The Costume Institute’s Harold Koda

Steven Heller

Departures talks with the curator in charge of the Costume Institute.

Given the success of last year’s Alexander McQueen show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the fashion world is already buzzing about “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations,” an exhibition opening in May. Neither show would have been possible without Harold Koda, the charismatic curator in charge of the Costume Institute.

Koda first came to the Institute in the 1970s, when he was hired to work on “The Glory of Russian Costume,” organized by the legendary Diana Vreeland. Originally arriving in New York from his native Hawaii to study Oceanic art, Koda had become entranced by the glamorous world embodied by Studio 54. “I thought, I want to be a part of that, but I’m not an artist, so maybe I could be a fashion designer, like Halston,” he says. “But I’m conservative, so I ended up working at the museum.”

Quickly moving up the ranks from intern to exhibition assistant, due to his talent handling objects like Catherine the Great’s wedding gown, made from fibers of silver, Koda worked on a number of shows at the Costume Institute before he was poached by the Design Laboratory of the Fashion Institute of Technology (now the Museum at FIT). For the next 11 years, Koda served on a curatorial team that included Richard Martin, with whom he would return to the Met in 1993.

In 1996 Koda decided to switch careers: “I saw that I had three kinds of books on my nightstand: cookbooks, interior-design magazines and volumes on gardens—the last struck a chord.” He received a master’s in landscape architecture from Harvard in 2000, only to be lured back to the Costume Institute that same year. Since then he has overseen not only blockbuster exhibitions but also the transfer of the Brooklyn Museum’s costume collection to the Met in 2009.

While citing the styles of the Directoire and the 16th-century French courts of Francis I and Marie de Médicis as influences, Koda is as steeped in contemporary trends as he is in historic ones. Nick Wooster, a man who wears his tattoos as beautifully as he does seersucker, is one of his inspirations. And, like many people, Koda seeks enlightenment on the Internet. “The past is only viable through the lens of the present,” he says. “I try to keep myself fed with a little bit of everything.” For details about “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations,” go to metmuseum.org.