When Dorit Kemsley first joined the cast of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills back in 2016, it wasn’t just her unplaceable accent and the fact her best friend was Boy George that caused a stir among her fellow housewives. Instead, Kemsley’s distinctive eye for fashion drew the most attention of all, whether the slinky Balmain jackets she wore in her confessionals, or the gold leaf hair details she wore to Lisa Vanderpump’s lavish “Diamonds and Rosé” party towards the end of her first season on the show. (In one memorable scene from that season, after Kemsley refuses to jump into the ocean, her husband PK offers to buy her a Birkin as an incentive. Suffice to say, she jumps.)
But since lockdown began, Kemsley’s style appears to have taken an unlikely pivot. Alongside the high-octane glamour of her head-to-toe, new-season Versace, Fendi, or Louis Vuitton looks, and the more cutting-edge sportswear she’s known to wear from the likes of Off-White, Vetements, and Marine Serre, rare vintage pieces she’s been quietly collecting over the past few years have been appearing on her Instagram. And these aren’t just any vintage pieces. In one image posted back in November, she wears a plaid skirt suit from John Galliano’s tenure at Dior, making for a delightful ’00s throwback look that wouldn’t feel out of place on the set of Clueless. In another, she wears a Vivienne Westwood corset with a Boucher print from the designer’s fall 1990 “portrait” collection, captioning the post: “Another vintage love affair.”
“The thing that I’ve always loved about vintage is that whenever you get a piece, you know that it contains so many memories, even if you have no idea who has worn it or where it’s been,” says Kemsley of her current obsession. “It has a history, and that makes it feel more meaningful.” While she’s always had a love for archival fashion, she explains, it was having the extra time during lockdown to dig a little deeper that saw her gravitate towards pieces that represent moments in style history. “The nice thing now is that we’re living in an age where all that information is so accessible,” she continues. “It’s really just a matter of having time on your hands, and COVID gave a little bit more time to watch those old runway shows and go deeper and deeper and deeper.”
For Kemsley, this endless curiosity for fashion is something she can trace all the way back to her childhood, adding that she comes from a long line of women who loved getting dress up to the nines—including her grandmother, who “never left the house without a full face of makeup and a little handbag,” and her mother, whose clothes she would often borrow. “As a young girl, I always wanted to kind of pin things to my pants or add patches or make something my own. And I’ll never forget, by the time I was in sixth grade, I could fit into my mother’s clothing, so I would wear her clothes to school. I was in elementary school, and my teachers would look at me like, wow Dorit,” she says, laughing. “I’d be wearing a long jacket with cigarette pants or something. I’ve just always loved dressing up.”
Originally hailing from the East Coast, this initial love of fashion led her to study marketing and communications at university in Connecticut, before she moved at 21 to Italy to begin her career working for a swimwear brand. Did the infamous glamour of the Italian women she was surrounded by shape her extravagant approach to style at all? “Oh, definitely,” says Kemsley. “I mean, when you’re living in a country where the women are getting dressed up to go to the grocery store, having blowouts all the time and impeccably dressed, you can’t help but love it. I really identified with that, and it definitely shaped who I am today. It wasn’t about wealth, it was about taking pride in the way you look, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.”
After a number of years working within the industry, Kemsley decided to strike out on her own, launching a successful swimwear brand that she closed after meeting PK and decided to start a family. A number of years in New York followed, before they moved to Los Angeles and Kemsley found herself approached by the producers of Real Housewives due to PK’s friendship with Lisa Vanderpump. From the jump, Kemsley recognized the opportunity of appearing on the show not just as a springboard to launch her second swimwear line, Beverly Beach, but also simply as an opportunity to have fun with fashion.
“It’s a great platform for me to be able to enjoy fashion and enjoy dressing up and putting together looks, and I think a large part of the audience really enjoys that too,” says Kemsley. Indeed, over the course of her five-year stint on the show, she’s become one of the rare housewives for whom outfits have created entire plot points all of their own. (Lest we forget, when fellow housewife Sutton Stracke asked where a dress of hers was from; upon replying it was a Rihanna design from Fenty, Stracke noted that she didn’t wear “celebrity designer collaborations,” sending both Rihanna fans and fashion obsessives around the world into a tailspin.)
“It was definitely surreal seeing my style on camera at first,” says Kemsley. “When I started the show, I was such a rookie, so I was taking a lot of direction from the producers. And it’s The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, so they want you to look like a typical Beverly Hills housewife in diamonds and pretty little dresses. I think that if you watch the evolution of my style on the show, I get a lot more confident and comfortable.” It’s this evolution that has led her to embrace the individualism of vintage fashion, and to share her growing knowledge with her Instagram followers. “I think it’s incredible the way Vivienne Westwood took this historic garment style and 18th-century painting and modernized it, for example,” says Kemsley. “Back then, people were wearing corsets as undergarments, but she encouraged you to wear them on the outside, and made them from flexible materials so they’re really comfortable and supportive, which is so liberating. When you wear it, it makes you feel empowered. I was so inspired by them that I actually designed a range of corsets for my bridal collection.”
This brings us neatly to the bridal range Kemsley designed over lockdown in collaboration with the Australian bridalwear designer Nektaria Karantzi. Debuting in February with a series of six opulent gowns, all of the pieces were crafted during late-night Zoom sessions with Australia, which would see Kemsley working until the early hours while right in the middle of filming the latest season of Housewives. “It was challenging at points, but it was all so exciting,” Kemsley says. “I said to Nektaria I really would love to step outside the box a little bit and create some fashion pieces. I know we have to be also somewhat mainstream and appeal to the majority of brides, but also for the dresses to have a little twist to them. And there were a few pieces where she really let me just go for it.” As well as launching the bridalwear line through a series of trunk shows over the past few months, Kemsley has also been busy preparing a range of accessories and ready-to-wear to run alongside it. (She can be spotted wearing a blue silk number from the upcoming ready-to-wear collection in the opening taglines for this season of the show.)
As for what else the current season has in store, Kemsley remains relatively tight-lipped, although she does promise that the run of Vivienne Westwood corsets she’s been spotted in so far will continue. “I think buying vintage is definitely a thing of the future, not the past, as people recognize it's a way to be environmentally conscious,” she adds. “I'm a baby fashion collector really, but I’m a fashion collector that likes to actually wear the pieces. You can purchase these pieces and keep them perfect and ready to sit in a museum, or you can wear them like I do. I might get a little bit of makeup on it or something, but I want to enjoy it, because for me, it’s like candy to a kid.” May Kemsley’s vintage fashion sugar rush long continue.