As a model, activist, agent, consultant, documentarian and unofficial historian, Bethann Hardison’s take on 50-plus years in fashion is layered to say the least.
She sliced and diced much of her career in a lengthy Q&A with Fern Mallis Thursday night at 92Y. Speaking baldly, as she often does, Hardison not only entertained the crowd, but also gave them context about racial consciousness, political correctness and other debates the industry is facing.
After being a pioneering model in New York, Hardison worked as a modeling agent for Click before starting her own agency Bethann Management in 1984. She started the Black Girls Coalition to celebrate black models in the late Eighties and led town hall-type discussions a decade later in response to the lack of diversity on American designers’ runways. More recently, Gucci recruited Hardison for her insights, after the luxury house was criticized for a balaclava sweater that some found racially offensive. Still at work on a documentary and a book, the New Yorker is now focused on helping established young designers develop their businesses.
All in all, Hardison said her life has followed an organic path. “There is nothing that I have ever wanted to do. The only thing that I have ever said that I wanted to do was to lay in a hammock. I’ve never had any ambitions. It’s always been what comes in front of my feet,” she said.
That might be underplaying her industrywide efforts, but Hardison thinks collectively, as opposed to playing favorites. Asked about the groundswell of black designers at the forefront of fashion today such as Kerby Jean-Raymond, Virgil Abloh, Heron Preston, LaQuan Smith and Romeo Hunte, Hardison said, “Look, I think there are many more people that we probably don’t know their names yet. The important thing is for their companies to become strong. That’s my objective right now to help design companies to have a good business. When people say, ‘Where are they?’ They think we’re supposed to be in a clubhouse. There’s a whole bunch of them. That really gets me a little annoyed. The fact is there are designers out there. It’s not an easy business for anybody…We can’t be judged by someone who is very successful and gets to represent a luxury brand compared to the guy who is trying to make sure his business doesn’t go out the back door.”
After referencing Patrick Robinson, Tracy Reese and Ozwald Boateng’s plans to show in New York next month, Mallis noted how Hardison is helping to cultivate the CFDA’s next wave of black designers, to which Hardison replied she is not into labels. “I just like designers. And if you look at them they’re black,” she said. “Black designers sounds like it’s a cult or a rash.”
Recalling a recent interview she did for BBC Radio 4 about the state of fashion and black designers, Hardison said: “This always pisses me off. This is not an easy thing to be a designer. Period. But it is not easier for someone of color to be a designer. And what it takes to be that,” she said.
As for Gucci’s recent kerfuffle, Hardison said, “Definitely not, it’s not racist. Too many people were offended by it. Many people saw it as alleged to be looking like black face. That’s how someone sees something and feels something. That’s fair. Was it the intent of the person making it, saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to go out there and make some racist thing for people.’ No, nobody’s doing that. No intent of any design company is trying to do that….If you present something in a way, somebody may not have thought of it that way, but if you present it that way, it is. It’s the same thing that happened with Burberry with Riccardo Tisci’s rope necklace. But for many people, it indicated suicide or lynching. I didn’t see it that way. A lot of my friends didn’t see it that way…”
Her point of view was developed through decades on the fashion scene, but getting there was a circuitous route. The way she told it she failed at NYU’s art school, but her professors gave her Ds to pass because they liked her. “I was so bad. I didn’t know how to draw. I didn’t know anything. Then they made me go to the Art Students League on 57th Street to draw the nude people. It was a mess.”
That led to a two-year diploma-less run at the Fashion Institute of Technology for merchandising. Around that time she had sex for the first time and got pregnant. “That was a pretty awful situation,” she said, recalling her family’s disappointment and the odds of that happening. “I always loved boys and I always had a boyfriend since I was seven years old.” Staring down the laughing crowd, she said, ‘You all are slow if you didn’t have a boyfriend at seven. You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Her mother and grandmother looked after her son for the first nine years of his life. Kadeem Hardison is an actor, who broke out as the character Dwayne Wayne in the sitcom “A Different World” and has since appeared in “Love Is_,” Showtime’s “Black Monday,” and he has a role in a new Lee Daniels-made pilot. His mother’s résumé includes posts at a telephone company, a prison and a hand-painted button factory. Fascinated by law enforcement, Hardison said she was the youngest corrections officer to be appointed at a New York state prison — the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. After taking the test at 19, being appointed at 20 and starting at 21, Hardison said working in the reformatory where people were her age was “scary. I had to act tough because they would challenge you.”
