Mother Of Modelling: How Bethann Hardison Got Frank About Fashion’s Racism – And Changed The Industry For Ever

When Bethann Hardison was a kid she didn’t see faces like hers in magazines. Not that she needed them to feel seen as a Black woman. “I grew up feeling very secure about who I was,” she says assuredly over a videocall from her Gramercy Park apartment in New York. “And I didn’t long for anything to look like myself.” Once she walked in the Battle of Versailles fashion show in 1973, however, she became an inspiration to a world of Black girls who felt not only seen, but beautiful too.

In the half-century since, Hardison has blazed a trail across runways around the world, opened her own highly successful modelling agency and continues to be a well-loved, well-known advocate for people of colour in the fashion industry. But that 1973 show in Paris – which pitted American and French designers against each other – remains one of the most significant moments in her legacy.

“I remember very strongly that it was big; it was an exceptional occasion,” she says. “The conditions were tough but the end result was so glorious and victorious, it made it all worthwhile.”

Ten African American runway models strutting their stuff across the stage of the blue and gold Théâtre Gabriel was an unprecedented sight. It epitomised the Black Is Beautiful movement in the US of the 60s and 70s, which sought to ameliorate the racist image of African people and the diaspora in the public consciousness.

Hardison, at home in New York. Photograph: Kendall Bessent/The Guardian

Conceived by the legendary American fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert, the purpose of the Versailles show was to raise funds towards the restoration of the historic palace, with the world’s most glitzy, glamorous and seriously minted in attendance, including Princess Grace of Monaco, Elizabeth Taylor and Andy Warhol. The French design contingent consisted of Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Pierre Cardin, Marc Bohan and Hubert de Givenchy, who were symbolic of the rigid conformity of European custom-made couturiers, versus the ready-to-wear modernity of North America.

Hardison, a dark-skinned, 31-year-old Black woman with short, natural hair, was among the 36 models flown over to Paris by the five American designers invited to take part – Halston, Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Stephen Burrows and Bill Blass.

A pugnacious French press played up the clash; in the run-up to the event, they refused to take the American designers seriously and reframed the charity benefit as a cultural battle. “They used the word ‘compete’” recalls Hardison. “[To them], we were nothing more than sportswear designers. They really put the Americans down.”

Billie Blair, Alva Chinn and Hardison at the Battle of Versailles show in 1973. Photograph: Jean-luce Huré/Bridgeman Images

Hardison was not only modelling for Klein, de la Renta and her dear friend Burrows (the only Black designer) but assistant-producing the American presentation, too. “Everybody was being a little bit catty,” says Hardison. And who could blame them? The American designers had a skeleton crew to work with and the models had to spend long days at the freezing palace, where there was, according to Hardison, “no toilet roll and the food wasn’t great”. To add to this, the planned sets were unusable; the production designer Joe Eula had used metric rather than imperial measurements, and they were built too small. “We felt very lonely and were so bare bones,” says Hardison. “The great thing was our team was already considered the underdog so because [our segment] was so simplistic and had so little distractions, it made it even better for us.”

Onstage that November night, they danced and sashayed to Liza Minnelli singing Broadway tunes, and a DJ playing Al Green and Barry White. Anyone who arrived unconvinced of America’s fashion prowess left a believer. For Hardison, it was when she stepped into Burrows’ yellow silk dress that she felt especially recalcitrant. “When I walked out, all the programmes were up in the air and they started screaming and yelling, ‘Bravo! Bravo!’” she says. “Even though we presented first, I knew we had it.”

“When I got to the end of the stage, I threw my train down and stared at the audience. I wouldn’t move for the longest time and that was such an experience of feeling them slowly stomp their feet. Chills – it was a moment of defiance.”

This moment evolved into a mission to make the industry she loved a multicultural space where differences could be celebrated, not diminished. She went on to open her own modelling agency, Bethann Management, in 1984, launching the careers of Veronica Webb, Kimora Lee Simmons, Roshumba Williams and Tyson Beckford, the first Black male supermodel. One of the first Black-owned modelling agencies, it served every major player in the fashion business and boasted a multicultural roster. “I could see when a Black girl didn’t get the same amount of money that the white girls got,” says Hardison.

In the 90s, she set up the Black Girls Coalition, including Naomi Campbell, Iman and Tyra Banks, to “celebrate” and to advocate for Black and ethnic minority models to receive the same pay as their white counterparts as they became more prominent in print as well as on the runway. Along the way, Hardison earned the nickname “the Oracle,” after the character in the Matrix movies, for imparting her wisdom to emerging and established designers, agents, models and institutions during the town hall meetings she began in New York in 2007. “We began to do better, and the models of colour started to feel a little bit better too because they had someone fighting for them,” says Hardison. “So they could stop using the same girls. Once I did that first press conference, the casting directors never said ‘no blacks, no ethnics’ again – it didn’t mean they didn’t still do it.”

‘We began to do better’ … Hardison with Liya Kebede, Iman and Naomi Campbell at the Blacks in Fashion Conference in New York in 2007. Photograph: Gregory Pace/BEI/Shutterstock

A major win was when the late Vogue Italia editor Franca Sozzani commissioned the 2008 Black issue under Hardison’s guidance. It featured entirely Black models and sold out three times over. “People were telling each other that the Black model cannot sell a cover so somebody had to take issue with it,” she says. “We wound up helping to change that game.”

But, in 2013, 40 years after the Battle of Versailles, Hardison entered a new conflict on the fashion frontlines when it came to racial diversity. By the early 00s, the Black Is Beautiful movement had all but vanished from fashion. The Eastern bloc had opened up, allowing young, super-skinny models from Russia and eastern Europe to work in the West. There was a shift towards models, says Hardison, where, “you don’t notice the girl, you only notice the clothes. It’s an idea that changes the game and all of a sudden eliminates others.”

