In Italy, At Least, Black is Beautiful

An interview with legendary modeling agent Bethann Hardison.

Liya Kebede, Iman, Bethann Hardison and Naomi Campbell
Liya Kebede, Iman, Bethann Hardison and Naomi Campbell

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?

Q: It seems odd that at a time when the United States might have its first black president, there are fewer black girls working than ever before. Yet, as your documentary will show black women have always played a dynamic role in the industry. Just to give a sense of perspective. Let’s talk about the incredible girls who’ve worked in this business.

Bethann: In the late 1970s and going into the 1980s, you had Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn, Katouche, Munia and of course, Iman. I opened Bethann Management in 1984; there were incredible girls at that time: Gail O’Neill, Roshumba Williams, Karen Alexander, Veronica Webb, Louise Vyent, Kirstie Bowser, Kara Young, Lana Ogilvie. Then in the 90s, of course, you had Naomi, but also Lorraine Pascal, Tyra, Cynthia Bailey, Beverly Peele, Maureen Gallagher and Waris. More recently, you’ve had girls like Noemi Lenoir, Alek Wek and Liya Kibede.

Q: Does Barack Obama’s campaign make a difference in the fashion world?

Bethann: Fashion is the last industry to get onto reality because it’s about an aesthetic. Model, Chanel Iman and Jourdan do the shows because they have the same body type as the Eastern European girls. They just happen to be of color. No one is saying, “We’re looking for a black girl.” But when I’m speaking of diversity in the media, the question of color starts to come up in the showroom.

Q: You’ve said that you’re not excited about the girls working today.

Bethann: We have to be as competitive as our white counterparts. The black girls the agencies are finding are not strong enough. I stand behind that.

Q: Let’s flashback a moment to when you walked the catwalks in France at the Palace of Versailles.

Bethann: Mr. De La Renta’s first wife, the late Françoise De La Renta, wanted to hold a benefit to restore the Marie Antoinette Theater at Versailles. Her idea was that there would be five American designers and five French designers. At the time, in the 1970s, American designers weren’t known for fashion, we were known for sportswear. With this big show happening, the American designers took a lot of black girls to make sure they had a great show. But you had to have three designers invite you in order to go. I was sweating a little bit. I’d been invited by Stephen Burrows and Mr. De La Renta, but I needed a third. Then Anne Klein chose me. We did a very simple show—Liza Minnelli was there; Kay Thompson choreographed. I walked out the runway, threw my train down and all of a sudden people started stomping their feet and the programs went up in the air. We had won.

Q: What will it take for black girls to reach the highest rungs in this industry once again?