Time to Publicly Shame Fashion Designers

Bethann Hardison (Andy Kropa/GettyImages)

(The Root) — It's Fashion Week in New York, where fashion designers are presenting their 2014 spring and summer collections. There's excitement in the air and a lot of money on the line.

And while insiders and laypeople alike have plenty of thoughts about next year's styles, very few are thinking about activism — in particular addressing the lack of models of color that grace Gotham City's runways. Indeed, if you look for a moment at the advertisements that fill up fashion and lifestyle magazines, the billboards that hang in big cities to lure customers to wear specific designers' clothes or even the editorial features in print and on TV, you quickly realize that the alluring images staring at you are not reflective of the current demographic of American culture.


That issue has been the cause célèbre for fashion revolutionist Bethann Hardison, a former model who has been stoking the flames of diversity in the industry for years. With her dear friends supermodels Iman and Naomi Campbell — as well as a corps of anonymous power brokers in the fashion industry — she has taken the complaint to all of the international organizing bodies of the fashion industry to say it is not OK to have the token one model of color or, even more frequently, none.

Indeed, they wrote a briefly anonymous letter last month that named all of the designers globally that used one or no models of color in their fashion shows in February 2013. Fifty fashion houses were named, including Chanel, Prada, Versace and Marc by Marc Jacobs. The goal is for designers to recognize that it is not acceptable to have color-free runways, and for them to do something about it.

A challenge, of course, is that if people continue to buy clothing from designers who do not represent them, the argument could fall on deaf ears. Hardison, who received the New York Urban League's Frederick Douglass Medallion earlier this year for her untiring work on behalf of black models, hopes that putting designers on blast who use no models of color may help wake them up and spur them to take more inclusive action.

Hardison sat down and talked with The Root this week to see where things stand. Read on to find out what she had to say.


The Root: You started this exploration into the state of the black model back in 2007, hosting conversations with industry leaders — casting agents, modeling agents, models, editors and more. Have things changed since that time?

Bethann Hardison: After that first meeting, things got better. The modeling agencies got better girls. Designers began to hire models of color. Change did happen. But it wasn't enough. It lacked a consistency.


TR: It feels bigger this time.

BH: Before, it was a conversation, kind of a hug, a kumbaya moment, to get people thinking. This time it is bigger.


Last time, I was being pushed to say something by a few key people. This time, a group of us started talking about what was going on, and we decided we needed to do something more. It has been planned since April. We decided to write a letter because I don't have 15,000 people on my staff to stuff envelopes and mail things. We needed to get the message out, and sending it to the organizers of the shows was effective.

It was time. Time has gone by and people are offended. People who work in the industry get offended by what they see: that the industry is just going through the motions. Designers feel terrible being called racist. But putting it out there was the only way it was going to start [and get their attention].


TR: What kind of response have you received?

BH: People on the street have come up to me to say how proud they are. The designers have mainly been quiet. The British Fashion Council wrote to me to say they wanted to talk. One designer in London wanted to know why he was called out, because historically he has included many models of color. We were basing our research on the shows in February 2013, when he only had one.


This is a wakeup call that it is not enough to have … one Asian girl and think that's enough. I had Asian models at my agency when no one had any. I had three.

TR: Has there been any backlash since you sent the letter? You have gotten so much media attention via the New York Times, WWD, Good Morning America and Entertainment Tonight, among many other outlets.


BH: That's funny to me. If [designers] aren't afraid of legal ramifications, why should I be? I was just talking about what the designers displayed on their runways. If there [were] any backlash, what would it be? They won't invite me to their fashion shows anymore? Or send me any clothes? I have nothing to lose.

Honestly, no matter what their intention was with their casting, this is the result of it. And many have taken notice. One hundred six media outlets caught the WWD story and wrote about it the same day.


TR: What are your thoughts about this New York Fashion Week and the plight of models of color?

BH: I am always happy to bring fun to the party. This, to me, is that. Fashion Week is corny to me at this point. I kept saying to the coalition that this is going to be fun. When we do things like this, it helps to shake things up.


It brings energy and people who basically are in the status quo of it all, caught up in it, [who] need to wake up. I really believe that it brings a certain pride to people, especially when I'm with the downtown kids. They feel like something has shifted. It's a paradigm shift. It's important that people walk away thinking it is a paradigm shift. It is radical. Now we are preparing for London.

TR: Given the magnitude of this push this go-round, I wonder what made you feel you could take on the international design community.


BH: You get to a certain time when you are on the earth and you just have to do it. I was one of the people in the industry who always knew I had to speak up. I come from the garment industry. I was a model. I had a modeling agency. And I am not afraid to speak up. You help others who know that they need someone to say something.

I feel like people in the industry are waiting for the bus to come. Somebody just needed to say it for them. The industry will improve one way or the other. But this isn't one baseball that we hit out of the park and we get to go home. We have to keep on hitting.


TR: Why does it matter if there are models of color on the runway?

BH: It helps society. For me it's bigger than that, too. It helps educate people around you. It helps smarten society. Designers are good people. I think most of them are good people.


Casting directors and stylists may have some issues selecting models because they are uneducated. This is a brief slo-mo education. They may think, "I'll get a few black girls." It ain't gonna work like that. We need more than one good black girl, brown girl, Asian girl, mulatto girl, East Indian girl. So we can show them. People have to [have] a sense of responsibility because that is how the world is shaped. And that is their customer.

Our industry is a wee bit of an embarrassment. If we keep it quiet, it ain't; but if we turn the light on it, it is. I think it is important to help our industry look better and smarter.


TR: What is the bottom line here?

BH: I am so sick of someone feeling comfortable doing the same thing over and over again. It's because they don't see [not using models of color in their shows] as a problem. We know it is a problem. We need to balance diversity. Make them aware of that.


I am a revolutionist. I've learned that activism needs to remain active. You have to keep a foot on the gas or the car seems to stop. We have to pay attention. This movement is huge. There is a lot more to come.

Harriette Cole is the author of the newly released book of meditations 108 Stitches: Words We Live By and is a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.


Harriette Cole is the author of the book of meditations 108 Stitches: Words We Live By and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter

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