The fashion industry has changed dramatically since model-turned-lawyer Bethann Hardison debuted at a Garment District button factory. As part of ELLE’s take on the future of fashion, she shares her take on current struggles in the industry and how she has personally effected change over the decades.
When did you decide to quit modeling and get involved in activism?
First of all, I am not an activist. People say that, but I’m an advocate and it’s a little different. I have had moments of activism, for sure, but as I like to say, “an activist must stay active”. When I left modeling it was just because I felt I had done it and the time was up. I was tired of entertaining the crowd, so it was just like “Next!” I walked down the trail and saw Polly Mellen sitting in the front row screaming my name, and then I knew I didn’t want to do that anymore. Easy.
I grew up in the clothing business so I always had a full time job. I was a runway model, but I had other things that I did. I had just opened a showroom that represented Valentino and other Italian brands from this factory in Como. I had worked with Valentino at that time in Rome and so they were the ones who said at the factory, “OK, you are working with her in New York and we will license you on our swimsuits. I never wanted to have a modeling agency, but people convinced me that was what I had to do. Initially, I was going to partner with a French girl, but she picked me up at the last minute, so I knew I had to do it myself, but I didn’t have a potty to piss. But everything worked out.
How? ‘Or’ What?
One of my top models at the time that I represented at Click and always believed in myself, a white girl, she just made sure she got the money and all the models said, “No no no we don’t need paid first. We’ll take the hit. And it worked great between 1984 and 1996 when I decided I couldn’t do it anymore. It was hard to do because that it was a success, and we were doing good things that made a difference. It was a white agency with black kids, Asian kids, and Latino kids. It wasn’t a black model agency, but she had a black owner.
Were the conversations you had with industry then regarding representation different from what you have now, from a model or designer perspective?
Each industry has its exclusions. Fashion, television, you name it. It’s all about references: what did you do and who did you do it for? Everyone is afraid of risking something new, like a retailer taking a chance on a relatively unknown designer. It’s like in Roman times, it’s not unusual. There are stores willing to take risks but I just wish people had more history. A lot of people don’t know this because they’re new to it.
Back then, when I was getting into the 1970s, we didn’t have that frustration that seems to be creeping into the industry. First, the Garment District is a whole different thing from the fashion industry. The fashion industry is a glamorous entity that people seem to have put their panties on in a twist. It was organic: people came, designers came, everything started to prepare. We haven’t felt the feeling that we are now. People started to come out and become entities. It became a community of people who designed, white, black, etc. We kind of came and if you had style and creativity you stood out. It is unfortunate that our industry has fully developed with so many inhabitants. It used to be a very small elitist island that nobody cared about, and the island itself didn’t invite many people because it was very exclusive in the sense that the creators didn’t even have outsiders. at their fashion shows. There was a fear of copying lines and everything was very private. No one cared about being in the industry or going to fashion shows and one day that changed. And once that changed, everything started to change.
What caused this?
I don’t know but all of a sudden the designers started inviting celebrities to the catwalks. Believe me, I’m telling you, it’s never been like this before. A few people here, a few people there, and the outside world started to be invited. Next thing you know, popular culture started to run the show. All of a sudden we had things called bloggers, I didn’t even know how to spell it. Suddenly they are in front of you. Major retailers and publishers can’t even see the girl’s shoe walking the runway.
So now with all these people wanting to be on the inside, they’re starting to dictate a little bit. When you say that I have been fighting for diversity and inclusion in our industry for so long, that is not true. A lot of people think that, but what I did – and I believe I’m a revolutionary because of the way I functioned – I think you basically have a calling and at some point you just call things along the way, but you don’t start doing this before time.
What was that time for you?
My modeling agency started in 1984 at TriBeCa on North Moore Street and because of who I was and all the designers who knew me and what I stood for they were all very happy to support my agency. But I had a good agency, good talent and a good eye. At this point, all of the big designers like Calvin Klein were only using runway girls because they were the ones serving this segment of the industry. But Calvin, being the great marketer that he is, decided he wanted to put the print girl on the runway so that editors could already see the editorial. So the girls who went [the Battle of] Versailles, like me, Billie and Pat, these girls began to be replaced by printers. They had never walked, had never done a fashion show before, but this was the image he wanted to see. As different as designers may be in their work, they all pretty much follow the yellow brick route. So it has become the trend.
And so there weren’t a lot of girls printed in black. Black runway models yes, but no print girls, that’s when the image started to change from what you see on the runway. And it wasn’t just Calvin, it was Perry Ellis, Donna Karan, all of them. And so I started getting calls from them, “We need you to find us a black girl, Bethann, we need a great black girl.” And then I would say things like, OK, how many girls do you use? And they’d say 35. And I’d say, OK, you want a black girl? I was very good at turning the situation around, at making them see how great this sounds. I’ve always known the playground. So when, say, The newlyweds would call to book Catherine, one of my best daughters and a white brunette, I would say, “Let me ask you something.” Do you realize that black people get married too? And they were often baffled, because race was not something easy to discuss, but people have to be educated.
Several people I interviewed said they just wanted to be recognized for being a great designer, not a great black designer. What is your opinion?
Look, I don’t want the President of the United States to be called the black president. We have always been distinguished as Black but we didn’t have to wear it. There was a feature in the New York Times where the fashion editor called us “those black stallions” and we were proud of it. Then Newsweek made a story about how successful so many black models were, but when it came back to the black designers, if there was a bunch of them covered, they would come back to them and say they couldn’t say it was a group of black designers. Designers didn’t design thinking they were black designers, they just designed because everyone was equal back then. Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, Halston, everyone was sort of in the same culture. But that didn’t mean the press wouldn’t denounce our color, they could and we never offended them, but nobody wanted to be known and seen as a “black designer” – what is that mean? People would be aware of how they were using it and when they were using it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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