FP: In the early ’90s, you returned to the Met—you and Richard Martin left FIT to lead the Costume Institute. Your first show was “Infra-Apparel” .
HK: With “Infra-Apparel,” it was sort of a template for something that even someone like Andrew [Bolton, the Costume Institute’s current Curator in Charge] is still doing. What Richard and I realized was that the demographic skews younger when it’s contemporary art—young audiences go to photography shows. It was clear that if you went to a Richard Avedon show, people looked young and sleek. It was surprisingly younger than if you went into a Rembrandt show. So to expand our audience we realized you had to have some contemporary hook. We always cared about the title, we always wanted to include something provocative and contemporary that established a linkage to art historical interest. With “Infra-Apparel,” we wanted to show that the chemise à la reine, which was so controversial when Marie Antoinette wore it because it looked like an underdress, had the same sort of potency as Gaultier’s halter for Madonna.
FP: So there was a parallel to bring the viewers to the past, to introduce the relevance of history to the viewer.
HK: The viewer comes because of the Madonna piece but then they are introduced to all these ideas: “Wait, it’s not something new—this kind of transgression and subversion of something possibly lurid percolating out into wearable attire, something intimate into something more formal. This has happened all throughout Western fashion.” Andrew does that a lot and it started because we realized that if you just do a show on 18th century apparel, you limit your audience.
FP: What was it like returning to the Met after being at FIT?
HK: Because it is a teaching institution with varied disciplines such as merchandising or graphic design, at FIT you could do anything. So we did shows about condoms, because that is dressing the penis. We did streetwear, the East Village….
FP: Did much of your work at FIT have to do with subcultures?
HK: Well, it could be about anything. “Fashion and Surrealism,” for instance, really brought our work to a larger public. “Three Women: Madeleine Vionnet, Claire McCardell, Rei Kawakubo” looked at designers that would be in any design collection. When I was a curator there, there was a gay illustration professor who died of AIDS and his surviving partner had a trunk of his clothes. He had kept clothing from when he was a student in the ’60s. He had a peace t-shirt that was done for the 1968 protest at Columbia, he had gay-clone things from the mid-’70s, all the way through the 1980s. So you had a gay person’s diarist representation of who he was, how he self-represented from when he was a late teen until he was a middle-aged man. It was this capsule of gay New York life. Gay culture now has become so diffused, but then it was so focused on certain tropes, at least dress-wise.
FP: And you acquired his wardrobe?
HK: Yes. It seemed to me that it belonged to the New-York Historical Society at the time or the Museum of the City of New York. But I wonder if any of them would take it. Everybody is focused on design rather than social history and we don’t do social history at the Costume Institute.
FP: When you went to the Met was it a big shift that the social history component was no longer there?
HK: It was more limiting coming to the Met—but they had all the stuff, the great works of art. You were in the context of an art museum, so there was the potential to collaborate.
FP: At some point in the ’90s, you left the Met—and fashion—to study landscape architecture at Harvard.
HK: I had done it for 17 years and I wanted to experience another thing. I wanted something that was interdisciplinary—and landscape architecture was just that. A little ecology, a little engineering, lots of aesthetics.
FP: But before long, the Met got you back.
HK: When I left, Richard was well. By the second year I was in school, I realized he was seriously ill—he had melanoma—and in the third year he died. Richard actually asked me to come back. I told him no—the only reason I stayed so long was because it was exciting for me to work with him. So why would I want to replace him? But Philippe [de Montebello, then the Met’s director] kept calling and asked me to vet the finalists for the position. They were all so different and brought different strengths and so I told him, “Philippe, you really have to decide.” And one day he called and asked what to do about deaccessioning [part of] the collection. Up until then I had been completely dispassionate, but as soon as he said that I was so shocked. I said, “Philippe, there are international standards to do this, but it is a very subjective process. You shouldn’t be talking about it with me—you should hear what each candidate has to say.” And he said, “Harold, you sound really upset! Would you consider doing it?” So we met and he offered me the job. I said I would take it with the idea that I would leave in three years. I could get the process started and I would secure a team. But then 9/11 happened—planning to stay three years, I stayed 17 years. Later I told Philippe, “You were so 18th century French and devious to do that.”
FP: Your goal was to complete the assessment and partial deaccessioning project?
HK: Yes—it was not my ambition to do shows. I am a believer in shelf life. Even Mrs. Vreeland by the end, she had a signature. But if you want vigorous interpretation of something, you need a fresh perspective.
FP: And yet your time as Curator in Charge at the Met saw the elevation of the field of fashion curation.
HK: So much of my career has been extraordinary good fortune. As Philippe would say, you have a trifecta at the Costume Institute: There is you and Andrew, there is the collection, and there is Anna Wintour, who was our rainmaker. As for the Anna Wintour part, we always fought against the external perception that she was generating the shows and that it was always predicated on some commercial [concerns]. There is a slight truth to the fact that she would influence our calendar. Like with “Goddess,” it was very hard for her to find a sponsor, so we had to defer it a little bit. But she never said, “Don’t do it.” She just needed time to support us. And if we didn’t have her there would be no Costume Institute, because with costume you need exhibition furniture, you need all the mannequins. To do it properly is extremely costly. We were able to do it because of Anna’s support and all of our sponsors. None of what we accomplished could have been done with money. And that is really part of the triangle: great collection, adventurous curators, and someone who can support their ideas. It was a really fortunate thing—a convergence of elements.