In Italy, At Least, Black is Beautiful

An interview with legendary modeling agent Bethann Hardison.

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Liya Kebede, Iman, Bethann Hardison and Naomi Campbell

Now that the much buzzed about all-black issue of Vogue Italia has hit stands, readers can finally take in the mezmorizing glamour of black models filling the glossy's pages—even if they can't read the text, which will remain in Italian, even in U.S.-circulated copies of the magazine. I sat down with legendary modeling agent and fashion muse Bethann Hardison for an interview in the special issue. Here it is, for you, in English, so you can read for yourselves that, as always, Bethann Hardison calls it like she sees it.

"Call me controversial; there's no one exciting out there," she says. "No one!" Over the past year, Bethann (in the industry she is known by her first name only, like her good friend, Iman) has held several forums about the lack of black models on the runways, in major editorial spreads and advertising campaigns. And because she is Bethann, the forums have been attended by a Who's Who of fashion, with more A-listers waiting outside the door than at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party.

At a sold out event at the Bryant Park Hotel, Bethann's guest included Iman, Vogue's Andre Leon Talley, fashion director Constance White, Liya Kebede and Naomi Campbell. Bethann helps to manage Naomi, and although the woman some have described as a "beauty dipped in chocolate" has a well known temper, she is always on her best behavior around Bethann. Talley, who has been working on the Obama campaign, paraphrased the dynamic orator by saying, "Change we can believe in has to happen. This struggle is so important to all of us. They will say this is not an issue but it is."

Currently in preproduction for "Invisible Beauty," her documentary about black models in the fashion industry, I recently sat down with Bethann at her Gramercy Park apartment to talk about why black is still beautiful, even if the runways and the glossies don't always seem to say so.

Q: Tell me about your early career in the fashion industry.

Bethann: I come from the garment district. The word fashion never came up. I started in a button company. Then I started modeling years later. I was delivering a dress to Bernie Ozer, who was head of merchandising for junior dresses and sportswear at the Federated Stores. I said, "You should put me in your show." I had been a child tap dancer, and I was always an entertainer. He didn't answer me, but when I got back to Ruth Manchester's, the junior dress company where I'd been working, there was a message: Bernie Ozer wants you to do his show. That was the first time I walked runway.

Q: During the 1970s, your early years in the business, there were a lot of black women in the business. Why was that?

Bethann: Black was beautiful. That slogan came directly out of the civil rights movement and advertising execs connected to it and went looking for it. What they found were models like Norma Jean Darden and Pat Cleveland. Naomi Sims was the essence of glamour, an extraordinary gazelle with independent style. Once you integrated that with the designers' inspiration, these girls were unstoppable. Mr. Saint Laurent used to say, "a black girl comes with quality." Mr. Givenchy discovered the beauty of the black girls and maintained his cabine to be all black.

Q: One of the problems seems to be that designers, for the most part, aren't choosing the models. Casting directors are based upon what they believe the public wants to see.

Bethann: I met Willi Smith, and he asked me to become his muse. During this time, fashion models were discovered, and they were nurtured. If a designer loved you, he gave his energy to you and vice versa. He might be inspired by something that you are wearing that day and when he designed, he had you in mind. Today, the fashion designer is no longer interested in the model, he's interested in the collection. Where's the muse? I tell designers all the time, you should be choosing the girls, not the casting directors. Where are the relationships?