At the root of any debate regarding the lack of diversity in the fashion industry, Bethann Hardison is a name that will often come up. During the 1970s when models such as Bethany Johnson, Iman and the late Donyale Luna were being featured in high profile campaigns, Hardison was also making a name for herself in the New York fashion scene. Hardison had modelled around Sweden and Ibiza, but when she was scouted by fashion designer Willi Smith as a showroom model, her career began to pick up its pace. Hardison began her career as one of the first well-known black models, working with names like Calvin Klein and Oscar de la Renta. She grew up playing with the cool kids from Andy Warhol to Bruce Weber and Keith Haring. Hardison even mentored Naomi Campbell, having known the supermodel since she was 14, as well as appearing as Iman’s maid of honour to musician David Bowie. Hardison didn’t just schmooze with the cool kids, they were her family.
Essence Magazine, October 1974
For Hardison, the world of art and fashion went hand-in-hand. Behind the scenes everyone hung out with everyone. For those that worked within the industry, nothing was off limits, and all were welcomed, but in front of the cameras there was still a visible divide. Since 1981, Hardison has managed to allow the fire beneath racial diversity to be constantly ignited. Her fashionable qualities in activism during her career shine brighter than the clothes she was continuously photographed in. Her most notable projects and agencies include The Bethan Management Agency along with Black Girls Coalition, which was co-founded with her good friend Iman. The Bethan Management Agency helped to reinforce the importance of talent in models of colour who felt as though they were slowly getting left behind, whilst the Black Girls Coalition didn’t just include women of colour but also white models. For Hardison, the BGC (which included models such as Tyra Banks, Cynthia Bailey and Naomi Campbell) was more about allowing models to give back and provide more of a community. They worked closely to tackle homelessness in the 80s as well as finding other ways to essentially “give back” to their community.
WWD, Schemann Pierre
Hardison’s projects brought to the surface how the lack of colour on the catwalk and in the modelling and fashion industry shouldn’t be ignored any longer, making her – what could be described – as a fashion misfit. However, like most fashion misfits, it was for the right reasons. Hardison has consistently made it her duty since the beginning to support those who are unfairly underrepresented within the industry even writing a letter through her Diversity Coalition to the fashion councils around the world to be better when it comes to ethnic representation on the runway. Although it’s still not quite there yet, there has been progress. Hardison believes that this mainly started when Miuccia Prada began introducing women of colour onto the runway as the rest of designers began to follow. Hardison is absolutely a fashion icon and luckily this hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2014 Hardison received a CFDA award for her advocacy in promoting diversity within fashion. Today, Hardison is still working hard to keep not only the conversation going but the actions and drive moving. She assists with the management of well known male model Tyson Beckford and is currently Vogue Italia’s Editor at Large.
Bethann Hardison, Daniela Morera and Stephen Burrows at Studio 54, 1977. Photo by Rose Hartman, Getty Images