Bethann Hardison on Five Decades of Fashion and Advocacy

10 minute read

The breadth of diversity seen on runways and in magazine editorials today owes much to the advocacy of Bethann Hardison. The model and activist's career in fashion spans over five decades, beginning in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when she worked in the garment district, leading to her becoming a fashion model for designers like Willi Smith and Issey Miyake. And it continues today, through her extensive advocacy work to diversify the industry.

Hardison, now 80, has long been a pioneer for inclusion in fashion. During her time as a model, she was one of 10 Black models who walked in the historic Battle of Versailles, a 1973 fashion showdown between French and American designers that helped to break the color barrier on runways. It was a triumphant start to a career that has been shaped by a relentless determination to make the industry a more inclusive place.

In the ‘80s, Hardison transitioned from working as a model to representing them. As one of the first Black women to open her own modeling and talent agency, Bethann Modeling Agency, she kept a roster of multiracial talent and helped launch the careers of models like Tyson Beckford. In 1988, she formed the Black Girls Coalition, a support network for Black models, along with supermodels Iman and Naomi Campbell, both of whom consider her a mentor. In 2013, she sent an open letter to designers and industry leaders calling for accountability when it came to their all-white runways.

Read more: How Iman and Bethann Hardison United to Hold Fashion Accountable for Diversity

Hardison’s remarkable, trailblazing career is the subject of a new documentary, Invisible Beauty, which was co-directed by her and the filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng and released earlier this month. While Hardison has devoted the majority of her life to working toward change in fashion, she told TIME that co-directing the film, as well as working on an upcoming memoir, have given her perspective on just how much her tireless work has impacted others.

“When you can recognize yourself as being someone who's actually helped shift society and shape the industry in some way, you’ve to give yourself credit,” she says. “Along the way, everyone says it to you, but I’m at a time in my life where I’m reflecting on it in a different way because of the film.”

TIME caught up with Hardison to talk about her five-decade career in fashion, her advocacy work, and why rest is a priority for her.

TIME: So many of the household names and faces in fashion, from Iman to Tyson Beckford, are people you championed. It often feels like you're the godmother of so many people in fashion. How do you think your work has impacted others?

Hardison: I just listened to them. People speak about what I’ve done for everyone and how I’ve affected their life and it's interesting that everyone feels that way, but I'm just busy clearing the brush. I don't notice these things, but I do know they have an effect. I love the title that British Vogue gave me, “Mother of Industry,” because people are always calling me Mama B.

Did you ever dream that this work would be so game-changing?

Absolutely not. Until I saw four hours of footage [for this doc], that’s when I finally said, "OK, I do have a story—everyone says it, everyone claims you." You don't see it when you're doing it because it's not the objective, nor do you feel that you've made that kind of impact—especially when it was 30 or 20 years ago. But it's still happening now and it’s very cool to witness it.

What has it been like to watch these changes in the industry, knowing that you’ve been an active part of it?

I think it's really important. When you can recognize yourself as being someone who's actually helped shift society and shape the industry in some way, you have to give yourself credit. I have done it and I recognize it more now than ever. Along the way, everyone says it to you, but I’m at a time in my life where I’m reflecting on it in a different way because of the film—because that’s something that’s tangible thing you can look at and watch.

You've made a documentary about your career and life and you’re working on a memoir. What are the lessons that have become clear during this period of reflection?

There's opportunities to do things and you tend not to do them because you either feel you can't or you shouldn't do or you don't deserve to or you're not the one that should be focused on. But you have to learn at some point in life to get out of your own way.

In the film, you talk about your father’s influence and his mentorship as a Muslim imam for people like Malcom X. Did his work influence your journey to activism?

I don't think so at all, because activism has to remain active. I'm an activist at the moment in time it needs to be, but most of my life is advocacy. You’re not doing that work, you just believe and support. My father was just a very learned man who had great respect for the community, who wanted to help and protect them. He was more of an advisor and an Islamic leader. I do think I fall from his tree as much as I do my mother, though they were very different people, but I am very much like each one of them in a way.

