Nan Kempner: American Chic Review

On the heels of a phenomenally successful and popular retrospective, Vivienne Westwood: 36 Years in Fashion, San Francisco's de Young Museum has unveiled a stellar follow up with Nan Kempner: American Chic. The new exhibit which has traveled across the continent after debuting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last winter in New York is a joint partnership between the two institutions; combining wares from their respective permanent costume and textiles archives. With more than 70 stunning garments and accessories, the collection boasts daywear, resort wear, and evening ensembles from some of the greatest couturiers of the latter 20th century. Not only does the exhibition pay homage to preeminent designers such as Christian Lacroix, Madame Gres, and Yves Saint Laurent, with whom Mrs. Kempner shared a special relationship, but it celebrates the life of a noted fashion icon, couture connoisseur, and beloved philanthropist who lived her life with great passion, compassion, and, dignity.

Nan Kempner Portrait

The exhibit holds special meaning for the local arts community because the socialite was also a San Francisco native. According to a press release issued by the de young, Nan Kempner began collecting couture clothing fifty years ago as a young woman. "My grandmother started me out when I was very small. A lady used to come to San Francisco with her trunks, and my grandmother spoiled me and ordered me loads of clothes, and I'm afraid one gets in the habit." It's no wonder she was a member of The Best Dressed List's Hall of Fame. At the time of her death in 2005, Mrs. Kempner owned one of the foremost private couture collections in the country, with garments from Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, and Oscar de la Renta in her closet. Nan Kempner: American Chic displays nearly 75 of the thousands of ensembles she amassed; one-third of which have been culled from the Museum's exclusive collection.

10th Annual Watermill Summer Benefit-August 2, 2003

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco ushered in summer with the second season opener of its Friday Night Party last month. The popular series which offers live music, poetry, film, dance, tours, lectures, and interactive art projects was launched as part of a Cultural Encounters Initiative, designed to attract new and diverse audiences. Our docent guided us through the decidedly thematic collection with an introduction to haute couture, a brief biographical outline, and fielded questions from the small group. Born in 1930 the only child to parents, Albert and Irma, Nancy Field Schlesinger grew up in the tony Pacific Heights neighborhood. Her father was the owner of the largest S&C Ford dealership west of the Mississippi. She relocated to New York City in 1951 where soon after she met and married Thomas L. Kempner.

"Men's Club Gala" in support of the Museum's Education Program at The Frick- February 12, 2004

Some of my favorite ensembles included, the opening outfit, a black and white striped Christian Lacroix evening jacket paired with an Yves Saint Laurent black crepe skirt; a Halston jacket; a Missoni bathing suit; a Valentino leather appliqué jacket with a white trouser pant; a timeless red Chanel suit; a Jean Paul Gaultier kimono gown; an embroidered Balmain jacket; a Madame Gres evening gown; and the piece de resistance, a confection of pink cotton and lace—a Jacques Griffe ball gown, which was worn by Nan Kempner when she made her debut to San Francisco society in 1949.

ABT Fall Season Opening Night Gala-October 20, 2004


The late Diana Vreeland, style arbiter and former Vogue Editor-in-Chief once said, "There's no such thing as a chic American woman… the one exception is Nan Kempner." Drawing inspiration from these immortalized words, the exhibition displays Mrs. Kempner's seemingly effortless chic style and ability to mix designer labels with formal and informal clothes. "Nan Kempner's eclectic style was uniquely American. She was known for putting couture jackets with Levi's blue jeans. It's a common practice today, but back when she started doing it, it was revolutionary," noted John E. Buchanan, Jr., Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. "Fashion is one of the earliest forms of self-expression. Nan Kempner was one of those people who made dressing and fashion an art form."

Nan Kempner wearing a Christian Lacroix Evening Jacket and vintage Yves Saint Laurent skirt

According to her biography, Nan Kempner missed only one runway season in 55 years; she was widely considered to be among the most highly informed authorities in fashion. Her knowledge stemmed from her respect of couture craftsmanship and was fueled by her unbridled passion for clothes. In turn, her archives preserved some of the most iconic outfits of mid-20th century couture. Her first couture purchase was an Yves Saint Laurent white satin sheath dress with a mink trimmed coat in 1958. Initially her mother refused to buy the garment because it was too expensive. Nan Kempner reportedly cried until they lowered the price. At that time, she met Yves Saint Laurent personally, and he became her favorite designer. "Fashion is an art. When you look at paintings in museums, you see a reflection of how women dressed in certain eras. A designer is as much of an artist as an author, painter, or architect. Fashion design is, after all, architecture for the body," asserted Mrs. Kempner. "My husband, Tommy, thinks it's hysterical because he used to think it was an extravagance, and it now turns out that I was an art collector. Can you imagine?"

City Center for American Ballet Theatre's (ABT) Fall 2002 Opening Night Gala- October 15, 2002

In addition to her style, her fondness for shopping, and her consummately thin frame (she reportedly stood 5'9" and weighed 110 lbs), Nan Kempner was known for her sharp wit and love of parties. "You know me," she once said, "I'd go to the opening of a door… I really do love clothes. Isn't it awful? It's a disease, like being an alcoholic. I'm addicted. I suppose there are things that are worse for you, though, and it's awfully nice to be wrapped in beautiful things. It makes us feel infinitely more beautiful than we are."

Nan Kempner with Matthew Modine at the ABT Spring Gala- May 5, 2003

More than a fashion icon, Nan Kempner was a wife, mother, editor, and philanthropist. She worked as a fashion editor for Harper's Bazaar, a United States correspondent with French Vogue, a design consultant at Tiffany & Co., and an international representative for famed auction house, Christie's. Mrs. Kempner was also co-chair of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Annual Gala where over a 30 year-period, she helped raise more than $75 million. "Couture makes everyone look good, even when you're an old bag like me. The clothes are so beautifully made; it's like having an original painting. It's created for you and nobody else by loving hands. It's a spoiling, a special privilege and a great deal of fun." Now today, we're the privileged ones who can luckily enjoy a peek inside this benefactor's closet and view an excerpt from one of the world's largest private collections of haute couture clothing! Nan Kempner: American Chic runs from June 16 through November 11, 2007.

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