In Italy, At Least, Black is Beautiful

Liya Kebede, Iman, Bethann Hardison and Naomi Campbell
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?


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?

Bethann: It takes time for a great model to develop. Even Liya. She did well with Estée Lauder, but she wasn't able to keep it. After three years, her contract was up. She's not like Carolyn Murphy who goes on and on and on. But the genius was she was able to do it. I think Liya is still growing as a model. It took a long time for them to know how to light her. The image makers don't know how to present a black girl to her full advantage. The hair people don't know how to do her hair properly. The makeup people don't know how to do her makeup properly. A black stylist can do a white girl's hair, no problem. But it's rarely the case the other way around. The fashion photographers have to be inspired by the girl and be able to say, "This isn't a black story, it's just a cool story with a cool girl." We have to think about the ideas we hold in the industry, not just the images.


Q: Some people say that black models aren't inspirational, that they don't reflect the ideal that really sells products. What's your take on that?

Bethann: I'll tell you one thing. The girls aren't inspirational if they aren't the best they can be. We have to work harder to find amazing girls. Tall and pretty doesn't cut it. Mr. and Mrs. Designer, you're hurting us. I'd rather you have no black girls than two black girls who aren't up to par. Every agency has the one black girl they send out. You can't send out one black girl. You've got to send out 10 black girls and hope that two are liked, that's what it takes, it takes quantity to discover quality, that's the edge that the white girls have.


Veronica Chambers is a writer based in Philadelphia.