Diversity in the fashion industry has been a hot-button subject for years, but the issue came to a head this season with Bethann Hardison & The Diversity Coalition‘s open letter to the CFDA. With a concise list of designers who have either eschewed minority faces on their runways altogether, or engaged in tokenism, the Coalition succinctly captured the gravity of this enduring problem. Nowhere is the issue of race in fashion more visible than on the runways every fashion week. The runways of New York, London, Milan and Paris serve not only as a showcase for clothing, but also a powerful representation of the industry’s physical ideals and beauty standards. When women and men of color are all but excluded from that vision, what does it say about the industry as a whole? How can a business, praised for its creative spirit and tolerance be willfully ignorant about the messages it sends out with regards to diversity?
In this MDX exclusive interview we connect with the pioneering Ms. Hardison to discuss the roots of fashion’s continuing diversity issues, the impact of her now famous letter and the road towards a more inclusive fashion community.
A Models.com interview by Janelle Okwodu
Cover Photo: Bethann and Iman – Getty Images / Mike Coppola / Staff
Bethann Hardison: That’s what Eric Wilson (of The New York Times) said to me. He said that to me when I was saying to him that one time I had asked Franca Sozzani, “Why do you think that it’s so difficult to get people on board with diversity in fashion?” I was asking a question that I already had the answer to but I wanted to hear what she said. Franca answered “You know it’s simple Bethann, people have to be reminded” and I told Eric she said that and that bothered him. He said “I don’t understand why does anyone need to be reminded?” But obviously they do and they shouldn’t need to be, like you said.
J: It speaks to the way fashion doesn’t concern themselves with social issues these days.
B: You’re right on point. Before it was just a quiet little island that nobody knew anything about because unless you were a buyer, retailer or one of the few editors, no one was allowed to go in and see fashion shows and no one was interested. Now it’s gotten to be such a part of popular culture, and now anyone can see a fashion show if you turn on the TV. Before manufacturers were frightened to let anyone see anything because of fear that they would be copied. Now it’s become jazzy but with that jazziness it’s become kind of sad that they’ve gotten elitist. Fashion was always naturally elitist before because it was a quiet little place on its own, but now it’s become elitist to the point that the ignorance and the arrogance becomes more prevalent.
I think that it’s unfortunate that anyone has to say, why would you need to tell people to do something that’s so obvious because it only seems to be helpful to the greater all, but in this particular case they got stuck following the leader, no one even remembers how it got started… We’ve always said that the designers all follow each other even though they all think they’re individual; they all follow what’s going on for who did what- they don’t want to go “here” for fear they might miss out on what’s going on over “there”. It’s unfortunate that it is that way. That’s why it’s not a problem for us, or myself, to speak on this point so blatantly because they do it so blatantly.
J: Looking at the shows that just concluded in New York, would you say that there has been a reaction to your letter? I mean Calvin Klein had more black models than ever before. We haven’t seen the big girls as much this season though.
B: I don’t want big models—just give me really good. Everything from head to toe should be like slammin’, you know, and they’re still trying to be like, oh we have to discover and all that, but how much of that is true? At Marc’s last show, you didn’t recognize any girls in that show but they were diverse. You don’t know who any of them are per se, but that’s the whole fun of it all.
If you’re going to use a girl of color, don’t just grab a girl of color, you really make sure that girl of color is competitive to her white counterpart. Just the way you scrutinize her, please scrutinize us because I’d rather them use none than use one or two bad ones. And I don’t mean they’re bad, because it’s in the eye of the beholder.
Joan Smalls at Michael Kors, photo by Billy Rood / Models.com
Jasmine Tookes at Calvin Klein, photo by Betty Sze / Models.com
J: Why do you think that designers are still so caught up in these old school ideas? You know when it’s summer and you need somebody to wear a leopard bikini it’s like.. black girl. Or when the collection is centered around a stereotype about geisha designers go for an Asian girl. It just feels like designers just feel very entrenched in these incredibly old ideas.
B: That’s very interesting because Iman was saying the same thing, you know because she heard me say it, and now she’s reiterating it every time we do interviews. I said it’s like in the winter, they all think we stay in the house and wear dashikis, and when it’s summer it’s like oh put it on the black girls. Spring/Summer, it looks better on their skin coloring, or if they do an ethnic collection, let’s use the black girls. They need to get it together.
