This issue of The Colorful Canvas Files is brought to you by a living legend whose contributions have led to a significant increase of color to the achromous world of fashion. Bethann Hardison is a trailblazer in every sense of the word. Check You Daily declares that Hardison is “famous for her vitality and her straight-shooting spirit as she is for her beauty and business know-how… A force to be reckoned with.” As a powerful force in one of the most ruthless industries in the modern era, her intentions remain pure, and succinct. Bethann once told American Photo:
“I want to do more than just run an agency, I’m here to give other young women an opportunity. I want them to know there’s someone who will take time to communicate with them.”
Ms. Hardison was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY by a devout Muslim family. She broke major ground in the mid 60’s by becoming the first Black salesperson in a showroom upon her debut to NYC’s fast-paced garment industry. By the late 60’s she began modeling for a talented young designer she met (on an elevator no less) by the name of Willi Smith. What started as a fitting gig turned into an extraordinary career as one of the first African American models on the international catwalk, so to speak. Her contemporaries included Iman, Beverly Johnson, and Naomi Sims.
More than a beautiful face, Bethann had her business skills on lock too. In 1980, she partnered with Willi Smith and joined a start-up modeling agency called “Click.” As a booker, Ms. Hardison used her unique sensibilities to match Click’s “exotic” talent with leading talent seekers, and by 1981, she was head of Click’s women’s division.
According to sources, it was during this time that Hardison was approached by a friend who was keenly aware of her potential to change the face of the fashion industry. He agreed to put up the money and in a leap of faith, Bethann Management came to be in 1984. Its initial roster included 16 models – mostly African American.
A selfless pioneering spirit, Bethann was not concerned self-aggrandizement, but concrete, significant virtues. Ms. Hardison once said, “I’m looking for something beyond just a face. The more intelligent they are, the more open and well rounded they are, the more they convey in photographs.” Success stories include Naomi Campbell Veronica Webb, Roshumba, Tyson Beckford, and not to mention her son, actor, Kadeem Hardison.
Bethann Management has since made an enduring impact in the world of fashion, despite the built in obstacles. In Essence Hardison revealed, “The industry is looking for Black images that are compatible with their white counterparts, but always with the white images first and Black images–if at all—second.” It was this unfortunate fact that led Bethann and close friend Iman to establish the Black Girls Coalition, an alliance responsible for making real strides within the fashion community, such as aiding Naomi Campbell in becoming the first Black model to cover Allure.
In a recent piece titled “The Lack of the Black Image in Fashion Today,” Bethann Hardison, was reported as saying, “In the United States of America, this is the one industry that still has the freedom to refer to people by their color and reject them in their work. I came up in the Sixties. I feel it’s the worst it’s ever been.” But there is hope, in the form of a movement led by Bethann Hardison herself. The first African American cheerleader in her high school is a living example of what can be achieved by maintaining a priceless unwavering belief in oneself and fostering compassion for others.
Ms. Hardison served as a contributing editor of the groundbreaking Black issue of Vogue Italia and has examined racism in fashion in her new documentary aptly titled, Invisible Beauty.