Bethann Hardison has been making fashion headlines since at least 1973, the year she walked in Le Grand Divertissement à Versailles, a runway show that pitted American fashion designers against French ones. (The Americans won, thanks in large part to the prowess of Hardison and her fellow catwalkers Pat Cleveland and Alva Chinn.)
These days the model-turned-model agent-turned industry legend is in the news for her advocacy. Hardison’s cause: diversity on the runways. Last September, the Diversity Coalition she founded published an open letter to the fashion councils in New York, London, Milan, and Paris that called to task designers who used no or very few models of color in their fashion shows.
“At some point you think your industry has flatlined, that it’s not interesting anymore. That fashion shows are just run-of-the-mill,” Hardison says. “I don’t go to them anymore, I’d rather clean out my closet. My doing this was going to be something that puts a little excitement into our industry again. It may be a point of education, it may be a prickly subject. But I thought it would ignite some energy, and that’s really why I did it.” The results of the Coalition’s open letter were fairly instantaneous. You saw more models of color not only on the Spring 2014 runways, but also in advertising. That said, there’s still quite a ways to go. “It’s a permanency that you’re trying to effect,” Hardison says. On the eve of the CFDA Awards, where she’ll pick up the Founder’s Award, she reflects on her long career in fashion. She’s as outspoken as ever.
~ Nicole Phelps
How did it feel when you heard you would receive the Founder’s Award?
As soon as Diane [von Furstenberg] said, “Bethann, you’ve been given the Founder’s Award, darling,” I just started to cry. I was stunned. I kept thinking of the word revolution. People say, “Oh, come on, you couldn’t have been that surprised.” But why would I ever think [I’d get an award]? You don’t think there’s an award for this. What I’m doing has nothing to do with making something look nice.
You’ve been advocating for diversity on the runway for years now. Do you remember why you got started?
Kim Hastreiter [the editor in chief of Paper magazine] took me out to dinner. She said there was no diversity on the runways anymore, and she blamed me because I was no longer in the industry. I was living in Mexico at the time, and I really didn’t like hearing that because it sounded like, “Oh, Lord, now I gotta come back and do something.” That’s when Naomi [Campbell, who calls Hardison “Ma”] started calling me. “You gotta do something,” she said. There are no models [of color] around. From the end of 2004 to 2007, I said I was going to do something, but it took me a while.
What pushed you to do it?
By 2007 the agencies were saying, “No blacks, no ethnics.” Casting directors. Who are they? They didn’t exist before. Here and now, they have the power to say that and designers are following their lead because they’re happy to have someone else do the work. In the world I come from, the designer’s team did all that. I realized it was time [to do something]. We held a press conference, and it was great. Later that year, the curator at the New York Public Library wanted us to do a panel there; we did and it was sold out. The New York Times picked it up, WWD was giving it the front page. It’s a theme that can shake up things, to say, “Is fashion racist?” It did change things. If nothing more, no one has ever said after that: “No blacks, no ethnics.” That ended. And right after that came the Black Issue from Italian Vogue. The powers that be began to recognize the issue.
When did you launch the Diversity Coalition?
The beginning of 2013. I call them the secret society. They have jobs in the good places and they don’t like what they see. They’re white, they’re black, they’re Hawaiian, they’re Asian, they’re men, they’re women, they’re short, they’re tall, they’re all sizes. The point is: There was frustration. We did one big, long conference call. Then I just wrote up the letter in Mexico. I didn’t think of it as trying to shame anyone. I wanted people to adjust their thinking because racism affects society as a whole.
And what was the response like?
People started adjusting right away. I’m sure that the majority of designers in New York voted for Obama; they sure didn’t vote for the other guy. So they’re not racist or consciously trying to keep people back. It’s just we need to adjust what we do. People are looking in on fashion. Before, it was a little, tiny island that no one could see. We need to step it up.
So would you say you’re happy with the changes you’ve seen?
