nan kempner: american chic at san francisco's de young museum

nan k sign.jpg
(photo courtesy of natalie zee drieu)

yesterday i had the distinct pleasure of attending a press preview of an upcoming exhibition at san francisco's de young museum entitled nan kempner: american chic, which opens to the public june 16, 2007, and runs through november 11, 2007. this unrivaled exhibition will showcase nearly 75 of nan's amazing wearables and ensembles, many of which are fine examples of 20th century couture.
nan kempner, for those who may not be in the know, was a world-reknowned new york city socialite, fashion muse and couture fashion collector. she originally hailed from san francisco, was married to businessman thomas "tommy" kempner, and once served as a contributing editor for harper's bazaar and a u.s. correspondent for french vogue.
to call nan kempner a clothes horse would be an understatement: she was the penultimate fashion obsessive, a chic, educated, dynamic, witty woman with a refined aesthetic who collected clothes as if they were art. while her covetable collection of apparel contained a sizable portion of ready-to-wear, she clearly adored couture clothing above all else, and collected select couture pieces in a steady, deliberate and specific manner over the course of 50 years.

(image courtesy of the de young museum)

upon her death in 2005, ms. kemner had consciously and deliberately groomed and edited her clothing collection down to what she felt were the very best, most refined expressions of 20th century fashion, removing what she felt were merely passing trends. out of the approximately 5000 pieces of apparel in nan's possession at the end of her life, 3000 were couture. favored designers of ms. kempner/designers that favored ms. kempner? fashion all-stars such as yves st. laurent, valentino, chanel, and balmain, to name but a very few.

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nan k suits.jpg

nan k formals.jpg
(photos courtesy of natalie zee drieu)

this exhibition celebrating ms. kempner's closet of couture comes to san francisco courtesy of the metropolitan museum of art's costume institute, and it's celebrated head curator, harold koda. koda was the mind behind amazing shows like rara avis, honoring the personal style and clothing collection of one of my favorite fashion icons, iris barrel apfel, as well as goddess, chanel, and dangerous liaisons, among a fabulous myriad of others.
mr. koda was the special guest at yesterday's press preview. he knew nan kempner personally, and while walking through the exhibit, he gave all in attendance a unique and enlightening look into the fashionable world of nan kempner: who she truly was, what she loved, and how she lived, and why she was special...all illustrated by a carefully chosen selection of the clothes she wore.
it was, in just a few words, a rare glimpse into the personal style of a fashion icon.


take a lesson! quotes and style notes from the life, mouth and mind of the irreplaceable nan kempner:
-nan had a love affair with fashion, comparing her obsession with all things sartorial to an addiction:

"I'm drunk when it comes to clothes." "It's a disease, like being an alcoholic."

-on trends:

"My mother always said to me, 'Put it all on, then take half of it off.' Understatement is the key. It is important to have your own style and not be one of those creatures who follow fads. I can wear a Dior or Mainbocher couture jacket with a pair of Levi's and it will look great."

-nan kempner heartily believed in buying good quality, well-designed pieces. if something is classic, beautiful and well-made...don't give it away, because it is likely to always remain in style.
-nan was irreverent and democratic about clothes, despite her avowed love of couture. she mixed formal and informal clothes with ease and style:

"Nothing can replace the cut, fit and love that goes into a couture outfit: it has been made by an artist. And besides, it mixes very well with the Gap."

-nan paid attention to detail, and her trained eye allowed her to select and collect a formidable, beautiful, exceedingly personal collection that expressed her amazing personality to a tee. her attention to detail was one of many factors that set her apart from most collectors of fashion or so-called fashion lovers. (remember?: the angel is in the details!)
-Nan heartily believed in the inherent aesthetic value of clothing:

"Fashion is an art."

-nan believed in dressing as best you can within your budget, and in being comfortable, though like other women of style, she didn't at all mind wearing clothes that you could "play" with: she favored clothing with stunning detail that one could morph and style to one's own whim or aesthetic.
-above all: nan kempner wore her clothes with panache. she knew that any successful expression of personal style is ALL ABOUT ATTITUDE. nan wore high-class clothes that some might consider uptight, but she always appeared relaxed and carefree. the lesson one should learn? that style is as much an expression of the personality as the carefully selected threads and baubles that cover our bodies. to paraphrase the words of harold koda yesterday,

"Style is an expression of the soul, the surrogate for the person."


if you live in san francisco or are going to be in the city this summer or fall, i highly suggest checking out the nan kempner's a must see for lovers of fashion and those who appreciate fashion history, costume, and individuals who exude amazing personal style.


thanks again to mary jo bowling of the de young for the invite! it was such an unparalleled treat, and i had a lovely time! i actually think i'll be going back for a second look!
and special shout out to natalie z. of coquette and craft: zine, and jennine of the coveted, two fellow san francisco fashion bloggers with whom i had the delight of viewing the exhibition yesterday!

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(photo courtesy of natalie zee drieu)
(pictured left to right: me, natalie, and jennine)

both of them wrote about the show, too! give their fab blogs a visit for their great posts about the show.
thanks natalie for the use of some of your photos! see more of natalie's photos from the nan kempner exhibit here: