Bethann Hardison Talks "Invisible Beauty" and Racism on the Runway
Nearly five years ago, in New York City, fashion-industry luminaries congregated at Central Park. The special occasion was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ralph Lauren. Surrounded by porcelain-tile and sandstone pillars, Lauren received a standing ovation from the world's most famous celebrities: Oprah Winfrey, Robert De Niro, Steven Spielberg, Anna Wintour, Kanye West. One by one, he thanked guests who had formed a line in Bethesda Terrace, shaking hands, smiling, waving, and lightly kissing people on the cheek. Then he saw a gray-haired woman dressed in black near the end of the line. As they embraced, Lauren immediately began to cry while she held his face. That woman was Bethann Hardison, and she is no stranger to the emotion people display at the thought of her impact.
"The advertisers were not reflecting their consumers. . . . And that's what we had to change."
From Veronica Webb to Tyson Beckford, Hardison has left people better than she found them, catapulting them not only into new stratospheres of success but arming them with instruction on how to withstand it all. A former creative producer, muse, creative director, and contributing editor at large for Vogue Black, Hardison wields extraordinary power in the fashion industry — and she's sharing her story in "Invisible Beauty," a documentary that chronicles her relentless advocacy for Black models alongside a star-studded cast. Zendaya, Tracee Ellis Ross, Whoopi Goldberg, Naomi Campbell, and Iman all feature in the documentary. In tandem, viewers get the opportunity to learn the vastness of Hardison's influence.
Aside from her eminent rise as a high-fashion model, "Invisible Beauty" captures an immersive view of the Black Girls Coalition circa 1992. The New York press conference held by Hardison became a whistleblower where top models Tyra Banks, Iman, and Campbell spoke candidly about racism in the modeling and advertising industry. "The advertisers were not reflecting their consumers," Hardison recently told POPSUGAR. "And I could speak on that. [We got data] to indicate to the media that this was happening, this was a problem, they weren't reflecting the consumers. You never saw a Black guy or Black girl driving a car. In those days, the mid-'90s, you didn't see any of that. It was important that [the Black talent] is not always a housekeeper or domestic because she's [promoting] Comet or Ajax. And that's what we had to change." The impact of the Black Girls Coalition is deeply felt in representation in media today, and Hardison doesn't take it lightly. "I look every day at television, I take pride in that. We've moved that very well." In 2007, Hardison organized a town hall meeting among industry leaders, sounding the alarm that Black models were being treated like a category within the fashion industry. "When I say category, it means that you say, 'Oh, the Black model.' Or, 'Yeah, we're not using Black models,'" Hardison explained. "It becomes a category: something that you can move over here, something different than what you have over there. And they're supposed to be just models."
Undoubtedly, Hardison has repeatedly held the industry accountable for tokenism, and she doesn't mince words regarding pay disparity, either. "You could see it so clearly when you had the white model who was always making [a large amount of money] and then you put your Black model in the same job," Hardison said. "She got far less money; the white model got more. And you have to try to make sense of it."
"Invisible Beauty" is available in select theaters across the nation for a limited time. Keep scrolling to read more of Hardison's interview with POPSUGAR.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On the Title "Invisible Beauty"
POPSUGAR: Your documentary is called "Invisible Beauty," but some publications reported that you don't like the word "beauty." Why is that?
Bethann Hardison: I like the word "beauty." It's just that when people say, "What do you think about beauty? Describe beauty to me," that always throws me for a hook. They start bringing race into it, and I get a little confused with that. I'm not very good at answering it.
One writer said, "Well, you named your film 'Invisible Beauty.'" Yes, but there was a reason for that. That was pertinent to the fact of what was going on in the industry.
Another writer asked me, "Did this come off of Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man?'" I said, "I really feel it did." Because the girl was disappearing, and invisible beauty just made sense to me.
PS: In the film, when you spoke about image makers [media professionals], you mentioned them only building from an image that they created. Did you have to unlearn anything about images you had learned growing up? How did you unlearn what you saw around you?
BH: I didn't want to unlearn anything. I was a happy mother. I was a good kid. I listen to people your age saying they didn't have any example of themselves. They didn't see themselves. I didn't need to see myself. My neighborhood was myself. I didn't seem to not feel steady on the ground.
On Her Eye For Spotting Talent
PS: People talk about your eye for spotting talent. What were you looking for?
BH: I know that I have an eye. Steven Meisel was the first person that told me that I had a great eye. But my office — the way I ran things — was different. I had no pictures of models on my wall. I had a huge 14-square-foot loft space. You walked in, you could've been anywhere. It could have been an auto shop. You never knew it was a modeling agency. But I also really had this eye. I could see the girl or the guy [and decide if] I wanted to represent them. I could see that I could maybe sell it to somebody.
I don't know if I had to develop the eye. I just think that I have a way of seeing things. Frédéric [Tcheng], my codirector, said, "She doesn't have an eye just for fashion or for models. Her eye [is for] how she sees the trailer, how she hears music."
PS: Tell us about the story behind you signing Tyson Beckford. Did hip-hop play a pivotal role in making that happen?
BH: No; I think I understand where you're coming from with that, though. It's just the fact that at that time, the b-boys were out there. And hip-hop was existing. And a young man like Tyson comes from the street, he represents that. He just happened to look different than maybe some of the [models Lauren was working with]. So what was really important is that once he was signed to Ralph Lauren, the shirt [he wore] sold out because he represented who the boys on the street were. So that helped to make Ralph see, like, "Whoa." He already knew he liked the guy. He already had the kid in his advertising. But that's what made them offer a contract.
