The Dresser

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.”

From the moment the Armani show – co-curated by Germano Celant – was announced, the Guggenheim has had to weather the inevitable sniping about turning an entire art museum over to an exhibit of clothes. (“It’s better than the cow parade,” mutters one art dealer.) The issue was further complicated when it was reported, a month after the exhibition was announced, that Armani would be making a $15 million gift over three years for the Guggenheim’s capital projects and international programs.

Koda (who loved last year’s BMW-subsidized, crowd-pleasing motorcycle show at the Guggenheim, although it made others question the museum’s financially ambitious director, Thomas Krens) argues that Armani’s work is suited to the museum – that some clothes belong in an art context and some don’t, and that it’s the same with photography. It’s hard to disagree. Besides, in a world in which design and celebrity are inextricably linked – thanks to the likes of E! and InStyle magazine, the number of regular people who can tell a Prada gown from a Versace has grown exponentially – it makes sense for the Guggenheim to get in on the action. InStyle, by the way, is sponsoring the Armani retrospective.

On Tuesday, Koda is in an Armani warehouse in Secaucus. While conservators from the Guggenheim fuss over a forest of mannequins, two of Armani’s top stylists – tan, well-toned young men – are making sure the details are right. Collars down, not up. Shirts untucked here, not there. Koda tries to share his excitement with them about the soutache on the sleeve of a suit jacket, which, he explains, comes from a tradition of display in nineteenth-century Islamic Zoave military uniforms. But the stylists, who have an imperious air, can only feign interest in his observations momentarily, and as he shows me one cultural reference after another in each lapel and sleeve and hem, from Poiret to Kurosawa, they wander away.

In the car back to Manhattan, Koda denies that he left his post at the Costume Institute for Harvard because he was tired of the fashion world’s famously bitchy scene. “I was tired of the rigorous calendar schedule. Fashion itself was at a moribund moment. I wanted a change,” he says. In fact, he found himself missing it while he was in Cambridge. “Fashion people are real personalities,” he says. “If you’re too earnest, it’s a flaw. In fashion, you need irony and self-consciousness. You have to be bigger than life.” Of course, having a relentless fixation on what’s next doesn’t hurt, either.

If anything, it was fashion’s disdain for the past that doomed the Met’s blockbuster Chanel exhibition planned for this December. In May, after a year and a half of planning, the exhibition was canceled, along with an accompanying gift from Chanel said to have been $1.5 million. Without a strong curatorial hand in place after Martin’s death, Karl Lagerfeld, the German designer who has kept Chanel contemporary, got too involved. He was pushing for the museum to present his new vision of Chanel, not the historic one, and his proposal to De Montebello included work by Jenny Holzer, Claes Oldenburg, and video artists.

Koda is invigorated by the outfits passing on the street. He fantasizes about an exhibition broken down by Manhattan Zip Codes.

When De Montebello balked because he thought the Met’s curatorial integrity was being infringed, Lagerfeld told the Times, “I’m not interested in an exhibit that’s just old dresses.” Although fashion funding and the Costume Institute have always gone hand in hand, the Institute had been criticized in 1996 for Christian Dior’s sponsorship of a Dior show and for Condé Nast’s funding of the well-attended (more than 400,000 visitors in four months) Versace retrospective. Tommy Hilfiger’s funding of last winter’s tepidly reviewed but extremely popular “Rock Style” show (put together by Myra Walker, an interim curator) raised the question of whether the museum was being used as a marketing tool for a designer who aggressively associates himself with pop music. But with Chanel in the spring, the timing was especially awkward. The controversy at the Brooklyn Museum over the sponsorship by Charles Saatchi and Christie’s auction house of the “Sensation” show of young British artists was still fresh.

One museum insider notes that with Chanel, the Metropolitan had been blindsided by the way the fashion world operates, adding that Lagerfeld was treating the museum as if it were a showroom. “But at the same time Philippe de Montebello was dealing with Lagerfeld, he was answering questions about Nazi loot in the museum’s art collection, a grueling process,” the insider adds. “So to have Kaiser Karl telling a Frenchman how to interpret Chanel, an icon of French culture, must have been particularly annoying.”

The Lagerfeld flap forced the museum to reschedule its Party of the Year to April 23 (the event raises all general operating costs for the Institute) and come up with a blockbuster exhibit to replace it. In the wake of the controversy, De Montebello noted that it was “sadly ironic that Karl Lagerfeld, the man who has represented Chanel and creative fashion for some twenty years, could dismiss five decades of the work of Coco Chanel as ‘a bunch of old clothes.’ ” But Lagerfeld was raising a point that others in the fashion world appreciate. “The place needs some oomph, and I wish the shows would be alive instead of constantly about history,” says stylist Polly Mellen, a Vreeland acolyte. “If Lagerfeld had done the Chanel show, it would have been extraordinary.”

It was not the first time the Costume Institute, which began in the thirties as a separate entity and was integrated as a full curatorial department at the museum in 1959, has crossed swords with the fashion elite. Eleanor Lambert, the publicist credited with bringing worldwide attention to New York as a fashion center after World War II, and who planned the Institute’s first Party of the Year in 1948, still bristles at its current modest size. In 1992, under De Montebello, and several years after Vreeland left her position there, the Institute’s downstairs quarters were cut back significantly. “It’s too small,” says Lambert. “You can’t have decent costume shows without a central space. Diana Vreeland had a sense of theater and space for it.”

What many fashion types don’t realize is that the intention had been to present bigger costume shows upstairs in the Cantor Gallery periodically. Martin, however, was an astute historian with little interest in the politics of competing with other curatorial departments for upstairs space. Downstairs, he had autonomy.

“It’s not what I planned,” says Katell le Bourhis, the fiery French curator who consulted on the Institute’s redesign before leaving the Met for the Louvre. “To justify having such a fabulous collection of clothes, you have to have big historic shows. But you also have to bring a contemporary approach to the presentation.” When I suggest that Lagerfeld was trying to do that, she corrects me firmly and says she meant that shows should use technology to enliven didactic information. “The Met is not the Whitney Biennial, and it’s not an institution that sponsors artistic proposals,” she says. “You have a huge responsibility as an historical authority.” That responsibility, plus the expectations of a notoriously fickle fashion world, will make Koda’s job all the more tricky.

“I hope he does well, but I’m worried because he seems very academic,” says Carrie Donovan, the Old Navy spokeswoman who was once the Times Magazine’s style editor. “You know how crass the whole world has gotten. Let’s face it: If you don’t make a real blast with a show, you can’t get attention and it won’t sell tickets.”

The Dresser