look, so it marked my career in a way. I wouldn’t say that I was a queen, but I was challenging [something] typical for a woman. These are iconic pieces, so when I saw this picture of Carolyn wearing it, I knew instantly her level of understanding of the intricacies of my designs,” she adds.

From compiling the book, Nair got the sense that Bessette Kennedy never cared for the fame of the family name, and she never took to wearing her mother-in-law’s jewelry in front of the press.

She found that the private princess, as she was dubbed by Vanity Fair, only wore Jackie Kennedy’s Cartier watch.

Sunita Nair
Sunita Kumar Nair

When Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, married into the British royal family, it was rumored that she based her Givenchy wedding dress on Bessette Kennedy’s, citing it as a “favorite celebrity wedding dress” in an interview with Glamour magazine in 2016. Well into her married life, Meghan Markle has been spotted on numerous occasions wearing Princess Diana’s gold Cartier Tank watch and jewelry, as has Kate Middleton.

“Lee Radziwill had a major influence on her, in the sense of how to deal with the press and the level of scrutiny that she would be under,” said Nair.

Nearly 25 years since the death of New York’s dashing couple, each year they’re reincarnated with something new — for now, it’s in the form of a book, quiet luxury and the return of Manhattan minimalism that’s spreading across the European runways.

“CBK: Carolyn Bessette Kennedy: A Life in Fashion” [Abrams] is out on Nov. 23.

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