Just take a hint, look at television, take House of Cards you know, Newsroom, or Ray Donovan, just look at shows that are so diverse, I wish that our designers would really make an effort… I’ve worked with designers and they’ll use one brand new girl, bad weave, just starting out, doesn’t know how to walk, scared to death, you have to hug her just to get her to relax, and then the rest they save for someone else.
Because it’s so political now, I feel so bad for the model agencies. I’m a little mad at them in my own way, because when I was an agent I was always trying to educate the girls and the clients, but not everybody is here to educate; there’s more followers than there are leaders but they just really are caught up in the politics of it all. [Agents] really have to try with the dark girls that they start to make appear- they want to make them better and better so they get caught up in this idea of “well if I put her with this unknown designer, what will it rank her in the sense of what this passing person or stylist will think of her and not want to use her…”. All this stuff they do, it’s not nice.
Look, I’m a former model, all we want to do is walk down the runway. The models just want to walk. They’ve gotten stuck in this political game; they have to be concerned with a stylist and those casting directors. Oh my gosh, why, why, oh why do they exist? That whole world of allowing someone to get between the designer and the model? I mean when you come from where we come from, there’s no longer a muse nowadays… Maybe because she’s so out of orbit and genius, I’d say that Karlie Kloss is as close to a muse I can imagine, maybe in the last 20 years. It’s terrible. And these people, they decide who and it’s just not good.
Grace Mahary at Michael Kors, photo by Billy Rood / Models.com
Cora Emmanuel at Helmut Lang, photo by Billy Rood / Models.com
B: When we came up it was the job of the house to find models to develop so they were much more committed to the girls. It was not their job to just find models. Their interest was to find girls who made their collections and their clothes look good, a girl who had style, a girl who put the coat on and would change the whole vibe of how to wear it. I used to go and help Calvin himself and sit there with him and talk about things and give him ideas. You have something great and this whole relationship… and this is all gone because these other people come in and it’s their job to find a girl, to tell you which girl to use, to tell you, oh please don’t let a black girl open the show because then that’s taboo. The average designer won’t do that. They won’t open the show with a black girl or with a black guy. It’s always wonderful when someone sees the right guy or the right girl and just says ‘that’s the one’ and never thinks about the color.
J: That’s very, very true.
B: It’s gotten to a place that… I think that they don’t care so much about being conscious of making sure they have girls of color or boys of color. I think that the menswear is just as equally important as the womenswear because for me, when I look at the men’s show that’s when I get more upset. I really do, because there’s so many good black male models; these black kids that I think are really significant. What is so unfortunate about not having these kids work is because the fact they exist… this goes back to what young girls of color will think when they constantly see it’s white, white, white, white, and you know I’m always concerned about what young white kids will think. That’s my concern I don’t want them growing up thinking it’s okay. For me it’s more important to educate whites because black, Asian, Latin and mixed people, they all know what’s going on and the people that seem to not know what’s going on are the people of Caucasian descent. It is very important to me to help because the young designers are coming up and doing exactly what the one before them did, exactly what they’ve seen been done, because that to them is how to do it.
J: I looked at your list and I noticed that so many names on the list are from my generation of people and it’s like you didn’t really grow up in a world without diversity. You’ll have designers who are themselves people of color, yet you don’t see people of color on their runway. What I wanted to ask you, how would you compare sort of the fashion industry and the racism faced by models in the 1960s to what’s going on today? Would you say that it’s different or sort of the same?
B: You know it’s interesting that you say that. In the 60s it was completely different because we didn’t have what you call a fashion industry; it was the garment district. It was so different- a different mentality, a different attitude. The people who were working in the 60s worked for print, advertising, they were commercial models and they were good ones who eventually became actors or moved into other things, but they were good. We have some that worked also and did designer shows and things like that and it wasn’t so hard I think, because of the world we lived in. Until it changed to what it is now; back then, you had models that worked for design houses and they did runway and it was a whole different division for print girls who were never on a runway, never worked with designers, they never worked in the garment district, they just did catalog and editorial and advertising.
So in the 60s when black became beautiful, it was really a moment. The young white advertising kids, after that whole slogan ‘black is beautiful’ they took it up and noticed how media was all so milky, boring, flat, and they were looking for something, to change what was going on. Someone that came along at that time period, talking about the mid 60s, was like a Lauren Hutton, completely unusual because she was a not tall girl, yes she was blonde and blue eyed but she had a flaw, this big gap in her teeth. The discovery of Naomi Sims, that was a switcheroo. Here they found this very tall, beautiful, dark like my skin coloring, gorgeous girl, and they put her on the cover of Look Magazine.