She later switched tracks to work in the Garment District, where pioneering African-American designer Willi Smith spotted her in the neighborhood, admired her style and arranged for her to visit him in his showroom. Presuming she was a designer, he asked her if he would design for his company and after learning that wasn’t her line of work, he asked her to model. But Hardison credited Federated’s Bernie Ozer, a theater-loving executive who liked to orchestrate grand shows, for giving her a big break. Delivering a Ruth Manchester junior dress to him one afternoon, she boldly said, “If you really want to have a great show, you’ll have me in it.”
A proven child tap dancer, she knew she could perform in a way others could not. “When you tap, you have to wow the crowd,” she said. ”Because of child labor laws, Duke Baldwin used to have these big shows that he would put on at night. My mother had to wake me up. I found two other girls my age to tap with me. You couldn’t get paid so they would throw us money. We had to collect it off the floor. It would be 10, 11, 12 o’clock at night and then the next day I would have to go to school. It was mad cool.”
Later in life when she teamed up with Smith, she worked as a muse and his assistant. Testimony to his influence on fashion, an exhibition about his work will be staged at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in February 2020. “Streetwear is a tricky word right now. When you’re old like I am, you resent hearing these words [credited to today’s designers.] If anyone really, truly created streetwear, it was Willi Smith. The reason we called it streetwear was because whenever you were out on the street you always saw people in WilliWear. So it became streetwear,” Hardison said.
Hardison introduced him to Jean-Michel Basquiat at the artist’s gallery, and over time Smith bought six paintings from him. Having eyed another small painting for herself, Hardison recalled how she mistakenly thought Basquiat was going to give it to her, when he said he wanted to bring her something. Instead, it was a loaf-size block of marijuana. Hardison said she told the artist, “’Jean-Michel, Jesus Christ, this will take me a lifetime to smoke.’ He said, ‘So, we’re good then, huh?’ It took me a lifetime.”
Hardison turned to another rising talent for her modeling test shots — Bruce Weber. Unlike other models, Hardison’s modeling was a side gig, as she always had another full-time job. Working for Stephen Burrows, for example, she was his assistant, ran the design studio and fit the clothes, but she also had the freedom to model. She joined Burrows in the “Battle of Versailles” in 1973, when leading American designers squared off with their French counterparts. The photographer Bill Cunningham and fashion editor Marylou Luther were the only other gung-ho Americans who made the trip. Describing how Halston repeatedly urged her on, Hardison said she knew she was ready, but she didn’t let on. “I defied everybody in that entire audience. I really let them know that we are here to take this because we have been put down so much. The American designers were nothing. Who were they to come over to Paris?” she said.
She added how the applause and foot stomping that ensued were comparable to a cap-throwing Naval Academy graduation at Annapolis. Another celebration worth noting was Hardison acting as Iman’s maid of honor when she wed David Bowie in Florence. Considerably more intimate than Versailles, that consisted of a party of four.
Through Bethann Management, the founder worked with Raquel Welch’s daughter Tahnee, Angela Alvarado, Bonnie Berman, the model known as “Mariama” and other talent. In the 13 years that followed, Roshumba Williams, Veronica Webb and Tyson Beckford joined her agency. Elle’s founder Regis Pagniez earned her praise for diversifying the models featured in the magazine. “That made Vogue and any other competition catch up with what he was doing,” Hardison said, adding that helped prompt her to start the Black Girls Coalition.
When models of color had “disappeared” from the runways in 1997, Naomi Campbell got Hardison out of her hammock in Mexico to come back to New York to try to do something about it. That shift was driven by the rise of casting directors, stylists and increased scouting in Eastern Europe, Hardison said. “The Eastern European girl was the flavor of the time. They had the silhouette of what we sketch as models. They are narrow-hipped, elongated and hardworking. It was just the time. There was no guard. If you have no moral compass of somebody saying something, it just changes and all of a sudden you’re in the middle of the change.”
Regarding her legacy, Hardison preferred to define what it wouldn’t be. She said, “As long as it doesn’t say, ‘There lies Bethann who had a modeling agency.’”
Hardison added, “I never thought I was contributing to a movement. I’ve always thought when things are happening, that we are the movement. So I think we are creating a revolution and are contributing to something. I’m the person who pricks the bear. I’m the one who starts it. So I never think I’m contributing to it because I am it.”