I am happy. You know, the one that impressed me the most is Jil Sander. This is someone who never cast models of color. When I saw that she had one black girl who was so dark, a beautiful girl, I was more impressed with that than Armani having five [models of color] and whatever Miuccia Prada did. I really appreciate Miuccia, I think she leads the designer way. She shut it down, and she had the opportunity to open it up again. Do you know what I mean when I say that?
Years ago, when Miuccia Prada decided to get rid of the supermodel, that ended anything that was distracting on her runway, including the person of color. Everybody followed. That eliminated [the likes of] Linda Evangelista. Little by little, though, Miuccia started to bring in a couple of girls of color.
Who leads the way?
Designers like to think they’re individual, but they’re not. They’re part of a village. She really switched it up by putting Malaika Firth in that beautiful tweed coat in that ad. That was groundbreaking. That’s advertising. That’s rare. Gucci was doing it with Joan Smalls. And Burberry was doing it with Jourdan Dunn. But to have Malaika—I really give Miuccia a lot of credit for changing how we see things. I do give her the credit. You see more girls of color in advertising than ever before.
So the runway and advertising are two different fights, in a way?
The agents get annoyed that I don’t say more about advertising. But the runway is the first thing everyone sees. It’s the beginning, it’s the birth. The runway is the moment for the fashion model to be introduced, to be recognized. It’s like a cotillion. Until that happens, there is no advertising. She has to be introduced; a designer has to take that moment, that interest, and say, “Let me show you.”
That was the genius of Mr. Saint Laurent. To go to Yves’ show, he had his cabine of girls. Zac Posen is very similar in that mentality. There are certain girls who were always going to be there with Yves. And he didn’t mind taking one who everybody thought was over. I’d go to Yves, “Where did you find her?” She wasn’t even attractive, but she was attractive.
Any other shifts worth discussing?
Céline. Because they took a tough beating from our observation. And I like that girl Phoebe [Philo]. She’s cool. Every kid who’s got $4 wants a Céline bag. And yet, never any representation of anything that isn’t Caucasian. Come on! Then all of a sudden that season, I know it was a conscious effort. Phoebe picking Binx [Walton] for advertising is one thing. And the Saint Laurent designer, Hedi Slimane, is another. He never had any models of color, but after the letters went out, they had Issa [Lish], the Mexican girl, and Binx. There’s a subliminal thing that happens. It’s a switch. Now it’s like—an editor said, “You know, it’s kind of cool now; you’re not hip if you don’t have a person of color in your advertising.” It’s not about trying to raise up a race. It’s about improving the majority, not trying to support the minority. That’s what it’s about for me.
Do you worry that the recent increase in women of color on the runways and in advertising is just a trend?
Yeah, I worry. Definitely. It can’t be. A young designer asked me, “I want to ask you something: Who do you think you’ll hand off this project to?” I think about it. I said, “There’s no one.” I have to leave it to the whole industry. There’s no individual. There’s no Fidel Castro. You need a team, an army.
What comes after the award?
I wish I was that strategic. The most important thing is, I hope that no one thinks, Well, I hope she’s satisfied. This is not my career; this is a philosophy I have that I’m trying to share. The thing I want is that people feel responsible, conscious.
I’m not going to stop counting. We’re going to call it like we see it. I was nice last season. I wanted to really slam casting directors and stylists, but I didn’t. They are the perpetrators; they really don’t understand the responsibility they have. And for those who’ve changed their thinking? Good—now stay there. It’s a responsibility. The history of our country is different than other peoples’ history. This country wasn’t changed because some strong black people changed it. It was some strong white people. Martin Luther King wasn’t just with his black buds. It was a white Jewish guy who was his best guy. The people who changed this country looked like you and me. Not me. That’s what I hope comes of this award, because I don’t know if it’s gonna get me another casting job. [laughs] I don’t know what this can get me as a gig. If it can penetrate the minds of others, that’s what I hope this award does.
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