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|Clothes Make the Man
by Kimberly Bradley
|About three months ago, Metropolitan Museum director Philippe de Montebello called Harold Koda to discuss the museum's Costume Institute.
At the time, Koda was studying landscape architecture at Harvard -- but he had served in the mid-'90s as associate curator of the Met's celebrated Costume Institute under the late Richard Martin (curator-in-charge of the department from 1992 to his death in November 1999).
Koda knew the Met's costume collection well, and the Institute was still without a head curator. "I gave Philippe my opinion," says Koda, "that most decisions made about the Costume Institute are subjective, very personal." Then de Montebello asked, in his sultry, seductive voice, "'Does that mean that Harold Koda is a candidate?"
Acting on an impulse, Koda, 50, decided to make himself a candidate for the prestigious curatorial post (occupied in the interim by Myra Walker), despite the fact that four years before he'd left the Costume Institute for Harvard's Graduate School of Design in a decision he describes as a mix between wanting to acquire another area of curatorial expertise and a "midlife crisis." For a fleeting moment three years ago, Koda actually considered becoming a landscape architect, but the requisite two-year, badly paid internship proved to be an obstacle.
Koda's appointment as the Met's new curator-in-charge of the Costume Institute was announced on June 14 of this year, and he'll officially begin the job in early November. "I did not expect this," he says. "I'd been doing costume history for almost 20 years, I was hoping [with landscape architecture] that, instead of being the 'expert,' I'd be the one proposing queries. But then I realized I am really very emotionally engaged, not only with the Met collection but with the subject. It's been my life."
Koda has loved fashion at least since he admired his mother's issues of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar as a child in Hawaii. After graduating with a BFA in Art History and a BA in English from the University of Honolulu, Koda came to New York to work for the ACLU. "I thought I should be a civil liberties lawyer," he says. "Back then, you had to do something that was real, and could change things."
Law turned out to be too raw, however, and the young man soon found himself interning at the Institute under Diana Vreeland, or "Mrs. Vreeland," as Koda consistently refers to her. "She was brilliant," he says.
Koda went on to work with Martin at FIT from 1979 to 1992 and at the Met during 1993-1997, organizing exhibitions like "Diana Vreeland: Immoderate Style" (1993), and "Christian Dior" (1996), coauthoring books and catalogues on costume history and even working as a fashion consultant for Spy magazine.
As for the Met's Costume Institute, it's been a tumultuous year. In addition to Martin's death and the search for a new curator, the department has come under fire for allegedly letting sponsorship get a little too intimate with curatorial prerogatives -- a controversy that has affected the Grey Art Gallery, the Brooklyn Museum and the Guggenheim as well. Earlier this summer, the Met canceled a collaborative show with couturier Karl Lagerfeld.
Since then, the Met has announced the delay to next spring of its glittering winter benefit, which has traditionally ushered in the fall "social season" in New York. The event still promises to be unimaginably high-profile -- it's planned as a Jacqueline Kennedy exhibition for which Vogue's European editor-at-large Hamish Bowles is acting as hands-on curator.
Complicating things further is the fact that Koda is co-curating a fashion exhibition at another major New York museum -- Giorgio Armani, opening at the Guggenheim in October.
But the dust is settling and the Costume Institute's missions and methods are being rethought. "We haven't formalized any of this, but Philippe began to talk about a reconsideration of the Costume Institute that's a whole new ball game... in both its calendar and the way the exhibition and catalogue cycle will work," Koda says.
Instead of the usual three large shows per year, the Institute will now produce two major shows augmented by one smaller exhibition showcasing the diversity of the collection (which, Koda admits, is far too large). In the past, the Met has seen cult of personality à la Vreeland and Richard Martin grow up around its Costume Institute stars. The idea now is to invite curators like Bowles to add their expertise to the Institute's productions. "[Inviting curators] is exciting because I get to be conceptually entrepreneurial. As with Hamish; he's a person who brings a fresh kind of scholarship and assessment to a 20th-century icon (in the Jackie Kennedy exhibition). It's a kind of osmosis that's going to be brilliant."
Koda seems thrilled with the notion of collaboration. "I'll be able to identify people who could bring the intellectual weight of Richard but also the extraordinary excitement Mrs. Vreeland informed the department with... so it doesn't have to be about me," he says. Some of his preliminary ideas include producing a "Paris between the Wars" show using pieces from the Mona Bismarck Foundation in Paris in collaboration with a Parisian illustrator, and working with an unnamed 22-year-old. "But I'm not sure I could get that one through the museum," he admits, laughing.
"Not being about him" is just one reason that following in the footsteps of two extremely high-profile personalities is less daunting for Koda than would be expected. "The only reason this isn't completely demoralizing is that I don't think there's anyone in the costume field who could achieve the level of Richard or Mrs. Vreeland. Having worked with both, I don't think that would ever, ever be possible," he says.
In any case, the slight, articulate Koda seems perfect for one of the world's top appointments in a still-evolving segment of art-historical work. He combines an academic mastery of his discipline with a kind of delight in style that one would expect from a fashion-magazine editor. Sleekly dressed in a black Armani suit yet acting a bit concerned about his tie, Koda reveals his stylistic roots with half-whispered admirations of the "so elegant" long coats worn by Chinese immigrants in Hawaii during his childhood. He also ventures a comment on the "broad range of textures" worn by his new boss, de Montebello. "He definitely wears many different pieces by one house," he says. "I think it's Armani -- but I do know that his shirts are by Pink."
KIMBERLY BRADLEY is a writer, editor and translator based in New York and Hamburg.