NAN KEMPNER – American Chic

Native San Franciscan’s ultra-fabulous collection of couture clothing now at the de Young Museum

By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Copyright © 2007 San Francisco Sentinel

Now on exhibit through November 11th, NAN KEMPNER: AMERICAN CHIC. 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.

From the closets of Nan Kempner – Evening Gowns by Yves Saint Laurent and Madame Grès

“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.”

Partying tres chic – Actor Matthew Modine and Nan Kempner

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.

NAN KEMPNER – Oh, the Lady In Red!

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.

Hours: Tuesday–Thursday, Saturday and Sunday: 9:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m.
Friday: 9:30 a.m.–8:45 p.m.
Closed on Monday
Admission: $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.
For more information:
de Young Museum
Legion of Honor
Visit the Museum Store

Become a member! The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco offer a wide-variety of membership programs. For example, the Family Membership plan is fully tax deductible and offers unlimited free admission for four adults and children under 18 to the permanent collections of the de Young and Legion of Honor. Additional benefits include unlimited free admission to each special ticketed exhibition, 10% discount in the Museum Stores, a free one-year subscription to Fine Arts and the Members’ Guide to Programs, invitations to special members’ only events and – best of all – special programs just for families.
Click here for more information on the various plans: Browse Membership

See Seán’s recent articles:
JEANETTE MacDONALD – First Lady of “San Francisco”
Iphigénie en Tauride –Everything old is new again at SF Opera
An Interview with PASCAL MOLAT – Principal Soloist, San Francisco Ballet
SAMSON vs DELILAH at AT&T Park – Can Stadium Survive Biblical Shearing?
$55 MILLION – This Pacific Heights Mansion Is YOURS!
LE PETIT TRIANON – San Francisco Artists Exhibit at Her Majesty’s Pleasure
LA VIE EN ROSE (La Môme) – Biography of Edith Piaf – A Sensation at the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival
JERSEY BOYS – Earth Angels invade Curran Theatre! Cast #2: Their Eyes Adore You!
SPIDER-MAN 3, An All-American Cinematic Marvel
THE DAMNATION OF FAUST – Absolute Heaven at Davies Symphony Hall

San Francisco Sentinel’s Fine Arts Critic Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Ask him a question on . If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at:

Continue Reading