Installation detail of a wall of photos showing how Nan Kempner organized her closet by color, even using wire hangers to accomodate more clothes closer together.

Life of a Society Fashion Icon, Dressing for the Occasion

Nan Kempner's couture-jacket collection from the Costume Institute exhibit devoted to her wardrobe, Photograph Levi Brown.

Madame Grès (French, 1903–1993), Evening Gowns, 1971 (left); 1969 (right), White pleated silk jersey; Bordeaux pleated silk jersey, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Gift of Mr. Thomas L. Kempner.

Yves Saint Laurent (French, born Algeria, 1936), Evening Ensemble, spring/summer 1989, Gown: green and olive silk georgette; cape: blue silk georgette, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Gift of Mr. Thomas L. Kempner, 2006.

Installation wall photos of Nan Kempner in her debutante dress.


de Young Museum
Golden Gate Park
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
San Francisco
Nan Kempner:American Chic
June 16-November 11, 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 (July 24, 1930-July 3, 2005) was a New York City socialite, famous for dominating society events, shopping, charity work and fashion.

An only child from a wealthy San Francisco family, Nan Field Schlessinger attended Connecticut College and met Thomas 'Tommy' Kempner in the early 1950s. They married soon after and had three children. After living in London for a short time the Kempners moved to New York City, where Nan took the initiative to become a leader in society.

Over a 30-year period she helped raise over $75,000,000 (USD) for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. She also amassed the largest private collection of haute couture clothing featuring classic designers like Mainbocher and her favorite designers Yves Saint Laurent and Bill Blass. In addition, Kempner is credited as being perhaps one of the first women to undergo modern cosmetic surgery.

At various times in her life Kempner worked as a contributing editor for French Vogue, a fashion editor for Harper's Bazaar, a design consultant for Tiffany & Co. and an international representative of the auction house Christie's.

In Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City series, two society matrons discuss the creation of a society wax museum, emphasizing that future generations might not otherwise know what Nan Kempner looked like. Kempner herself authored a book about how to be a truly great host entitled R.S.V.P. (2000, ISBN 0-609-60430-9). The proceeds of the book benefited several charities.

Diana Vreeland, legendary editor of American Vogue, once said: "There are no chic women in America. The one exception is Nan Kempner."

She died on July 3, 2005, aged 74, from emphysema. Two months later her family held a memorial service in her honour at the esteemed auction house of Christie's. 500 of Kempner's friends were in attendance.

In December of 2006 the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Insititute opened an exhibition of Kempner's extensive couture collection.

Yves Saint Laurent (French, born Algeria, 1936), Evening Ensemble, autumn/winter 1983-84, Cape: yellow silk faille; gown: black silk velvet, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Gift of Mr. Thomas L. Kempner, 2006 (2006.420.51a, b).


Nan Kempner in a YSL jacket in 2005, Photograph Bryan Adams/Camera Press.