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As the unofficial “sixth borough” of New York City, Miami Beach makes sense for Harold Koda’s first exhibit outside of The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Fashion Institute of Technology. The Costume Institute’s curator in charge loaned his expertise and some of his enviable vaults’ treasures for “Vanitas: Fashion and Art,” which opened at the Bass Museum of Art last week and runs through July 20. Besides locale, the collaboration marks another departure in his career: It’s his first foray into curating contemporary art.
“I also picked the art except two videos, which their curators selected,” said Koda, delighted that one titled “Still Life” by Jason Salavon ended up being his favorite work in the show. “I love how its types of skulls and candles slowly change.”
The subjects fit perfectly within his theme inspired by vanitas, Dutch still lifes depicting organic matter’s ephemeralness, aka beautiful, poetic death. Ranging from Monarch butterflies to deconstructed knitwear by Yohji Yamamoto that turned the definition of designer fashion on its head in the early Nineties, according to Koda, many subjects, such as poppies, have occupied his imagination for decades. His enchantment with the flower’s delicacy, happy hue and infamy as an opiate started with a Vogue holiday spread photographed by Irving Penn in the late Sixties. Its pages are displayed alongside Philip Treacy’s enormous poppy hat and Isaac Mizrahi’s belted tea dress in white piqué printed with an abstract, almost gory, blossom.
“It looks like blood from a graphic crime scene in ‘Law & Order’ filmed around that same time,” he said, though not intending to focus solely on death. “I’d like it to be more open to interpretation.”
Several Chanel suits made to look luxuriously tattered through tulle-covered holes across from Greta Alfaro’s video of buzzards picking at a feast got a lot of comparisons to “The Birds” by Alfred Hitchcock. Barbara Cirkva, fashion division president for Chanel, agreed, adding fuzzy molded fruit in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s video reminded her of angora.
Koda dives into deeper, unsettling commentary, too. One can’t help but face the brevity of the individual life span versus evolution’s grander picture through the pronounced vestigial tail of Shaun Leane for Alexander McQueen’s Spine Corset. The work is surrounded by Pinar Yolacan’s photographs of mature women wearing ruched garments sewn from chicken skin, a metaphor for gender inequality with the fairer sex being assigned an expiration date like meat at the grocery store.
Literally more vanity than vanitas, though a fleeting notion just the same, an Elsa Schiaparelli suit jacket’s symmetrical, Rococo hand mirrors embroidered in gold foil and silk and filled with mirror mosaics by Lesage leap out from their black velvet background. To hammer home the point, the mannequin holds a cracked, antique hand mirror. The piece is phenomenal, despite Koda, like his subjects, not having time on his side to source his hit list.
“Because we put the show together in less than a year, many pieces that I wanted weren’t available,” he said of the show’s small scope in size. “Rather than my usual nine-course Edwardian meal, it’s more like a ladies’ lunch with Bac-Os Bits.”