Harold Koda, the recently named curator-in-charge of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, tells a story about taking Alexander Vreeland, a grandson of the late, great Diana Vreeland, to lunch in the Trustees Dining Room at the Met. Koda, who was associate curator at the time, was bluntly informed he'd have to wait, even with a reservation. "Alexander Vreeland told me that would never have happened to his grandmother, because she would not have allowed it," Koda recalls of the woman who ran the Institute from 1972 to 1989. "And he was right. With Mrs. V, you had this grand and ambitious personality. There are people who still channel her. I'm not one of them. I'm an observer, an academic, very boring."
Or very modest. But with his big job at the Met starting next month, and next week's opening at the Guggenheim of the massive Giorgio Armani show, which Koda co-curated, Koda will have to get used to being on display. Or maybe he won't. After all, he isn't curating the first big Costume Institute exhibition of his reign, "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years." Hamish Bowles, the highly visible Vogue editor with his own couture collection, was asked to guest-curate that show just before Koda was appointed. And while it's true that Koda is applying his vast knowledge of costume history to give the Guggenheim's Armani show some gravitas, Robert Wilson, the theater director who's creating the show's setting, is supplying the drama, turning part of the museum into an inverted runway, where the audience is on the catwalk and the models in the bleachers. If there are any accolades left over, they're likely to go to Wilson. Koda couldn't care less, of course.
"It's odd that a face has to be attached to an institution," says Koda, 50. "When I sit with friends in New York and listen to their banter, I always feel like a eunuch, because I don't have the edge they have. I was raised in Hawaii, where there are no threats and no natural social predators."
And so, into the mix of fashion designers, editors, museum curators, trustees, corporate sponsors, socialites, and paparazzi -- a predatory ecosystem if ever there was one -- comes this scholarly gentleman with a country house in Pawling, of all places, whom a surprising number of fashion insiders don't know well or at all, despite his stellar reputation.
People who do know him rave. His friend Rei Kawakubo, the designer of Commes des Garçons, found working with him "revolutionary." Pat Buckley, who presided as chairman of the Costume Institute's board for eighteen years, says he's "scholarly, with a twist." Valerie Steele, chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, calls him "awesome." Blaine Trump, who has served on the Institute's board, says, "Underneath the quiet, there's a funny and adventurous guy with a wild twinkle in his eye." Adds Tonne Goodman, Vogue's fashion director: "He's soft-spoken, but he's definitely not soft."
Given what he's about to face as a majordomo, he'd better not be.
"In fashion, you need irony and self-consciousness," says Koda. "You have to be bigger than life."
Once upon a time, before he knew who Diana Vreeland was, Harold Koda saw Bette Midler in an outlandish vintage dress on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. She came from the same town as he did, Aiea. "Hawaii's a Pacific Rim culture, where people prefer to be discreet, not extraordinary," he says. "But there I was, seeing Bette Midler on TV with her fantastic style. I took it as a good sign that I was planning to move to New York."
Graduating from the University of Hawaii in 1972, he moved to Manhattan and found the anarchy of New York liberating. "It was a complete seduction of a small-town island boy," he says. He got an internship at the Costume Institute, and later Diana Vreeland gave him a paying job as an exhibition assistant, in which he had to re-create everything from fingernail guards for Manchu women to French eighteenth-century ceiling-high wigs. (Vreeland's words upon seeing Koda and his team's early dressing of some of her mannequins: "They have no éclat! Haut! Haut! Haut!") "I was touching Catherine the Great's silver wedding dress," he remembers. "Solid silver! It was fantastic!"
In 1979, he left the Met to become associate curator at FIT's museum. While Richard Martin, who joined as curator in 1981, was the front man, he and Koda collaborated intensely on shows like "Fashion and Surrealism," "Paper Clothes," "East Village," and (most notably) "Jocks and Nerds." The critical buzz on them was excellent, and in 1993, they were brought to the Met to create more authoritative but equally smart and well-received exhibitions, including "Orientalism," "Bloom," "Christian Dior," and "Diana Vreeland: Immoderate Style." Then, in 1997, Koda made the surprising move of leaving the world of fashion entirely -- to study landscape architecture at Harvard. He graduated with a Ph.D. last May, shortly after Martin died of melanoma, and in June was wooed back to the Met. Given Koda's academic integrity, his unassuming manner, his unblemished work history, and what the Met's director, Philippe de Montebello, terms his "dazzling creativity," he was a perfect fit.
But galloping up Broadway one day in September in khakis, striped shirt, and Topsiders, with a giant black notebook (his Armani bible) in an old backpack, Koda is the image of anything but a curator-in-charge. That is, until a young man crosses the street in front of us wrapped in something very strange. "Oooh," exclaims Koda. "That guy was wearing a holographic corselet!"
Who else could say that with such glee and precision?
It's fashion week in New York. Ah, the thrill of seeing Winona Ryder at Marc Jacobs. The blasphemy of a clothing line called Imitation of Christ. Ballerinas at the Hermès store opening. An Azzedine Alaïa exhibit at the Guggenheim SoHo that the Post said put Armani's people in a jealous snit. Koda's having little to do with any of it.
On Monday, he's locked in a room at the Guggenheim's downtown offices, talking to the writer of the Armani show's audio tour. He explains each garment as if it were an artistic treasure. He points at photographs and expostulates on striping and the body, and on gender and destabilizing authority, using words like seraglio, cheongsam, and polonaise to describe outfits that are surprisingly detailed for a designer so associated with minimalism. He works through the show's various inspirational motifs, including "China," "Excavation," and "Light." Touching on "Celebrity" (the show includes outfits worn by Jodie Foster, Annette Bening, Sharon Stone, Richard Gere, and Samuel L. Jackson), Koda recalls the scene in American Gigolo where Richard Gere throws his shirts and ties on his bed. "I saw it in a theater on the Upper East Side, and the audience was groaning at his choices," he says. "When he came up with the right combination, everyone applauded. Minimalism is hard to do."