Legendary Model Bethann Hardison Is on a Mission to Make Fashion More Inclusive
When the fashion industry fumbles, this educator and advocate shows it the way forward.
Naomi Campbell calls her “Ma.” Her best friend Iman calls her “My ride or die from 1975.” The fashion world, from young models to emerging designers to brands like Gucci, calls her…a lot. Bethann Hardison, a longtime fighter for representation for people of color, is the fashion industry’s conscience. Born in Brooklyn, the beloved former model launched Bethann Management Co. in 1984, and in the years since she has worked, with a clear and tireless voice, to change how fashion looks. Now that Black models are finally achieving their long-earned presence on the runways, Hardison is turning her attention to mentoring young designers and educating fashion brands on racial sensitivity. “Even when they take their eye off the ball,” she says, “I’m constantly driving the nail and making people go back to the point.” It’s a lot to do, but for this self-described revolutionary, there has always been a clarity to her calling. And there’s always time for a tequila. (Well, after this interview.)
LAURA BROWN: On your Instagram in December you wrote, “Grateful for another year of learning that we are meant to survive, especially if you are a ‘do-gooder.’ But for sure this year because I still see the support, the respect and acknowledgements, I am relevant.” Tell me what came to mind when you were wrapping up the year.
BETHANN HARDISON: I don’t post every day. I have nothing to sell; I’m selling just philosophy. For me, this has been a very interesting year because at the end of 2018, I was thinking, “I’m going to need a roommate.” I needed to be able to afford to not have to put so much out, as hardly anything was coming in. And I didn’t want to use my savings to pay my electricity bill. I want my savings to be used for a great idea I have or to travel somewhere.
LB: For the rest of your life.
BH: I started consulting for the CFDA [Council of Fashion Designers of America]. I just wanted enough to pay my rent. Then along came Gucci. They asked me to work with them at the end of February. So when I looked back at the year, I realized that no matter how old you get, if you’ve got something that’s of value to others and you’re not looking to make money off everything, you tend to have a longer life.
LB: You can have a longer life if you just want to do the right thing and do it with grace and empathy. What do you think in terms of the confluence of the CFDA and Gucci happening in six weeks?
BH: In my life I’ve always cared very much about others. The CFDA would reference me: “Remember diversity. Any questions, contact Bethann Hardison.”
LB: “Hi, my name is Diversity Hardison.”
BH: I also want to help young Black designers. I’m tired of people saying, “Where are the Black designers?” Oh my god, they exist. Everyone is not Virgil [Abloh], but people have businesses. So I pitched to the CFDA that I wanted to help young design companies of color be strong in their businesses. Not to become famous, but to have a solid business.
LB: Have a real backbone and then be able to develop.
BH: I’m so inspired by emerging designers. And then that thing happened with Gucci and the balaclava sweater that people thought was blackface. The bombardment of that was such a shock to them. So I met with them. My take on this thing was different from the average person’s because I didn’t see the sweater as being blackface. But it’s in the eye of the beholder.
LB: You have to read the room.
BH: Well, they needed a strong voice. We all had a meeting in Harlem with Dapper Dan [who officially partnered with Gucci on Gucci–Dapper Dan: The Collection in 2018]. That was a great thing, because I do love the brand. I was a big Gucci fan back in the day when it was gangster. That was really my style; I loved all that shit. When Alessandro [Michele] came and took it back over [in 2015], I was interested but fearful. The first show was all white [models], and that was right at the brink of making sure we integrate. And his first presentation wasn’t that. But after seeing how he showed, what he was thinking, and how his mind worked, I became a fan. So I’m very happy to be in this place. It made me recall what my young friend Iman used to say to me years ago: “You’re relevant.”
LB: Iman! That little baby!
BH: Yeah. I would say, “Well, everyone is.” And she said, “No, everyone isn’t.”
LB: You’ve been the constant.
BH: And this is her point.
LB: You first started the Black Girls Coalition in 1988. From then to the beginning of 2020, there’s, thankfully, been a ton of progress. What stands out to you 32 years later?
BH: Now I think what could change greatly is behind the scenes. The objective of fashion and retail CEOs should be to hire people of color because they are good, not just because they are of color. When I used to book models, I wouldn’t take a girl just because she was Black. If they sent me somebody who wasn’t right because they thought I would take anybody, no.
LB: Do you think designers of color are getting more support on the business side now? Who stands out to you?
BH: I don’t see that yet. I wouldn’t bring anyone into the group we are advising unless they have a brand. But these are emerging designers. I truly love someone like Victor Glemaud because he’s learned the ropes from being with others, which most people don’t. They want to start right out. I like what LaQuan Smith does. He’s so young and making strides in his own way. And I adore what Telfar [Clemens] does on a community level. He’s so innovative, and he’s not arrogant. He’s an artisan who is honing the understanding of putting people together.
