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ON THE COVER C’est si bon! Halau Mele chanter Marques Hanalei Marzan with Paris’ most famous landmark—la Tour Eiffel—in the background. Photo by Kevin German
Vol.17, no.6
December 2014 / January 2015


Scholar of Style 
Written By: Julia Steele

Harold Koda was a kid in the third grade the day he had his first great fashion epiphany. He was living in 1950s ‘Aiea, growing up in the midst of cane fields and conformity, and he’d caught the bus to Honolulu to take an art class. He arrived early and sat in front of the building to wait. Up drove a green XK-E Jaguar, and out of it hopped a barefoot girl in tennis whites. Harold cast a glance at his button-down shirt, khakis, black belt and black lace-up shoes and saw in a flash that he was seriously overdressed. “And I understood instantly that to be more casual was to be more privileged,” he recalls, “and I was discernably provincial because my mother had dressed me up to go to the city.” It was, he says, “the most significant moment in my becoming aware that identity and dress are so interrelated—and judged.” The next week he wore rubber slippers to class.

These days, half a century later, the rubber slippers are long gone, replaced by Manhattan-friendly John Lobb “Edward” loafers, and Harold knows more about fashion than virtually anyone. He is the curator in charge of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, an extraordinary collection of thirty-five thousand objects—from a dress worn at the court of King George II to a suit sewn by Coco Chanel herself. The Costume Institute houses the foremost collection of Western high fashion in the world, and from it Harold has created groundbreaking exhibitions celebrated the world over. On opening night last May for his Spring show, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, hundreds of glitterati showed up, among them Beyoncé and Jay-Z, David Beckham, Blake Lively and Anna Wintour (who hosted the party). The exhibit was launched in the Institute’s just-opened Anna Wintour Costume Center.

Harold’s reference point for fashion is not commerce but culture. He began his career almost four decades ago, learning from a master: Diana Vreeland, the venerated former editor of Vogue, who’d transformed the Costume Institute from stodgy to thrilling. The first show Harold worked on at the Met was Vreeland’s The Glory of Russian Costume—it was 1976, and he was a graduate intern assigned to help dress a mannequin with Catherine the Great’s wedding gown. “Just the most extraordinary thing,” he recalls of the Russian empress’s dress. “Solid silver with gold-floss embroidery, five feet wide, a foot and a half deep with a sixteen-inch waist.”

Harold had come to New York to study art history, thinking he might curate African and Oceanic objects, but it was the ’70s, he was reading tales of Halston and Bianca Jagger in Interview magazine, and fashion—to a guy as urbane as Harold—was looking far more appealing than ethnography. He signed up for patternmaking classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology and learned to draft and drape, newly determined to become a designer. He laughs now at his callow thinking—that he’d intern at the Met, wow Vreeland with his skills and launch a brilliant career—but naive though it was, that’s exactly what happened, even if it sent him in a direction he’d never imagined. The Met taught Harold that he was fascinated by historic costume; at the same time a program for young designers at Henri Bendel taught him that he was repelled by the business side of fashion. Soon after, a colleague from the Met called to say that she was recommending Harold to be an associate curator at FIT. “So I went for the interview and got hired,” he says, “and that was the beginning of my career.”

Harold is a populist at heart, and his mentor was the ultimate populist. Vreeland wanted her shows to be seen—and not just seen, but understood—and not just understood, but loved. “Her approach was, ‘If you want to communicate something, you’d better make sure the audience has the opportunity to see it—and they won’t if they think that it is arid and dull,’” recalls Harold. Her lesson informs his thinking to this day: “I see it as personal failure if no one comes. … It means you have not created a sensibility, that the bitter pill of edification hasn’t been sweetened enough to get people to swallow it.”

No worries there: These days hundreds of thousands of people come for Harold’s shows. His exhibits at the Met have ranged from 2004’s Dangerous Liaisons, which juxtaposed aristocratic French clothing and furniture from the eighteenth century, to 2013’s PUNK: Chaos to Couture, which traced the in-your-face duds of the Sex Pistols era all the way to Versace and Lagerfield. In 2003 Goddess followed Greco-Roman dress from 500 BCE to the present and in the process proved that fashion, mercurial and constantly shifting, doesn’t conform to anything enduring, even an ostensibly classic form. Four years later Extreme Beauty took on a question that has long fascinated Harold—what is human beauty?—by exploring specific areas of the body and the outré fashions that have been created for them: neck ruffs, iron corsets, stiletto heels. Once again the show concluded that nothing is fixed. “Other than the descriptors of what constitutes a beautiful horse—good teeth, clear eyes, great hair and symmetry,” says Harold, “there is no standard of beauty, at least when it comes to fashion.”

Harold’s language is intricate and precise, and when he holds forth on fashion, he reveals a world much richer than glossy magazines depict, a world of engineering, art, liberation struggles, gender politics. To design his exhibits Harold picks a theme and builds an intellectual framework—all the while, of course, sweetening that pill by creating shows that are gorgeous, glamorous, fun and stimulating. That little kid from ‘Aiea today has ideas about fashion that are as detailed and inventive as a piece of John Galliano’s Dior haute couture—and they apply to us all. Clothing, Harold points out, is about as democratic and ubiquitous as it gets—we might not own houses or cars, but we all own clothes. “There’s no aspect of material culture,” he notes, “that is as self-directed and as self-edited as what we wear.”

That very ubiquity, though, can make it a challenge to decide what’s art and what’s not. To that end Harold likens fashion to photography. We’re all taking pictures all the time, so what makes one photograph a snapshot and another a work of art? Why is one sweater destined for Goodwill and another for a museum? Harold faced that question with a sweater created by Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo in the early ’80s. It was coarse, full of holes, introduced on Parisian runways when everyone else was doing glamor gowns. In fact, creating the holes as Kawakubo intended required a very complicated way of knitting, and what she was evoking was the Zen tradition of wabi-sabi, “a notion,” says Harold, “of the beauty of that which is worn or decayed, that there is a kind of poignancy and poetry to loss. All of that is in this garment. Now, if you had a sweater with holes in it, one could argue that it looked the same, but it’s not filled with the artistic intentionality and purpose.” Ultimately, Harold believes, what makes an object a piece of art is the context, concept and narrative associated it.