Thursday, May 5, 2011

Fashion Giant: Bethann Hardison

If you are of a certain age, one of your favourite TV characters may have been Dwayne Wayne from the 90s American TV sitcom, A Different World. 

Dwayne Wayne was played by actor Kadeem Hardison. On this occasion, we’re not going to talk too much about Kadeem, but rather his mother Bethann whom we think is pretty amazing.

Hardison, currently editor-at-large at Vogue Italia online, is a towering figure within the world of fashion. She grew up in New York in a devout Muslim family and became the first African-American salesperson to work in a New York City garment district showroom in the 60s. After a chance meeting with the designer Willi Smith, she became part of a gaggle of coloured models who took the world by storm back in the 1970s.

During her modelling career, the New York native framed the clothes of many top European and American designers as well as appearing in fashion spreads in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Iman, Beverley Johnson and Pat Cleveland were among Hardison’s contemporaries on the catwalk.

Hardison, however, is better known for her work after she wrapped up her career on the runway. She became an agent first with a company called Click before setting up her own modelling agency Bethann Management in 1984. One of her early successes was the 80s supermodel Veronica Webb who went on to win a very much coveted multi-million dollar contract with Revlon.

Veronica Webb

Remember Ralph Lauren poster boy, Tyson Beckford? He’s another protégé of Hardison.  He wasn’t just the first black male supermodel; he was the first male supermodel full stop.

British supermodel, Naomi Campbell is another who owes her start in the fashion industry to the wonder touch of Hardison. But the 65-year-old has been so much more than an agent; she has championed the cause of people of colour in fashion.

Liya Kebede, Iman, Bethann, Naomi

In 1988, she set up a pressure group, the Black Girls Coalition with her great friend Iman (She was maid of honour at the Sudanese model’s wedding to David Bowie).

Bethann Hardison by Bruce Weber

After running her agency for 21 years, Hardison sold up and headed for a great retirement. But as the fortune of models of colour continued to decline, the 63-year-old was forced to return, this time as a spokesperson.  She is particularly disappointed about the lack of brown-skinned models on the catwalk and in magazine spreads, particularly after the heyday of the 70s.

Bethann (left) with Daniele Morera and Stephen Burrows 

“Once you’ve climbed to the top of the mountain you don’t expect to be back at the bottom again. It’s like once you’ve seen Paris it’s hard to go back to the farm. We had been there, we had achieved all this,” Hardison told London’s Guardian newspaper back in 2008. 

Hardison (left) strutting on the catwalk

In addition to all her campaigning, Hardison has a hugely influential role within Vogue Italia.  She is very much the inspiration behind Vogue Black, which as its name suggests promotes all things black in the world of fashion.