LB: Designers are carving out their communities now more than ever. Why do you think that is?
BH: They have platforms on social media where you can see things from around the world. People now are becoming lenient about defining sexuality, genders. They learn to accept. Young kids are not going along with the establishment. They’re sort of deciding there’s another world to live in. It allows people to find and support each other. So many people have voices now. And that’s the difference.
LB: How often do you talk to Naomi Campbell?
BH: That child of mine is very interesting. We’re lucky if we can break it down and say hi once a month. Back in the day it was a lot more. Now she’s on her own two feet, so strong, and she’s determined to change the view of the African continent. So she’s busy. But she does check in and call if she needs something, or to share that someone has done something naughty and that we need to address it.
LB: She calls the Bethann hotline. I know [model] Adut Akech is really close with her now.
BH: A mother role.
LB: Yeah! You’ve got somebody to share Ma duties with.
BH: She has always been the one who would ring my bell when I was lying in a hammock in Mexico drinking tequila and being cool. Naomi would say, “You’ve got to get back here. There’s something going on. This is not good. You need to come.” She was my man on the beat.
LB: What was the first time in the business when you were like, “OK, I have a voice”?
BH: Oh, I never think that. But the first time I noticed something was when I was at Click Models and an editor called to ask a question about [then model] Talisa Soto. She wanted to know where Talisa was from, and I said, “She’s from Puerto Rico.” She said, “No, I’m asking where is she from — what’s her nationality?” I said, “She’s Puerto Rican.” She didn’t want to buy that she was from Puerto Rico, because in her mind, she was so exotic and wonderful. They needed to hear another place. That was when I noticed something.
LB: Your pilot light went on, right?
BH: Yeah, but you don’t know it at the time. When Calvin Klein’s company was calling — and Calvin and I were very close; he’d be so excited to look for a girl of color who really was something — they’d call me to find one. When I’d ask how many girls they were using, they’d say 35. I’d say, “You want me to find you one good, great Black girl?” They’d say yes, and then I’d take a beat and say, “Do you see how racist that sounds?” They would be like, “What do you mean? We thought you’d be happy!” “I am happy, but you’ve got to understand how that looks.” You have to educate. I would say the same thing to Brides magazine. “You do know that black and brown people get married, right?” And they’d go, “Why are you saying that?” Now we’re all conscious, but back then it was so typical. I had a model agency with white, Black, and Asian kids in it. [Photographer] Steven Meisel and I would talk on the phone. He’d say, “I’ve called around for some Asian kids. Do you know you’re the only agency that has anybody Asian?” I said, “Stop it.” He said, “I’m telling you. I’ve called.”
LB: When was this?
BH: The ’80s and early ’90s. I do believe it’s a matter of educating. When I had the first press conference [on the lack of Black models on runways and in fashion pages] at Bryant Park in September 2007, a magazine editor asked me, “Do you really think you can make a difference?” I laughed and said, “Absolutely. I know I can, as I’ve done it before. This will not be hard.” And she said, “How can you be so sure?” I said, “It’s not like I’m going up against the Parliament or Congress. I’m going up against the fashion industry. Do you know how unaware they are?” Due to the need to enforce change, we sent letters out in September 2013. By October people in Paris, London, and Milan had switched [to featuring more models of color]. It’s not about racism. It’s about awareness. The last thing they want to be thought of is racist. It’s ignorance. They have no idea what they are doing is a result of racism.
LB: But yes, “diversity” is the corporate word now.
BH: It’s a corporate topic. The fashion industry is one thing. The model industry, which services the fashion industry, has had success at integration, and when it’s reflected, it helps the magazines, it helps Hollywood, it helps everything. Once you start to see that not everyone’s a certain type, then people get comfortable. The idea of being ourselves — that works.
LB: Right. It becomes a given. In fashion it’s often divided between people who care and people who don’t. The cynical and the open. It’s so old-fashioned in many ways.
BH: You know why? Because we were, respectfully, a tiny elitist island. There were no outsiders. But now it can’t be. Now it’s following popular culture. It’s reversed. Fashion is not elitist anymore.
LB: That’s true and welcomed. And there’s always something to be said for the magic of fashion, though. This issue [of InStyle] is about beauty and wisdom, and I like to ask every woman I respect: What are you ambitious for?
BH: I want to maintain the loves I have and stay as healthy as I can. There are a lot of things to do. I have got to finish my documentary. My literary agent is waiting for my book. But my biggest ambition has always been to lie in a hammock and have a tequila. I’m never going to be more ambitious than to be lazy [laughs], and I think knowing how to be selfish is the most important thing.
Hair: Edris Nichols for Edris Salon. Makeup: Sam Addington for Kramer + Kramer. Styling: Sam Broekema. Photographer: Andreas Laszlo Konrath
For more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Feb. 14.