Harold Koda on Life After the Met

At Honolulu Fashion Week, Koda talks about what’s next.

Harold Koda

The second Honolulu Fashion Week took place this past weekend at the Hawaii Convention Center. Among those taking in the proceedings were some familiar faces from New York Fashion Week, like Fern Mallis. But perhaps the most notable personality in the front row was Harold Koda, who is originally from Aeia. The curator in charge of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who retires in January after a 15 year tenure, says he’s not sure what comes after his 15-year tenure, but he’s certain he won’t just be at home reading old House & Gardens.

Tell me what Hawaii fashion was like when you were growing up. In a strange way, the fashion wasn’t that different from now. It used to be that locals dressed in a certain kind of idiom. That is still part of how people dress here, but you rarely saw evening dresses then. But people used to wear suits and ties to work. Slowly, that disappeared and everybody was wearing local. So there was a moment when it was really regional. Now it’s swinging back to what it was before. We’re in this very eclectic moment when you see elements of global fashion, but there are still Hawaiian prints and casual sundresses and men in board shorts. Western style and Hawaiian style have always sort of co-existed; it’s just the balance that’s shifted. But the most exciting thing is that nobody here is the majority. The Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Caucasians—they all had subcultures that coexisted. What’s happened over the years is those subcultures have blended. It’s just such a diverse demographic physically, so there can’t be a unified look. It’s not an environment that says you have to dress a certain way, and that’s fascinating to me.

What do you like to revisit when you’re back here? Old Pali highway. And the Pali [Lookout]. I find that so magical, just seeing the razorback cliff. When I was in high school, we went hiking with friends, and we went to the upside-down falls where the falls never hit the bottom because they turn into mist. We went to one and did a mudslide on tea leaves. Every time I go up that highway, I think about that. It’s such an Arcadian sensibility—because Hawaii really is about the outdoors, despite the fact that it’s really built up. But again, I think that’s actually a challenge for designers. There are other designers who are not based in Hawaii whose idea of the tropical paradise infiltrates their imagery. There’s no kind of ownership of the Hawaii brand. Generally, I like to go down the southeast side, where you get this arid volcanic environment. You see the blue sea making the turn [around the mountain]. It’s just fantastic.

Can you tell us what you’re doing next? Originally, I told people I was doing two books just to shut them up, because you can do a book for 13 years. There are all these things that I want to do that are actually in conflict. I’m a better student than I am a teacher, and there are different classes I want to take: neurobiology, 3-D modeling, photography. I have to figure out how I can feed my brain in a way so as to advance my knowledge, and other ways that are really experiential. I’ve been getting emails from different people who want me to do projects that are really similar to what I had been doing, but if I wanted to do that, I would have stayed at the Met. Why would you do it someplace else? I can’t say I won’t, but I’m going to take a few months to sort it all out because I’ve over-programmed my fantasy. My partner’s concern is that I’ll be at home reading old House & Gardens and Architectural Digest and eating Chinese food out of a container, still in whatever I slept in the night before. That’s not going to happen.