How did you come up with your doc’s title, Invisible Beauty?

Sometimes I think I got to this title because of the great book Invisible Man, but it really came about as I was working on another film that was an exposé on the fashion and modeling industry, these model beauties that were slowly disappearing. That’s where it came to me. During that [filming], twice I said, "You don't know it's like to be invisible." So the title was already there before we started making this film.

What was it like to co-direct a film about your life? Why did you want to be involved with the film in that way?

It wasn't my idea. Frédéric said, "Listen, I want to tell your story, but only if you would agree to co-direct it with me." He didn't want to tell a story about someone who was living when they’re right there and could do it. It's not like telling the story of someone who has gone. The Eye Has to Travel was one of my favorite films that he worked on, so when he asked me, I thought it was really fitting. In some way, I was quietly trying to get there but I was always unsure, I had no practice. But at the end of the day, you bring a lot to the table when it's your turn to do so and I did.

There was a period after the success of your modeling and talent agency, where you took a long sabbatical because of burnout. Why was it so important for you to prioritize rest?

Oh my God, I didn't want to have a modeling agency anymore, much less a successful one because then you’ll never get out, you’ll always have to deliver on it. Even though there was so much love and support, it was just time. My friend found me a little mountain town in Mexico because I wanted a sabbatical in a cultural and spiritual environment. I took that break, but I wasn’t meant to get totally out of the game because I was being called back. People knew that others would listen to me because I always talked to designers upfront.

How do you approach your work life balance now? 

This is the thing that I think I'm good at. People don't believe it, even when I say it all the time, but I have a very natural lazy streak. I love not having to have to do anything, but maybe that’s because I've always been doing something. I like being alone a lot because I have a lot of people to be engaged with and a large community. My travels and where I live are also a part of this; culturally, it's very important to live outside of your country and to live in a place that may be more third world-ish is very good for the soul. I have a home in Mexico and I like to spend time in Morocco. I find that balance by being around important spiritual environments. I take care of myself; I like to have baths late at night, I love going to the sauna, I go to Korea Town and I get scrubbed down. I don't move as much as I used to, even though I was and always am an athlete, but I stretch and do other things here in the house.

You started out in fashion as a runway model, then you began representing models. Do you think that informed the way you were able to advocate for them?

What I did was a whole different ballgame—it was a different time and it doesn't exist anymore. I was a fashion model, but I had a full-time job. I couldn't afford to just be a model. They say when you do something, then you become someone who can guide others who have that ability. When you have that something, it doesn't make people feel like you're attacking them and then they tend to want to listen.

What's the most important lesson you've learned from your career?

It's so important to learn how to do a lot of different things. I also found great value in working for other people. Everyone wants to have their own business, but I think it's very important to be an apprentice. I tell young designers and other people before they start their own business, to learn on someone else's dime. It's always important for people, especially young talents who want to take a chance, to see if you can get a job, put your ego aside and know that you're doing it for a better future.

There's been a lot of change since you entered the fashion industry, especially when it comes to inclusivity and representation, and you’ve played a huge role in making that happen. What would you still like to see change?

Man, that ship has sailed—there's so much when you think about what you knew and how simple it all was then. It's complicated—we have pop culture now, we have the internet now. We’re trying to keep racial diversity alive, which is something that has changed and I hope that it doesn't fall backwards. But other things are changing like the retail business, young brands are not being as supported as they used to back in the day. We talk about sustainability, but people just keep making clothes and everyone wants to be designers.

With your documentary and the recent Donyale Luna documentary, we're really reviewing parts of fashion history that weren't always highlighted.

Every story should be told. I think it’s very important that these stories are coming out. Everyone could find a story in something if they found it interesting.

What do you hope your legacy is?

I'm hoping to do right by building a foundation and making something that can be tangible for when I’m no longer here. That’s why I wanted to make this film, to help represent those who are underserved and so that it will always be able to be seen in perpetuity, in institutions or museums. Why do the good work and not have it in some way that others can’t share or reference?

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