Bethann Hardison Invisible Beauty film
Bethann Hardison’s documentary film, Invisible Beauty is showing at the Tribeca Film Festival next week and Londoners will get their turn in July.
It promises to be a fantastic treat as she has codirected the film with Frédéric Tcheng (of Halston and Dior and I fame). If you haven’t heard of Hardison, she’s an ex-model and fashion advocate, perhaps best known for starting the Black Girl’s Coalition, celebrating and promoting Black models.
In the last couple of years, she’s become an even bigger figurehead for diversity and inclusion in the fashion industry. But for creatives, she’s also known for her tomboyish style as the muse for New York designer Willi Smith and assistant to Stephen Burrows. On September 7th, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art in Brooklyn will open an exhibition dedicated to her.
For a little more back story on Bethann, here’s the extended version of my interview with her from my 2021 book, Face Values*.
Growing up, there was no such thing as fashion for me. The first magazine I laid eyes on at the age of 9, that I really needed to have, was Seventeen magazine. Mostly because of this blonde girl with big blue eyes, Carol Lynley. She was the first model that I found so beautiful, so I used to follow her – she used to be on every cover of Seventeen. But that was still nothing to do with fashion, that was just a lifestyle magazine.
I was always interested in how clothes are made and how they get out to people. I went to the garment district and wound up getting a job at a custom button factory called Cabot. I came dressed well, like you do when you go for an interview and he thought I was dressed way too well. He told me he’d hire me, but to tone it down. Even when I toned it down he said, you’re not toned down enough! So, he decided to send me out to deliver the buttons and go back and forth between the design companies, the designers and our office. So that was my every day, walking round the garment district, running into beautiful models. We had a Black model named Helen Williams. Back then models had to bring their own accessories – stockings, shoes – she was carrying a heavy bag and I knew it was her. I was so smitten, I went after her and said, “can I please help you?” She looked at me, she said, “oh my dear, can you?”
I stayed in the garment business and went into low-end dresses. That’s where I learnt everything. Then I went to a junior dress company where my Jewish women mentors put me in the showroom. You never saw anyone Black showing you the line, so they put me in the showroom and taught me how to do that. And then the designer Willi Smith discovered me. He thought I was a designer because he’d seen me in the garment district, so he had someone find out who I was and had a meeting with me. I became his muse. Every time he saw me, he liked what I was wearing. I was very thin, but also many people in the garment business would say, “how you doing Willi?” They thought I was Willi!
I always had a full-time job as I modelled, and Willi asked me if I would consider working with him from time to time, because he oftentimes got calls to show his collection somewhere. I went to my mentor ladies, my family, and they were so excited. Anything that happened to me, it was so exciting. They said yes to everything, “oh yes of course!”
My first runway show was for a merchandising executive called Bernie Ozer. He used to do a very big Broadway-type show and I went to deliver the dresses. I went up to Bernie and said; “you know if you want to have a great show, you’d have me in it!” That took courage but also desire. The man looked at me and said, “who are you? Where are you from?” I said, “Bethann. I’m from Ruth Manchester.” He said, “OK, thank you”. By the time I go to my office, my Jewish ladies, they were so excited. “Bernie wants you to be in his shows. He just called us!”
Runway models serviced the entire industry when it came down to designers. So they could be fitting models, girls who dressed in the showroom, presenting. You could hire a girl to show clothes to a buyer or editors. They were not the print girls. Print girls were girls who only worked for editorial, catalogue, advertising – they were not runway models. But Calvin Klein who was a great marketer, woke up one day and decided to put the print girl on the runway in his clothes, so that the editor had the full vision of how it should be. So him doing that is how it began with the fashion model. The girl who was the runway model eventually became eliminated because suddenly everybody started to use these girls.
Runway girls at that time were white girls, a couple of Asian girls and definitely numerous girls of colour. I created the Black Girls Coalition in the late 80s to celebrate so many models of colour beginning to work. That was the great move of Regis Paginez, who was sent to New York from French Elle’s publishing company Filipacchi, to start American Elle. And thank God because he just saw girls that he liked, and they were of colour. Conde Nast and Hearst, they never had any girls [of colour] inside the magazines. But when he started doing it, it pushed them, because Elle became one of the most successful magazines. So those girls started to work more. I was a model agency owner by then and because I was a Black owner too, I related.
In the end, some of the girls started working with different modelling agencies, so I wanted to celebrate it while at the same time I wanted to find a way to benefit the homelessness that was going on in my city. Homelessness was really running rampant in the 80s, and children were double victimised because their families fell into homelessness. So I wanted to find an organisation that was supporting these people and children specifically and to see what we could do. I used that as my excuse to get the girls together, because women in general aren’t known for supporting each other. But we eventually had to go up against the advertising industry, because they were not reflecting their consumer. You never saw anyone Black drive a car. Any time you saw anybody of colour was if they were doing something domestic – washing detergent or something. That was towards the end of the coalition activities and meanwhile they were just beautiful girls, we were celebrating them and also teaching them how to use their celebrity in a very smart way.
By 1996, once I’d closed my model agency and moved to Mexico, the models of colour disappeared. Eastern Europe started to open up and casting directors wanted to have nondescript girls who all looked alike. Ten years went by and I did my first press conference, to defy the notion that that was alright. It had to stop because we had already climbed that hill. In 2007 Franca Sozzani published the all-Black issue of Italian Vogue, which helped change the perception of the girl of colour.
Now these girls are working, they’re all shades, all colours. But the real objective was to see how I could affect society’s visual subliminally mental mind, because that was my remit, something that I knew well, that industry. People would instead notice colour as being very normal, because once you start seeing it, it doesn’t seem such an odd thing. Now the only thing left to do, is to get more people that can do the job behind the scenes as well.
Tickets for Invisible Beauty in New York are available here and in London (on 7th and 8th July) are available here.
WORDS: Disneyrollergirl / Navaz Batliwalla
IMAGE: Bethann Hardison
NOTE: Most images are digitally enhanced. Some posts use affiliate links* and PR samples. Please read my privacy and cookies policy here
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