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That iconic photo embodies it perfectly: Carolyn Bessette Kennedy emerging as a new bride in a Narciso Rodriguez silk slipdress. It’s the ultimate minimalist moment—one of the style icon’s greatest hits, and one that consistently provides inspiration, more than 26 years later. Others include a classic white button-up tucked into a sleek black skirt for a gala; a bright red coat worn on the streets of Tribeca; and a camel-colored pencil skirt with a basic black top.
Bessette Kennedy’s distinct imprint was all over the spring 2023 collections. The Row’s lookbook included shots of Bessette-like beauties strolling the city streets in simple sleeveless black dresses or white button-downs. At Khaite, CFDA Fashion Award winner Catherine Holstein could have been channeling the icon’s 2023 equivalent with her muted palette and clean lines. And women like Kaia Gerber and Moda Operandi co-founder Lauren Santo Domingo cite her as a personal style inspiration. “Carolyn is being rediscovered by a new generation of young women who need a style icon who is not ostentatious or flashy,” says Santo Domingo, who grew up in the same town as Bessette Kennedy (Greenwich, Connecticut) and admired her long before she became a household name. “As someone who often leaves the house without a single accessory, I appreciate her minimal approach to dressing. It’s something I attribute to her being a busy, modern woman.”
Richard Kemp, a designer for the Danish brand Rabens Saloner, sees the Carolyn effect in the ’90s-inspired silhouettes of his line’s summer collection. “Everyone wanted to have that effortless chic that she had. It’s always going to resonate. It’s always going to be something that’s there.”
Bessette Kennedy was in the public eye for five years before she died tragically at age 33. She rarely gave interviews and made only a few red-carpet appearances. The fact that only a finite number of photos of her exist fuels the fascination. “We mourn the loss of a time when we weren’t so bombarded by product and luxury and consumption. It’s jammed down our throats now, every day. There’s something so special and precious about those few images we have, those few glimpses into the past,” explains Jack Miner, a co-founder of Interior, which featured a leather trench coat in its spring 2023 collection that was inspired by Bessette Kennedy.
“A table stakes reading is that she had panache without trying hard at all. To go a step deeper, I think the eye craves a little bit of imperfection, a sense of naturalness and ease,” says Interior co-founder Lily Miesmer. “People crave the sense of voyeurism that comes from looking at someone who, yes, knew that she was being watched, but you could tell only got dressed for her own self. She definitely did.”
This article appears in the February 2023 issue of ELLE.
Adrienne Gaffney is an associate editor at ELLE who previously worked at WSJ Magazine and Vanity Fair.