PS: How long did it take for you to land it?
BH: Less than a year.
On Working With Valentino and Issey Miyake
PS: You were also creative directing and producing. And I read that you designed swimsuits. How exactly did you begin to branch out the way that you did?
BH: I'd worked for Valentino for a while — and it just so happened that the manufacturer of Valentino swimsuits wanted to be able to set up a showroom and represent all of the brands that he manufactured there. And Giancarlo Giammetti [cofounder of Valentino] told him, "I'll let you do it if you hire the young woman," meaning me.
I had to go to Como one time, and I saw this line that said Ibiza. And I remember I had gone to Ibiza a few times and I had a great time there. So I made a line of Ibiza[-inspired] swimwear. If I had the sketches, he would have his factory make them. That's how I got into it.
I changed the game of swimwear. Anne Cole knocked me off; Calvin Klein knocked me off. And those suits are still around. I did it all non-constructed. Most swimsuits back in the day were constructed. And I did it in a different way. And one was on the cover of GQ and another in Sports Illustrated.
But I just had an opportunity. I wasn't trying to be anything.
PS: Can you talk about your work with Issey Miyake?
BH: Oh, love, that was fun. He and [Azzedine] Alaïa, out of all of the designers that were not where I came from, were like my brothers. Issey let me know my skills and my talent. He adopted me as one of his main muse girls and then had me help him produce the shows for him in Japan — even when I didn't go. By the third time, he said, "You have to come." I worked for Stephen Burrows at the time, but they let me go [to Japan]. I really gained a great deal from him and because of those things, he helped me produce shows.
On Advocating For Racial Inclusivity in Modeling
"You could see it so clearly when you had the white model who was always making [a large amount of money] and then you put your Black model in the same job. She got far less money; the white model got more."
PS: So, after the Black Girls Coalition press room meeting that you organized, did you have any memorable conversations with advertisers after the coverage was everywhere?
BH: See, this was what was so great about that. This was much more focused on the advertising industry, less the modeling industry, less the fashion editorial industry. This was about the advertisers. The advertisers were not reflecting their consumers. And I could speak on that. It could apply to some of the models, because some of the girls really wanted beauty contracts, and they couldn't get one. So that's advertising.
[We got data] to indicate to the media there that this was happening, this was a problem, they weren't reflecting the consumers. You never saw a Black guy or Black girl driving a car [in ads]. In those days, the mid-'90s, you didn't see any of that.
So it was important that [the Black talent] is not always a housekeeper or domestic because she's [promoting] Comet or Ajax. And that's what we had to change.
I look every day at television, I take pride in that. We've moved that very well.
PS: You talked a lot in your press conference about one of your issues being that advertisers saw Black women, Black models, as categories. Do you think that still exists today?
BH: No, I don't think so. When I say category, it means that you say "Oh, the Black model." Or, "Yeah, we're not using Black models." It becomes a category: something that you can move over here, something different than what you have over there. And they're supposed to be just models. I never sold my models as Black models. I sold my models. You could see they're Black. I'm not gonna try and tell you that. I'm selling them just like I'm selling my white models.
You could see it so clearly when you had the white model who was always making [a large amount of money] and then you put your Black model in the same job. She got far less money; the white model got more. And you have to try to make sense of it.
The Black model became a category. So then she got eliminated because of it. And they'd say, "Oh, we're not doing Black models for this season."
On Diversity on the Runway
PS: So, we're fast forwarding to the Berlin Wall crashing down and Miuccia Prada and other designers deciding to go for Eastern European models "for more uniformity." Why do you think that uniformity was automatically conflated with "OK, we need more white girls"?
BH: Yes, the Berlin Wall comes down and scouts were going into that region, which they never could do before, and they were finding models. And they're narrow, they're tall. Miuccia and her casting director or stylist saw that as a way to change the game, to not have glamorous girls in the show, not have supermodels in the show, not have Black girls in the show. So the girl you didn't notice, you only notice the clothes.
It was about uniformity: pull the hair back, put it into a knot, and they're all blond. Brunettes weren't even allowed.
It was just a way of changing the game — and maybe it was a creative effort, maybe it was just something to happen for that moment — but it stuck, and other people started to follow, and then it went on too long.
PS: It's so interesting to me, because I read that when you were at Calvin Klein, your personality and your walk were actually selling the clothes.
BH: And [the shift toward uniformity] was eight, nine, 10 years later. It was a different moment. That's the way things change in industries. But what could have been a trend became something more: the new way of thinking. And that's what I had to help with. I could see that they were going down a rabbit hole. And I really wanted them to recognize it.
Frédéric Tcheng on Working With Bethann Hardison on "Invisible Beauty"
PS: Frédéric, you've directed "Halston" and the cult-favorite documentary "Dior and I," where you documented Raf Simon's first collection at Dior. How does "Invisible Beauty" differ from your other works?
Frédéric Tcheng: I think this is the sum of my other projects in many ways; it's biographical, archival, I had testimonials, current-day footage, and phone calls. Every type of material that you could think of. And I was really working with an incredibly vibrant person collaborating with me. In a way, I feel like all the other films that I've done before have prepared me for this one.
PS: Can you tell us about Bethann's curatorial process from your point of view?
FT: Bethann definitely has an eye, and a very particular way that she sees things. It's original and nonconformist. You see it in the way she arranges her homes. I took a lot of time to photograph her homes, the way she arranges the paintings on the wall, books and the objects she's gathered from different parts of her life in Mexico, Morocco, and Anguilla, where she had a store at some point. I loved that collaboration, and she sort of challenged me in a way that I found very exciting.