If Harold Koda seems inordinately edgy going through the security check at JFK, it is with good reason: he is traveling to London with a suitcase full of body parts. Koda, the head curator at the Costume Institute at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, is carrying a dismantled mannequin. He's delivering the muslin-and-wire mademoiselle to the British artists collaborating on the museum's exhibition"Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion & Furniture in the 18th Century," an extravagant exploration of that era's most influential designs, which runs from April 29 to August 8.
Though Koda—who grew up in Hawaii—didn't visit Europe until he was 30, he now crosses the Atlantic frequently. "The hardship of being a costume curator is that your research is always in such trying towns as Paris or Tokyo!" he says with a laugh. In fact, most of his recent major showshave necessitated delightful obligations like these: he visited Paris to discuss last spring's blockbuster, "Goddess," with former Gucci designer Tom Ford; Kyoto for "Haute Couture"; and Milan for "Giorgio Armani," which he co-curated at the Guggenheim. Next, he's going to Syria to see a private collection of ancient textiles that he's hoping to bring to New York.
For this extended weekend, Koda has planned a series of brief but all-important meetings with the staff working on "Dangerous Liaisons." He is staying at Eleven Cadogan Gardens, a militantly old-fashioned hotel off Sloane Square, though it disappoints him a little. "It's been renovated," he sighs, looking sadly at the marginally less faded wallpaper. Since it's Sunday and he's free, Koda heads for the young-designers market at Spitalfields in the East End. On the way, he muses about the relationship between art, fashion, and travel: "Travel allows you to immerse yourself in another aesthetic environment; despite the globalization of fashion, street style still maintains a specific identity of place, just the way museums offer collections that are steeped in local culture."
At Spitalfields, which sells everything from Che Guevara doormats to hand-painted kilts, site-specific street style is running rampant. Koda, the kind of person who describes a Loro Piana windbreaker as being a shade of 18th-century blue, is nevertheless excited about this explosion of young talent. "The way they combine textiles! The whimsical children's clothes!"
Whenever Koda travels, he finds time to roam, to study the styles of the street, and to check out the competition. Our next stop is supposed to be the Fashion & Textile Museum founded by designer Zandra Rhodes. Alas, here is the first clue to Koda's quirky, if charming, organizational method: he keeps all vital information on tiny Post-its in an Hermèsholder—and somehow the Post-it with the museum's address has gone missing.
So we take a taxi to Selfridges, a formerly dowdy department store wittily reinvented. Koda turns a curatorial eye on the place, appalled at the way women are rifling through racks of Marni and McQueen. "Look at how they tear at the clothes!" he sniffs. When it is pointed out to him that women have to actually wear this stuff, and it had better hold up to some serious tugging, he is unconvinced: "Men don't do that." We repair to one of Selfridges's numerous restaurants ("they're on almost every floor—like a Japanese store!" Koda observes) but eat light, because in a few hours we're dining with a friend at Blakes hotel.
At Blakes, famous for its haute-boho interior design, Koda almost gags when he sees a guest room, a riot of black lacquer and Biedermeier. "It's giving me a migraine," he moans. So we descend to the restaurant, where Koda is happier, especially when he begins popping scallops into his mouth.
The next morning we make our way to the Rossetti Studios in Chelsea, where Koda is meeting with Patrick Kinmonth, the creative consultant in charge of all aesthetic aspects related to the "Dangerous Liaisons" installation. The studios were built on the property where the eccentric Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti kept his menagerie—rumor had it his pet elephant would spritz water into the second-floor windows. In Patrick's studio, there's an 18th-century oil-on-panel painting of a woman dressed in high Jacobean style that he and Koda are peering at with deep interest, looking for answers to the tiny questions that can vex a costume curator: How is her earring affixed?Is that fine necklace made of tightly woven hair?They're still thinking about this as we pile into a cab, mannequin in the trunk, and trek out to Complete Fabrication, in a factory complex in southwest London, where Koda is meeting with wigmaker Campbell Young and mannequin designer Josephine Pickett-Baker. The assembled professionals disinter the mannequin and bring her magically to life. When Campbell gently pats talc on her curls, Koda—who has been worried about how lovely these faceless linen women will look in the exhibition—nearly swoons with relief and pleasure.
Back in central London, Koda is determined to squeeze in some shopping, visiting places that he loves for their distinct British ambience: the N. Peal cashmere shop; shoemaker John Lobb; and the quintessential haberdashery Swaine Adeney, where he purchases a collapsible umbrella whose strap sports a chic button instead of the quotidian Velcro.
Koda's last day in London, he fin-ally finds Zandra's museum, which is packed. "This is what we curators call a point of destination!" Then it's off to the Victoria and Albert for an exhibition of Ossie Clark dresses that Koda describes as "post-Carnaby, high-pop, pre-disco." He admits that, like all curators, he enjoys being a fly on the wall. When he overhears more than one woman nostalgically longing for the Clarkish, slouchy, vividly printed clothes of her youth, he knows the show is a hit.
You would think that with Ms. Mannequin safely ensconced in London for a few weeks (she'll be crossing the pond again in time for the show's opening), Koda's load would be lighter for the trip home. But, no—he buys virtually every obscure art and fashion magazine available at the airport newsstand. Flipping through achingly hip tomes with names like Pop and Jalouse, he reminisces about the days when magazines had a profound effect on his aesthetic sense. "I wish someone would do the things Mrs. Vreeland used to do. She once ran an Avedon photograph of a pair of silk ikat coats with sable linings. The copy read: 'Two only, for the pleasure of only two women on earth.' And oh, how women wanted one of those coats!"
He's lost for a moment in memories of Diana Vreeland, the legendary Vogue editor who was his first boss at the Costume Institute three decades ago. Then he grabs his carry-on, scoops up his magazines, and strolls off toward the plane.
LYNN YAEGER is a contributing editor for T+L.