Nan Kempner: American Chic

San Francisco, March 27, 2007—The style of Nan Kempner—noted fashion icon, couture connoisseur, San Francisco native, and member of The Best Dressed List’s Hall of Fame—will be shown at the de Young Museum this summer. Kempner (1930–2005) started collecting couture clothing 50 years ago when she was a young woman living in San Francisco. At the time of her death, she 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 and accessories she possessed. More than 25 of the garments are exclusive to the de Young exhibition. The late fashion editor and arbiter Diana Vreeland said, “There’s no such thing as a chic American woman...the one exception is Nan Kempner.” This exhibition displays Kempner’s seemingly effortless chic style and ability to mix designer labels and 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,” says 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.”

When Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, remarked that Nan had “archives in her closet,” he was not simply commenting on the size of her collection, but the insightfulness of her collecting. Kempner, who missed only one runway season in 55 years, 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.

Other designers represented include John Galliano for Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld for Fendi, Donna Karan, and Emanuel Ungaro. Accessories designs and jewelry by JAR, Verdura, Kenneth Jay Lane, and others are also on view.

Valentino said, “Nan always looks so wonderful in my clothes, because she had a body like a hanger.” The thin, elegant blonde was said to be the inspiration for the term “social X-ray” in Tom Wolfe’s novel Bonfire of the Vanities. In addition to her style, her fondness for shopping, and her consummately thin frame, 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.”

Nan Kempner: American Chic originated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The San Francisco presentation at the de Young Museum is sponsored by Merrill Lynch and Bonhams & Butterfields.

The de Young Museum showcases American art from the 17th through the 20th centuries, modern and contemporary art, art from Central and South America, the Pacific and Africa.

Tuesday–Thursday, Saturday and Sunday: 9:30 am–5:00 pm. Friday: 9:30 am–8:45 pm. Closed on Monday.

$10 adults, $7 seniors, $6 youths 13-17 and students with college I.D. Members and children under 12 are free. The first Tuesday of every month is free.