Black Excellence: Fashion Activist Bethann Hardison

Black Excellence: Fashion Activist Bethann Hardison

From model to activist, Bethann Hardison is the mother of the fashion diversity movement.

From model to activist, Bethann Hardison is the mother of the fashion diversity movement.

Text: Dominique Norman

V Magazine is celebrating the legends who gave us fashion, culture, music and more during Black History Month with the series Black Excellence. The second iteration of the series explores the fashion activism of Bethann Hardison.

Bethann Hardison is a woman who has been making waves since the beginning of her groundbreaking career in fashion.

The Brooklyn native was bound and determined to make herself known in whatever space she entered. In an interview with the New York Times she said “I did not look like anyone else in our industry...I was bohemian and militant in some way”, her short, natural hair and dark skin fit into the Civil Rights Era ethos of “I’m Black and I’m Proud” and Afrocentrism, but not into the ethos of the industry she was in. However, she made her way and became one of the first Black models to walk a European runway.

The show that made history was the Battle of Versailles in 1973. Set at the Palace of Versailles in Paris, the show was put on to raise money for the restoration of the Palace, and promoted as a ‘battle’ between French and American designers, but became legendary for the show’s use of a groundbreaking number of Black models. Hardison was one of eleven models of color representing the American designers. The other iconic models included Pat Cleveland, Billie Blair, Jennifer Brice, Alva Chinn, Norma Jean Darden, Charlene Dash, Barbara Jackson, China Machado, Ramona Saunders, and Amina Warsuma.

Her activism spanned beyond the “Black is Beautiful” movement that started infiltrating the fashion industry. She began modeling in the 1960’s, made history in the 70’s with the Battle of Versailles, then launched her own modeling agency in 1984, Bethann Management, which launched the careers of other notable Black models including Veronica Webb, Roshumba Williams, and Tyson Beckford. She then launched the Black Girls Coalition in 1989, she says in an interview with Paper Magazine “to celebrate the black models who were working in such abundance at that time. It had never happened before in the history of fashion that so many black girls were working on the runways and editorially”. She stepped away from the industry in the 90’s, but was beckoned back after a severe dip in representation of models of color in the late 90's and 2000's. The founder and editor in chief of Paper Magazine Kim Hastreiter said to Bethann after her departure from the industry:  "The reason why these things are changing is because there's no advocacy out there, Bethann. You never realized how important you were. And now you're not here." She swiftly made her return and started shaking things up.

She was named Editor-at-Large for Vogue Italia’s digital platform after creating the magazine’s ground-breaking and highly successful “All Black Issue” in 2008. Five years later, she co-founded the informal organization the Diversity Coalition with Iman and Naomi Campbell and penned a call to action for the fashion industry to not only own up to its decades long racist tendencies, but to step up and do something about it. Hardison was recognized for her iconic career and tireless work with the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Founders Award in  2014. She continues to speak on the issue of diversity in fashion and the future of the industry. She is now in the works of a film, Invisible Beauty, which depicts the story of how we got to the diversity issue in the first place.

Hardison is quoted as saying “To not accept diversity hurts everyone. It hurts the fashion industry. It hurts society.”

Scroll through the images below of the iconic Bethann Hardison.

Credits: images courtesy of getty

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