Photo: Tatijana Shoan
Harold Koda forged a fascinating path from ‘Aiea to New York City, where he has served as curator in charge of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 2000. The collection’s 35,000 pieces span five continents and seven centuries of dress. Koda earned his bachelor’s and B.F.A. in art history from the University of Hawai‘i. He also studied at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, and received a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University in 2000. As he looks ahead to retirement in January, he caught up with HONOLULU Magazine.
Honolulu native Harold Koda curates the spectacular costume collection at The Met.
Interview by Robbie Dingeman
You’ve made your career at the intersection of fashion and history. Could you describe some of the high points?
More than anything, it would be the major talents I have gotten to meet: Karl Lagerfeld, Miuccia Prada, the late Geoffrey Beene, Gianni Versace and many others. Each of them is characterized by such a distinctive approach to design, and it is reflected in their personalities.
How has being from Hawai‘i influenced your approach?
Hawai‘i is a paradox that way. Growing up, the cultural and ethnic diversity never over-blended into a bland homogenization … Instead, there was a sense of mutually respected cultural distinctions. In retrospect, I think this balance between similarities and differences led me to my interest in the clues to individual identity as conveyed through dress.
How did growing up in ‘Aiea shape your early view of fashion?
Yikes! ‘Aiea in the 1950s was surrounded by hills of sugar cane. We often saw mongoose in our yard! When I was a kid, I remember wearing blue oxford cloth shirts with khaki pants and black shoes for school, but T-shirts, shorts and rubber flip-flops every other time. But even without a huge repertoire of “looks,” natural style revealed itself. This one kid, Stephen Oki, tucked his shirt in with the excess fullness crisply pleated at either side in the back. He also had the shiniest shoes because he passed a lighted match over their surface when he polished them. By the time I was in high school, I craved fashion. I remember the idea of seasons was so seductive to me! I bought a heavyweight sweater at J. Magnin’s, and wore it once when the temperature went down to the high ’70s. It was ludicrous.
As a special guest at HONOLULU Fashion Week, what can you say about Hawai‘i’s evolving fashion identity?
Just because Hawai‘i’s lifestyle predicates a more informal attitude about dress, does not mean that style and fashion originality can’t play a part. The challenge, always, is how to make fashion in an environment which is Edenic. Everyone really wants to get as naked as possible. A designer really has to be creative to make people want to cover up their beach bodies!
What advice might you offer to someone from Hawai‘i moving to New York City?
New York is about smarter, richer, more beautiful people than yourself—no matter how smart, rich or beautiful you are. Discipline, tenacity and an openness to shift with changing circumstances without losing focus is helpful. Also, in a surprising way, New York is easier than anywhere else in the world, because once you make it here, even a local success is often noted nationally and internationally.
What would you like to say about fashion that I haven’t asked you?
I love fashion, but I hate to shop.