That was the beginning of black is beautiful. So it wasn’t like the same as it is now, the struggle. Everybody was happy at that time and we were embraced by people who had style and people who believed that if you had style you were in. You didn’t have to have money, you didn’t have to be anybody, if you had style you could go to a lot of fancy places. So it was a whole different thing. People appreciated people for much more authentic things; fashion was more organic than it is now. Now it’s subsidized by celebrity and confusion. So we don’t have the same struggle.
Conrad Bromfield at Michael Kors, photo by Billy Rood / Models.com
Malaika Firth at Calvin Klein, photo by Billy Rood / Models.com
B: I think always that’s the case but the issue is complex. Many young people that want to be designers, or editors and are of color they think that they’re being held back just based on their color but that isn’t necessarily the case. Our business is elitist and nowadays you have to look a certain way, you have to know the right people, you have to act a certain way.
I do think that it would be really wonderful for the industry to have people of color behind the scenes and rising up the ranks, but I don’t really think that would change a lot for what’s going on in front of us. What winds up happening, if you’re the only person of color in the room, is that you start getting shut down. If you start talking too much about what they’re not talking about, eventually they start making you feel like you’re in the wrong. “Why are you always talking about black stuff? What’s with you?” It becomes the elephant in the room, so I think it’s a little hard especially at the higher levels. I do think that it would be helpful if there was someone around who was conscious, didn’t get in and get lost, but got in and loved what they did.
J: I think sometimes people don’t think of these things, sometimes people don’t see beyond their own perspective.
B: The ignorance is there, it’s like the Italian lawmaker said, you know we have a law for the girls being underweight, for ones who have anorexia, and the underage girls, we made that a law but we’ve never deliberated on skin color. Fair enough, but Milan is very big and powerful when it comes to advertising and designers.
They don’t have a big community of blacks there and that’s why it’s really hard for people to imagine necessity of having black models on the runway and pushing for it. You’‘ll hear people say “Oh I don’t expect much from Milan.” I give Milan a little of a pass because they don’t have, like we do here, many black people walking into their stores like Dolce & Gabbana or Versace. When they do, it’s like Jay Z and Beyonce or Kanye and Kim. You know what I’m saying? It’s people who have money, but it’s never like the local person that you’re going to see at Bloomingdales here or walking down Fifth Avenue in New York. That diversity just isn’t there.
J: But in other cities there is no excuse – London and Paris are incredibly diverse.
B: Paris is like Detroit.
J: Ha! With regards to brands and their casting directors, your letter got people talking.
B: I’m sure. It is their brand, they pay attention to the public consensus. At this point it is uncertain whether it’s the designer, the casting director or the stylist who makes these final decisions, but the casting directors and the stylists really have become a real point of this whole thing, because the designers have allowed themselves to relax a bit and let these people come in and guide them and I think they’re not doing an appropriate job.
You look at the presentations that you see and you don’t even notice the clothes, you’re so shocked by the girl. It isn’t even just about race; this isn’t a Linda Evangelista, a Christy or Stephanie Seymour, this is like, what is this? Where’s the style, where’s the glamour as Johnny Casablancas would say. The train is going down some tracks we ain’t ever gonna see again because the glamour and the style of the business are gone..
J: Why do you think that the glamour is gone? What do you think caused that overall?
B: I think it was the development of the casting director, which is not their fault in this case, and the opening of Eastern Europe, and having that opportunity to go and search for girls. What helped to ignite it further was when Miuccia Prada said no more to the supermodel and she decided to do a strict editorial, where they all looked alike and you only noticed the clothes. They were all the same height you know, and that became a trend that never ended. So if you take away the glamorous girl you definitely can’t see a girl with color, because you want to take away anything that has any sort of spirit, or individuality and once that ended it never came back.
People sit there and they look at shows like they’re at a funeral, they’re really unhappy, they’re like so sick of this being show #16 or something, they just don’t give any energy to anything anymore. At the last couple of Zac Posen shows, Pat Cleveland and I would sit together and we would just yell when clothes came out – just to make it fun again! So our industry is really needing a little oomph even to just make this letter and say to people and tell it, because the industry needs a little tickling. It’s flat!
J: You’re right, people are just over it; there is too much of everything.