Hardison was enjoying time away from fashion in Mexico when she started getting calls from friends such as Campbell, who would fill her in on the widening whitewashing on catwalks, lookbooks and magazines. She couldn’t believe the back-pedalling that was going on. “Once you’ve been there, being shut out feels much stronger,” she recalls. “Even though we had had success, it kept slipping back a little bit so it was time to do something more.”

She rallied the troops, forming the secret Diversity Coalition and getting members to hit the front rows and backstages of the 2013 autumn/winter season fashion shows across New York, London, Milan and Paris. She trawled thousands of images with an assistant to see who was walking the runways. The results were damning, so she penned an open letter and sent it to the media, national fashion councils and leading designers. Chanel, Versace, Prada and Alexander McQueen were among the worst offenders for ignoring models of colour, and were named and shamed in the letter: “No matter the intention, the result is racism.”

Party time … Bethann Hardison, Daniela Morera and Stephen Burrows at Studio 54 in 1977. Photograph: Rose Hartman/Getty Images

“That shocked them so much,” says Hardison, who wasn’t scared of the potential fallout. Immediately, designers made a more conscious effort to integrate models of colour into their shows and advertising. Prada featured a Black model, Malaika Firth, in its autumn/winter 2013 ad campaign for the first time in 19 years.

“They did not understand what they were creating,” says Hardison. “I had to believe in my heart that they were being ignorant, not intentional.”

Hardison was born in September 1942, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn. Her parents were both raised in North Carolina (her father was born in Sudan). She describes her mother as a “party girl” and her father as more of “an intellectual”; their differences eventually led to their separation. For the first 12 years of her life she enjoyed an independent childhood living with her mother and grandmother. The women worked in domestic service and let Hardison roam free. She developed a love for tap dancing but was also a member of one of the raucous local gangs. Her father reined her in when she moved in with him at the age of 12. A judge had awarded him custody following the annulment of his marriage to her mother.

At the time, he was not only a supervisor at the Albany housing projects in Crown Heights but a “well-respected and learned” imam and mentor to Malcolm X, who would visit their home. “It is special when you look back but, at the time, that was just a man who was causing a lot of problems!” says Hardison.

Her father was more adviser than activist, and would let her listen in while he and Malcolm spoke. “Everything they said was pretty much spot on,” she recalls. “Having these instances, obviously, does shape you even if you think it doesn’t.” Under stricter parental guidance, she went from the mostly Black junior high school to a mostly white high school, a “bussing” school that was racially integrating Black students in white Brooklyn neighbourhoods. There she became the first Black cheerleader, a choir director, joined the debate team and took up athletics. She was making the most of the opportunities this proximity to whiteness provided, in spite of accusations from her friends that she was acting white herself.

Undeterred, she graduated, moved away from the firm grip of her home, and got to work. “A reason why I had to succeed,” she says, “was because I didn’t want this brilliant man to feel like I had faltered.” Aged 19, she became the youngest correctional officer in the state of New York, working two years at the Westfield State Farm women’s prison in Bedford Hills. “It was one of the first professional things I ever did,” says Hardison. “I don’t like to talk about it, even though it was not a bad thing. It just doesn’t fit my cool!”

Hardison at home. Photograph: Kendall Bessent/The Guardian

Kadeem Hardison, her only child with her friend Donald McFadden, was born in 1965. She began her fashion career at Cabots, a custom button factory in New York’s Garment District. She learned the business and worked in various showrooms before meeting the designer Willi Smith in 1967 and becoming his model-muse. Her distinctive style and look captivated other designers such as Issey Miyake and Clovis Ruffin, and she was thrown into the jetset life of modelling, travelling the world and partying at Andy Warhol’s Factory and Studio 54. But she was having to do part-time work to supplement her income – in design showrooms, and as an assistant to Burrows, then as a freelance creative director and producer.

Hardison’s mother and grandmother raised Kadeem during his early years, so that she could work. “Luckily, once my mother started to have Kadeem around, she didn’t want to let him go,” she recalls. “I could leave them for years.” Kadeem grew up to become a successful TV actor and he recently questioned Hardison about why she chose to keep him when she had chosen abortion with previous pregnancies: “He said, did I ever resent that moment, because to him, if I hadn’t had him, he can imagine where I could have gone and how I could have soared,” she recalls. “I said, it doesn’t work like that. You have them young and it is what it is, and then your life starts.”

Hardison might not have been “smitten with being a mother” but she became a mother figure to hundreds in the industry once she set up her Bethann Management agency. For 12 years, she mentored and supported many young models, who found themselves a long way from home and without an advocate who truly understood the fickleness of an ever-changing industry. Today, she is impressed by the next generation of fashion disruptors such as the designer Aurora James. “She cares about the fact that [Black] people are not being given the profit equity opportunity – and that’s great,” she says. “I’m not looking to hand anything over as much as just make everyone conscious. That’s the one thing they have to do.”

At 80, Hardison remains one of the most influential figures in fashion – from model to agent to major agitator, and now she has added two new roles to her repertoire. She is writing a memoir and has recently co-directed a documentary, Invisible Beauty, with Frédéric Tcheng. The film features high-fashion pals and fans, such as Campbell, Burrows and Zendaya, discussing why she triggered a tsunami of change. “This thing that I did is unique in itself, but I’m just trying to make sure that people are included racially,” says Hardison. “I hope that people recognise that the one true thing that you can fight for is your rights as a human being.”

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