28 Days of Black Fashion History: Bethann Hardison

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As one of the first Black supermodels, Bethann Hardison paved the way for future models of colors in the fashion industry. Today, she continues to be a pioneer, activist and advocate for more diversity on the runway.

A native Brooklynite, Bethann attended New York University Art School and the Fashion Institute of Technology. After working sales in the garment industry in the 1960s, she was became a fit model for designer, Willi Smith, and eventually began doing runway and print modeling as well.

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Model Bethann Hardison wearing Bill Blass for Vogue US, Fall_Winter 1970.

Her groundbreaking stomp onto the scene (along with other iconic pioneers like Pat Cleveland, Iman and Beverly Johnson) at the Battle of Versailles was a historical moment for Black models and helped to launch an international modeling career. During the 1970s she worked for various top European and New York designers and appeared in multiple fashion publications.

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Models Bethann Hardison (left) and Ramona Saunders (right) wearing Stephen Burrows at the Battle of Versailles fashion show, 1973.

In 1984, she launched her modeling agency, Bethann Management. Kim Hastreiter of Paper Magazine noted that her models were “never ghettoized … all different colors” and “represented girls of all ethnicities, including many white girls.” (2013, Hastreiter) Hardison has said that her intention was not to run an agency composed exclusively of models of color; however, her goal was to bring more diversity to the business. And that she did, managing well known talent including Veronica Webb and Tyson Beckford.

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Bethann Hardison (right) with model, Tyson Beckford (center) and Brandice Henderson Daniele (left) at Harlem’s Fashion Row At its 2011 Style Awards.

In 1989, Bethann with close friend and supermodel, Iman, began the Black Girls Coalition. The group was initially started to allow models the chance to give back to the community. One of their first initiatives in the ‘80s was a fundraiser to help tackle the problem of homelessness. However, the group would also become a source of support, mentorship, a celebration of models of color and a change agent to challenge the status quo.

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The original Black Girls Coalition (c. 1992) included Tyra Banks, Roshumba, Cynthia Bailey, Veronica Webb and Naomi Campbell.

In 2013, she launched the “Diversity Coalition” which advocated for inclusion on the runway. She penned open letters to the fashion councils of the major style capitals (Paris, Milan, London and New York) calling out the lack of diversity on the runways. She even cited the particular fashion houses that did not use any Black models, stating that “no matter the intent, the result is racism”. The leaders took note and began purposefully including more diverse runway lineups in their shows. Her tireless efforts to be an advocate for a more inclusive industry have been acknowledged on numerous occasions, most recently 2014 when she was presented with the Founders Award from the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers Association).

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Flanked by a bevy of Black models, Bethann Hardison accepts the CFDA Founders Award, presented by Naomi Campbell and Iman.

Understanding how important it is for the images we see to be a reflection of ourselves and how much fashion has become a part of pop culture is no longer and exclusive and elite club, Bethann Hardison continues to fight for diversity in the fashion industry.

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Watch Bethann Hardison speaks of her work as an activist in the fashion industry.

“Diversity is just good for the world. And images have much more power than words. When people start putting those colorful images out and people of power start standing behind them, it starts to create a paradigm shift. And I believe it can happen.”–Bethann Hardison

Did you know that in addition to being a former model, advocate, activist, and businesswomen, Bethann Hardison is also Mom to actor Kadeem Hardison, best known for his role as Dwayne Wayne on the groundbreaking sitcom A Different World?

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