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Harold Koda speaks at Pratt's 2016 student fashion show. Photo: Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images
Harold Koda speaks at Pratt's 2016 student fashion show. Photo: Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images

Harold Koda Shares His Take on ‘Manus x Machina’ and Life After the Met

Spoiler: the recently retired Costume Institute curator was impressed

While the celebrities flooding Monday's Met Gala certainly overshadowed the exhibition they were celebrating, the public's attention is now gradually turning to the show, "Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology."

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The serene, pared-down exhibit is notable for the consideration it gives to the craft of clothing construction — and for being the first major Costume Institute showcase since Harold Koda, the department's head curator of 14 years, retired in January. His successor, Andrew Bolton, curated "Manus x Machina" without Koda's assistance and led last year's "China: Through the Looking Glass."

On Thursday evening, Koda received the Pratt Fashion Award for Lifetime Achievement at the school's annual student fashion show, held on the sixth floor of Spring Studios. We sat down before the evening kicked off to talk about "Manus x Machina," how he judges other curators' work, and what he's up to next.

I wanted to start by asking you about your take on the Costume Institute exhibit that just went up.

It's really funny, because I've been planning my retirement for so many years. It's two years after I approached the director and said, "I'm planning to retire." When the idea for the exhibition came up — I didn't say this to Andrew [Bolton] — but I thought, "Ugh, I wish I could participate in this, because it's so much my interest." But he's done a brilliant job. He's done it in a way that I think is more intelligent than I would have done it.

How would you have done it?

Less related to this kind of métiers thing than an evolution of technologies. The way he's done it is brilliant, because it does what the Met does best: it anchors the present in the future and the past. It's addressing the making of things in a way that situates all of the wild new stuff in a really rich tradition, and it blurs the haute couture with the prêt-à-porter. Haute couture is using technology; prêt-à-porter is doing handwork. So it's redefining this whole approach to fashion in a way that's really exciting. Again, that's Andrew. I would have just stuck to the haute couture.

I didn't go in before the exhibition opened. It's always really irritating when people are coming in before something's done, so I saw it for the first time at the Gala, and I was just blown away. It's a kind of a sorbet between rich courses, because what we like to do at the Met is play with the calendar. We had "China: Through the Looking Glass" the year before, which was vast — it was the biggest show we've ever done in the museum, taking up so many galleries. It's experiential, it's lush, it's over-the-top. And this one is contained, serene, intellectual but sensual. It's just the perfect counterpoint to what happened the year before.

Manus x Machina The Met's "Manus x Machina" exhibit. Photo: Met Museum

My coworkers who attended the opening came back raving about the fact that the minimalist mannequin styling really placed the emphasis on the clothes, as did the environment, which they compared to an Apple store.

Oh, it looks like a cathedral! Yeah, it has the purity of Apple design, but it actually comes from OMA, the architecture firm. It's the kind of collaboration where [Shohei Shigematsu, the head of OMA's New York office] had to really understand Andrew's approach. It's very intellectual even though we're the Met, so it has to be, in the end, aesthetic. And when you think about Apple, it's sort of that too: high-concept but based on the most pared-down, elegant style. Aesthetics as a motivating principle for consumption. To me there's a level of spirituality. I mean, maybe if you worship your iPhone...

I think people do, though, so that seems apt.

App. What has taken place is the transformation of a very complicated space into a very lucid exhibition experience.

Now that you've retired from the Met, I'm curious about your experience as a visitor to other curators' shows. What elements of an exhibit do you pay close attention to?

Sometimes I think what happens in the world of exhibition criticism is there's this idea of a platonic exhibition, which is so unrealistic. It's really important to look at an exhibition and say: with what they have, have they communicated and expressed vividly their intention? That's the criteria. You don't go in and say, "Oh, they should have done this, I wish..." That's all bullshit. It is. You be a curator and you see how successful you are.

There are a handful of people whose opinions I respect — and some of them are journalists — but really, if you have a small group of people whose opinions you respect, and they like it or they don't like it, you take it to heart. Sometimes even people you don't respect will make a really good point that you take to heart. But most of the time, I really don't care what they think. I really don't. Which is something that I think you need when you're doing something with the public. I think with these kinds who are entering fashion at a moment that's incredibly turbulent, they should have that kind of conviction about their own power and their own knowledge, and not be cowed by people who don't know as much as them.

The Alexander McQueen exhibit in 2011 was one of the Met's most popular exhibitions ever, and then "China: Through the Looking Glass" brought in even more visitors. The Met Gala has become a major celebrity event that draws a lot of attention to the Costume Institute's shows, too. How do you balance striving to create an exhibit that's going to be very popular but also intellectually stimulating? Not that the two preclude one another.

Many people find it oppositional. Andrew and I have always thought that that's the fun part. We never compromise the conceptual underpinnings of a show for the presentation; we always see the presentation as somehow enhancing or underscoring the ideas. It's the reason why many fashion designers like clothing the best when it's on the runway. They pick the music, they pick the lighting, they've done the styling. They've had total creative control.

One of the things which I think gets on the nerves of people is that the general public loves it. There's this pissy attitude on the part of many people that if many people like something, somehow you've lowered it. No! If you're going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, months and months of time, asked all these people who are important to participate, you better get people to see the show. If you're going to say, 'I don't care what the masses think,' you're a loser. It means you really don't get it, because the only reason we do this is to spread the gospel, to introduce to people this idea that fashion — and not all fashion is art — but fashion can be art.

Harold Koda Koda at a press conference announcing "Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations" in 2012. Photo: Olivier Morin/Getty Images

Assuming that not everybody attending a Costume Institute exhibit knows a ton about design, how does a curator go about explaining the technical properties of the clothing? I'm thinking of 2014's Charles James exhibit, for instance, in which there were screens showing digital deconstructions of the gowns next to the dresses themselves.

My attitude toward exhibitions — and this is going to transform, I'm going to be yesterday's newspaper — is that at a place like the Met, visitors don't have one level of understanding. The show has to be clear without looking at a label, without looking at an entry text. It should be an immediate understanding.

Then you have various layers of people who have a hierarchy of interest. What I've noticed is that frequently the husbands and the boyfriends who are dragged into our shows are the ones who are really engaged by the labels. Because the women assume they have all this knowledge about it, which isn't true. I mean, the curatorial interpretation is rarely the shopper's interpretation. So you have people who will read what it is and when it was made. Some people will go and penetrate what it is, when it was made, and what it's made of, and a few, and it really is relatively few, will read what it's about.

What have you been getting up to since retiring in January? Are you just going to be a public intellectual now?

Oh, no, no. I made a decision when I left the Met that I wasn't going to do any more fashion projects, other than the ones that I had committed to. They're small things, and that'll die in June.

It was such an incredible luxury to be at the Met with the most encyclopedic American collection and to have the support of Anna Wintour, who, if one Dior dress is eluding us, she knows who to call. She will call. She is our rainmaker. Because it's New York, we had a group of philanthropists that supported our department in a way that would never happen in another city. Then finally, the museum as an art museum is somewhere you can juxtapose this one aesthetic form against the rich traditions of all the media that constitute the history of art. So when I left, I said, why would I try to do a project without any of that? It could never be what it was.

Instead I have focused on a really personal project that is probably pie in the sky, that has to do with the Bahamas and rehabilitating these semi-abandoned sites with the idea of creating a kind of sustainable development in this one little section of one of the islands. That's what interests me now. Let's see if it has legs.

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