B: They are! I think people are over it but they have no choice- they gotta do it, you go and you go and now it’s turned into a circus. The Bryant Park tents were one thing, that was calm, then they started having all these things inside the tent and now Lincoln Center is like a true circus. Every fool is outside taking pictures – it has gotten out of control. So the glamour and the style of the business has changed because it’s not that anymore. It’s Instagram now. It’s quick and fast. It’s like, let me show you my crazy stuff and then I keep it moving; but there is no nurturing, you know?
J: It’s that with the girls too. So many times you’ll have a beautiful girl one season, do every single thing, and then she’ll fall off the face of the earth.
B: That’s because the designer is not involved and the job of the other guy is to keep it moving. If his job was to develop girls things would be different. We’ve lost control and that is an unfortunate thing because it should be a little different, it really should.
J: Now would you say, is there any small glimmer of hope? Are there any designers that you think are doing it right? Or models that you think are making things exciting?
B: Perfect old-time examples are Issey Miyake and you could count on Jean Paul Gaultier to do it right. I got a little worried because someone told me that Marc Jacobs only had one girl of color this season, but my assistant and I sat there and we looked at his whole show and true to form he had 4.
J: What started that movement in the 80s with the rise of all those great black models?
B: Well thank god Régis Pagniez came in from Paris from Elle Magazine when they needed to put an American Elle here. Thank god for that man; that changed everything because Régis Pagniez loved women of color, he loved women and he didn’t hesitate putting black girls on the cover. That magazine changed so fast that Condé Nast, all of a sudden they had to jump with it just to stay relevant.
And there were a lot of great girls. It’s not like today where they grab anything and they think that’s a good one. Those girls had figures, they had legs – the legs of these girls today are so bad, I can’t get over how they don’t look at it. They think that because that’s what they have, let’s accept it, but you can’t.
That said, I think now we can make a difference. When you start hearing them say, they’ll take a girl, a brown girl, but if she becomes famous or successful, then she’s too famous. And then they’ll take a brown girl for a season and then they get rid of her because they all used her that season. I mean, you know, the girl that’s really good sometimes can’t catch a break. It takes a good fight for an agent to keep a girl afloat, especially a girl of color, I know the fight that they have.
I think that we have a chance now. I’m not here to help black people though, white people need help. They need to see what’s happening here is not going in the right direction. Black people don’t need the help. It’s the other guy that really needs the help understanding. I think that now we have a chance… I do think there’s a chance now, I don’t know how much and I don’t know how permanent it will be.
J: Which designers need the most help in that regard?
B: Céline needs a wake up, because people really love their stuff. They really do. And I think that Phoebe has got to be a cool girl, but she’s just never thought about being diverse. I don’t know why, because I just believe that she’s a cool person. You know of course someone spanked me a bit in my Twitter account, I think she was from Germany, she said, “You cannot write letters accusing racism and then turn around and say that designers are good people, it’s confusing” and I thought, “Wow”. And I don’t respond to comments or anything but there are so many things I wanted to say to her.
I don’t want the people whose names are on the list to think that I think that they’re bad or racist, but the act is definitely. It can improve a little bit, but the thing I’ve learned from what I’ve done, is that activism has to remain active. You can’t be an activist and then go on too long a holiday. Because everything will slide right back.
J: That’s very wise words. I mean I feel like fashion doesn’t have as much of an activist spirit anymore, not many people speak freely about things that go on.
B: Not anymore, definitely in the past you may have had people speak up about things, I mean everyone is pretty much excited about their emails and their social media. They quoted me saying in the paper, “that someone of power needs to slap these guys around” “Do you want to explain that?” I didn’t mean you have to do it physically; I meant that someone in power, in a way of speaking should say, “You know I think we need to change this”, and if that person in power does that, then things would be like that (snaps). Because things would be under that light. A designer was told by her stylist that if she used this many girls of color she wouldn’t get editorial recognition, and she said, well I guess I’m not going to get any editorial recognition, because I have to use these girls of color. I also had someone say to me that just using this particular girl that the editorial world has sort of stopped using, no one is coming and trying to support them.
People have said to me… Are you afraid of their backlash and I said, if they’re not afraid, I’m not. I mean what is there to be afraid of? I’m not going to get a garment? There’s none of that. I know my industry. I grew up in this business before most of these people were even here. It’s a business… it’s a simple industry business that’s apparel driven… They just don’t realize the effect they have and that’s where ignorance is bliss.
Cindy Bruna at Calvin Klein, photo by Billy Rood / Models.com
Grace Mahary at Helmut Lang, photo by Billy Rood / Models.com
Kai Newman at Calvin Klein, photo by Billy Rood / Models.com