Chic to chic 

What’s it like to view 30 years of one-of-a-kind masterpieces from some of the world’s foremost couturiers — and the lifestyle of a San Francisco-born American fashion icon?

Fiind out at "Nan Kempner: AmericanChic," opening Saturday at the de Young Museum.

The "it girl" for half of the 20th century, Nan Kempner defined the term chic. Renowned worldwide for her inimitable style, she epitomized clothing as wearable art. A fashion icon, she missed only one Paris season in 55 years. In a class by herself, elected to the Fashion Hall of Fame, she seamlessly paired unique French with a breezy, kinetic American style. At 5 feet 10 inches, model thin-size 2, she’d stride into a room "with Opium [by YSL] wafting behind her," says her younger stepmother, San Francisco socialite Gale Glasser.

Credited with "discovering" and being a muse to renowned couturier Yves St. Laurent, friend to Valentino and Givenchy, Kempner was rumored to have possessed one of the largest private collections of couture in the world.

Born and raised in San Francisco, daughter of Ford dealer Albert "Speedy" Schlesinger, Nan married Thomas "Tommy" Kempner and took the New York and international fashion world by storm. The inspiration for Tom Wolfe’s term "social X-ray" in "Bonfire of the Vanities," blond, soignée Nan was contributing editor to Harper’s Bazaar and American correspondent for French Vogue.

Vogue’s late fashion editor Diana Vreeland asserted: "There is no such thing as a chic American woman … the one exception is Nan Kempner."

Seemingly effortlessly, Kempner mixed French couture with American staples. "She had a great eye," Glasser remembers. "She had a very sophisticated style."

"Nan collected costumes as many people collect painting, jewelry, Chinese art," said John Buchanan, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. "This display highlights her 25 to 30 years of choosing, selecting, grooming her own collection of couture as a painting collector would groom their collection. There is the beauty and the artistry of the ensembles."

"Nan Kempner: American Chic" highlights nearly 75 of the thousands of couture pieces (from YSL, Valentino, Givenchy, Oscar de la Renta, John Galliano for Dior, Karl Lagerfeld for Fendi, Emanuel Ungaro) and accessories Kempner collected. More than 25 of the garments are exclusive to the San Francisco show. (One interesting note: Nan was so slim that new, thinner mannequins had to be ordered for the exhibit.)

Originally curated by Harold Koda of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the de Young presentation is entirely new in feel, perspective and focus. This is an innovative "voyeur" peek at the rarified world of world-class couture and style from a fashion pioneer who led the way for others to follow.

"I hope this inspires visitors," Diane B. (Dede) Wilsey, president of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco said, "to realize the beauty of fashion as art."

Nan Kempner: American Chic

Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, except until 8:45 p.m. Friday; closed Monday; show runs Saturday through Nov. 11

Tickets: $6 to $10; free first Tuesday each month

Contact: (415) 863-3330 or www.deyoungmuseum.org

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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