Bethann Hardison

Having seen the setbacks, struggles and advancements in diversity in the fashion industry since the ’60s, luxury brand consultant and advocate Bethann Hardison offered an optimistic view of the future.

Hardison, in a conversation with WWD executive editor Tara Donaldson, addressed “Diversity: The New Face of Fashion and Beauty” at Fairchild Media Group’s first Diversity Forum. Having been a model and run her own agency, Hardison has championed models of color and greater diversity overall in the fashion industry for decades.

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Today, she said, the industry is at least on the right track.

“People are trying to do their due diligence,” Hardison said. “I think the gatekeepers are sort of open to the idea that there’s a need to incorporate inclusion and diversity in every aspect…I think we might make it out all right.”

Still, the ongoing battle for inclusion, despite progressions and regressions with respect to diversity over the years, boils down to a matter of history, according to Hardison, who believes we could, however, be on track toward more steady advancement.

“The Black and white thing just is what it is,” she said. “There are a lot of young people who don’t even understand there’s a problem. They’re not as close to the journey that we made, or all of the fighting, and all of the marching prior. Right now this is their moment. They don’t want to hear nothing. This is very good in a lot of ways for the young Blacks and the young whites who really want things to change.”

I don’t just believe in Black and white. I want us to have a mixture because that’s really what our modern society should be.

Hopeful that greater inclusion will become a mainstay, Hardison did acknowledge the ebb and flow of change over the years. Following the civil rights movement, there were many Black models and Black designers in the ’70s, as well as Black store executives in the ’80s and ’90s, she said.

“You don’t see that so much now,” she noted. “In 2000, all the models of color went off the runway and out of the magazines.” Because recent years have seen representation ebb and flow, Hardison likened fashion’s path toward greater inclusion to a “roller coaster.”

As for whether we can get off that roller coaster and have a steady ride, she said people of color now have attention in a way they hadn’t enjoyed before, due to George Floyd’s killing under custody of Minneapolis police officers last spring and the ensuing increased focus on the Black Lives Matter movement. The interracial and intergenerational groups that marched in solidarity against racial injustice helped to change things and will continue to, according to Hardison.

One side effect of the movement and the resulting uptick of corporate commitments to improving diversity has been to highlight creatives of color which has, in some ways, served to pigeonhole them by race.

“Being Black is not just a thing because now it’s a thing,” Hardison said referencing a recent conversation she’d had on the topic. Getting inclusion right will be more about the focus on talent and that should include creatives of all colors, without separating them from the mainstream.

[Executives] should sit in their office and have real conversations with Blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos and get to know each other.

With longevity being a priority, Hardison created The Designer Hub with the support of the CFDA to help existing brands establish lasting businesses. As new roles and appointments have been made for people of color, Hardison was asked whether those stepping into those roles are being set up for success or whether their every move is being overly scrutinized. She said she is witnessing something like that now with someone who was given a senior role within the company they work for without even doing an interview.

“They’ve given them the title but they haven’t given them the opportunity,” Hardison said. If those who have been brought on to lead in diversity roles or consult on the topic aren’t adequately supported within the company, then the appointment becomes more about appearances than action, and with the consuming public pushing for authenticity, the half-committed effort will prove unsustainable.

From her standpoint, companies don’t need to hire outside professionals to help educate everyone about diversity. “Leave that person out. [Executives] should sit in their office and have real conversations with Blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos and get to know each other. And don’t be shy and upset when someone says words that we say in our culture to express something. Learn what it means…they need to sit down and get to know each other…Start to learn, vent and just to embrace each other in each other’s culture. We could go so much further.”

Highlighting some of the progress that has been made in the past year, Hardison mentioned Aurora James’ 15 Percent Pledge (which calls on retailers to dedicate 15 percent of shelf space to majority Black-owned businesses), the Black in Fashion Council, the CFDA’s Impact directory for job candidates (“so that whites can stop thinking, ‘Well, I don’t know anyone Black to hire,’” according to Hardison) and her CFDA-supported Designers Hub.

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“These are the kinds of things that are happening and are going to help make everything better,” she said. “But [what is] more important than anything is communication among us. And I still believe in integration. I don’t just believe in Black and white. I want us to have a mixture because that’s really what our modern society should be.”

Imagining that modern society and the ideal fashion industry within it, Hardison said, “I hope that everyone finds their success, and that everyone that is of color is finding it is a place that they can achieve and be successful.”

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