AUTHOR Olivia Ouyang
ISSUE FALL 2012
A peek into the brilliance of Harold Koda, Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, who has curated exhibits Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations and Poiret: King of Fashion.
AUDREY MAGAZINE: You have curated numerous critically acclaimed fashion exhibits throughout your career. Is there one show that stands out in particular way to you?
Harold Koda : Flair: The Collection of Tina Chow was a small show I did with Richard Martin at FIT of one woman’s vintage couture. Tina was half-Japanese, half-German American, modeled as a young woman, and began collecting couture designs after she discovered a cache of Fortuny gowns in the early ’70s. For the exhibition of her collection, we had the gallery raked with white gravel like a Zen garden with mannequins dressed from a sampling of Tina’s huge range of designer fashions. The dresses and gowns were by Fortuny, Grès, Poiret, Vionnet, Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Balenciaga, Cardin, and on and on. None of them save for some Saint Laurents and Lagerfeld Chanels had been made for her. We used standard Schläppe store mannequins that were all identical. These mannequins were neither Tina’s shape nor Tina’s height. Still, for all the diversity of the designers and the abstract standardization of the mannequins, when people who knew her visited the show they invariably asked, “How did you find mannequins that look like Tina?” The point is that a person of compelling personal style edits everything to that essential identity. Neither the mannequins nor the clothes were about Tina, only the selection was Tina’s, yet people who knew her recognized in the presentation Tina herself. This was clothing transfigured into a surrogate of the person who wore it, but with a twist, since most of it was not intended for her … only, and importantly, selected by her.
AM: In recent years, Asian American fashion designers have been advancing to the forefront of the industry. What is your opinion of this new wave of Asian American designers?
HK: It is thrilling to see diversity in the top ranks of Seventh Avenue. While in the past there have been Asian American designers who seem to reference the Asian aspect of their heritage, what characterizes the newest group (if ethnicity is the criterion) is their total assimilation into the fashion system. While each has a personal signature, I cannot think of one from the current field
that could be identified through their work as distinctly Asian. If one were to parse their Asian American identity and apply it to their designs, I think their work would be more readily identified as “American” (versus French, Italian, British or Japanese) than “Asian.”
AM: I understand that when you first arrived in New York, you obtained an internship HK: My first assignment at The Costume Institute as a paid assistant for “The Glory of Russian Costume” was to wash red-dyed panty hose. It would be disingenuous to say that was my first assignment here since I had been working as a volunteer for the restorer over the previous summer, but even as a
volunteer, I was given menial tasks and in a very short time was doing an analysis of a
Vionnet gown. The point is that today there seems to be the presumption that experience
counts for very little. That’s incorrect. You can have book knowledge, you can have great artistic skills, but there is nothing that contributes in the long term to a person’s professional development as much as knowhow and a willingness to do everything.