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Q&A: Bethann Hardison’s Crusade for Diversity in Fashion

Hardison, who will receive a Frederick Douglass Award Thursday night, has been championing African-American models for the better part of her life.

NEW YORK — Honored as she is to receive a Frederick Douglass Award Thursday night, Bethann Hardison is very much centered on what has yet to be done in her crusade for diversity in fashion.

First as a breakout model in the Sixties and later as a modeling agency owner, Hardison has been championing African-American models for the better part of her life. In 2007, when the New York runways looked too Caucasian to ignore, Hardison organized town hall-type discussions, and she is now gearing up for a more multimedia initiative that she declined to spell out. Beyond getting designers, modeling agents, stylists and casting directors to be accountable for their actions, or lack thereof, Hardison wants them to realize how their ad campaigns and runway shows register with the public at large. “Every so often if you shout out and shout them out, something will happen,” she said.

As was the case with the Black Girls Coalition, which she started in 1989 for models such as Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks, Hardison strives for a greater common good, not just diversity. Disheartened by the politics and dealmaking that goes on with stylists and casting directors, Hardison said designers’ opinions get muted. “That’s why designers don’t have muses anymore. They used to be in bed together, now they have a guy in between them,” she said.

The activist and documentarian chatted with WWD Tuesday from her upstate country home.

WWD: Does this award make you think of what you need to do or at what you’ve done?
Bethann Hardison:
After seeing the numbers from the 2013 February shows — 9 percent Asian, 6 percent black, 2 percent Latin, 0.3 percent other and 82.7 percent white — that’s when I knew I had to get back out there. When the agencies told me how political it has become, I thought, “What have you all sucked into?” We are absolutely in some sort of trouble. That’s not people of color — that’s we the people as a nucleus are in trouble. They don’t understand the effect. They’re not conscious of that because they’re just doing fashion.

WWD: Looking back, was there something you experienced that makes you think of this honor as, “Wow, this is pretty great”?
B.H.:
Now that brings emotion. Chester Weinberg was the first Seventh Avenue designer who recognized I had the right look, which was completely out of line from what everybody else was doing. When he sent me out, the audience kind of became rowdy. Then it was just models in showrooms with numbers. By the second time, I didn’t think I could do it. I could feel how uncomfortable the audience was. I had three outfits. He kept telling me how beautiful I was. That took a lot of courage.

WWD: How did you use defiance to your advantage?
B.H.:
Everyone loved the way I walked. After Versailles, Bill Cunningham said, “It was like Watts was in the house.”

WWD: What’s the end game?
B.H.:
Iman told me, “You’re the only person who doesn’t get anything out of this. Why do you do this? You’re not a model, so you’re not going to get more work. You’re not an agency, so you’re not going to get more money.” I can’t be comfortable knowing these things happen. You don’t have that many people in the world of quote-unquote fashion that care to make anything different.

WWD: What prompted the BGC?
B.H.:
I didn’t start it to talk about race per se, but I was celebrating the black girl. Never in the history of our entirety had there been that many black girls in editorial, catalogue, advertising ever. Believe it or not, that has never happened again.

WWD: How will your diversity efforts change?
B.H.:
Now we have to be louder. You have to use the Internet and go viral. You have to wear your advertising. Make videos. Get wonderful directors to film a bunch of girls saying what they feel. You have to send out letters to alert the councils of fashion as well as the news media — beyond fashion.

WWD: With four homes, how do you free yourself from work to use them?
B.H.:
I definitely know I will not continue to sit still and grow old saying, ‘You girls and boys, you just figure it all out.’ I think I will always have my hand in the glove or my thumb in the pudding.”