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Harold Koda Has Some Excellent Fashion Career Advice

The former head curator of the Costume Institute says this is the one thing that he thinks "every student should know and feel."
Harold Koda. Photo: BFA

Harold Koda. Photo: BFA

Here at Fashionista, we spend quite a bit of time talking to people in the fashion industry about how they "made it," and thus, we know good career advice when we hear it. And we heard some particularly inspirational words last Thursday evening at Spring Studios following Pratt Institute's 2016 student fashion show

Harold Koda, former curator-in-charge of the Met's Costume Institute, was on hand to receive the Pratt Fashion Award for Lifetime Achievement, presented to him by Simon Doonan. Once a mere "working class boy from Hawaii" as Doonan put it, Koda retired in January at the age of 65 after 14 years as the head of the Costume Institute, having brought to life some of its most memorable and illuminating exhibitions.

For his acceptance speech, Koda reflected back on his career and came up with some wise, rational words that could not only benefit the graduating design students present that night, but also anyone who feels a little bit unsure about his or her fashion career path. Read them here, below.

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"I realized every single thing that I feel really helped me [in my career], one could think of the exact opposite and say, 'That's also a really great strategy.' For example, when Simon talks about me as a collaborator, if you look at most of my publications and even most of my exhibitions, they're co-curated, co-authored. It's because from the time I started in this field, I really felt that the greatest joy was working with people who were better than me — they would challenge me and they would question me, and it was that kind of dialogue and resistance that really made the net product better. On the other hand, and I'm going to cite something that will embarrass Andrew [Bolton, Koda's successor], is that there are times when it's much better to be alone. When we started the Alexander McQueen exhibition preparations, I had this idea that it would be about the sublime, the terror of beauty, and as we began to work on it, Andrew said, 'You know, I think we're finding other kinds of things. What if we considered more, the movement of Romanticism in the 19th century of which the sublime is a part, but only a part?' And I thought, 'Yeah that's really much more encompassing, a much more representative a view of this great designer's work,' and so he went on his own. I think the brilliant outcome was because it wasn't something that was contentious and negotiated and watered down and muted by collaboration. So, I did it by collaborating, but I do think that you can do it as a lone wolf, as a single visionary. 

The other thing that I think was really helpful to me is that over my career I was able to, without any end goal, adjust to different circumstances. When I started in the field, it was really as a design assistant to Diana Vreeland [when she was a consultant to the Costume Institute after being fired from Vogue] and I made things. I made Manchu fingernail guards... 18th century Rococo parasols from Italy, hairdos for women at Versailles, a lot of fun projects... It wasn't with the intention of ever becoming a curator, but then the opportunity arose and I thought, oh, it's fun to work with old dresses. I had handled Catherine the Great's wedding dress and that was sort of a frisson, so I thought it'll be like that. I took the job and slowly other things happened and I found that I was on a career path — but it wasn't with any idea that this was what I was going to be able to do. In the recently released 'First Monday in May' movie, for the first time I learned that Andrew had actually thought of the Costume Institute as a place he wanted to work at, so again, using him as an example, to have a goal sometimes ends up with the realization of that goal.

So what do you do? Are you a collaborator or a lone wolf? Are you a situational opportunist or are you somebody who has a fixed idea of what your ambitions are headed towards? It's all contradictory, but the one thing that I think every student should know and feel, at this moment where the whole fashion industry is undergoing extraordinary seismic shifts — every layer of it, from design to merchandising to publicity, everything is changing — is that at the venerable end of your career, [when] you look back, you should be able to say that at every moment in your career you were doing something you loved, or if you weren't doing something you loved, you were doing something that you didn't love but it was positioning you to get to do the something you love. Fame, fortune, they're very nice. A really glamorous Instagram account? Really nice. But it's not the thing that you're going to find satisfying. What you're going to find satisfying is that your career has been based on passion and, surprisingly, when you do that you might get fame, you might get fortune, you might even get a selfie with Kanye. But that's all gravy."