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Nan Kempner: American Chic

A Glimpse into an Iconís Closet

  • de Young Museum
    50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118 (Map)
    +1 415.863.3330

Coquettes and style mavens, take note -- 2007 has been a most fitting time for exhibitions that feature clothing. The de Young Museum recently enjoyed a popular exhibition on the legacy of the doyenne of hipness herself, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. Now, the museum dovetails on the success of the Westwood event with an exhibition celebrating the very impressive wardrobe of another aesthetic arbiter: Nan Kempner.

Kempner (1930Ė2005), a San Francisco-born blueblood and fashion icon who ranks right up there with Jackie Onassis in terms of her influence, was, in case you donít know, a chic, diminutive blonde who served as a contributing editor for Harperís Bazaar and was a U.S. correspondent for French Vogue. The New York City socialite and couture fanatic also boasts a place in the Best Dressed Listís Hall of Fame, and itís little wonder, considering Kempnerís hanger-thin physique and legendary collection of couture.

The de Youngís exhibition is, perhaps, fascinating on the basis of pure volume. Kempner was a rabid couture collector who, in 55 years, only missed one runway season. The exhibition, which originated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, offers about 75 of the gazillion outfits and accessories the illustrious Kempner kept tucked away in her closets. The clothes are the exquisite culmination of 50 years of collecting, and have almost archival significance. Lithe mannequins draped in sumptuous fabrics from Yves San Laurent, Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, John Galliano for Christian Dior, and Jean Paul Gaultier, among others, rightfully earn Kempner a box seat with the most discriminating sartorial pundits.

Lookie-loos and slavering fashionistas will be tempted to reach out and touch Kempnerís collection of billowy gowns, colorful kimono dresses, and dapper black-and-white ensembles, many of which boast patterns recycled on todayís runways. The great thing about Kempner, aside from her distinctly prescient sense of fashion for years to come, was the manner in which she wedded formal and couturewear with informal, everyday garb.

According to Kempner, ďIt 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 Leviís and it will look great.Ē In fact, Kempner was one of the first fashionistas to blend couture with blue jeans, and itís this effortless mixing and matching that gave the icon her signature sense of simplicity and unpretentiousness.

Itís an approach that certainly belies the worldliness of the subject at the center of the exhibition, but one can, all the same, question the value of trussing up a bunch of mannequins in couture and deeming it art. While the Vivienne Westwood exhibition highlighted the creativity, ingenuity, and cultural legacy of the designer, itís difficult to regard the Kempner exhibition as little more than a chance to peek into the magnificent trousseau of an elite personality, worthy of not much beyond a cursory yet appreciative once-over -- delightful as such a project may seem.

Perhaps itís the richness of the personality behind the clothes, after all, that will interest viewers far more than the aesthetic appeal of her garments. And given our societyís innate obsession with consumption, Kempnerís assertion that her own couture fixation was ďa disease, like being an alcoholic,Ē is almost sobering next to all the pretty, costly clothes.

Nan Kempner: American Chic runs through November 11th at the De Young Museum.