By MATTHEW SCHNEIER -The New York Times
Bethann Hardison, the fashion industry gadfly, has adopted a slogan: “Activism needs to remain active.”
Her cause is the lack of diversity on fashion’s runways, its magazine pages and its ad campaigns. It is one that she has pursued vocally for years, as the ebb and flow of trends steer models of color into and out of favor.
Now, for being a persistent thorn in the side of an industry that often prefers to ignore the issue, Ms. Hardison is to receive the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Founders Award in June. Most thorns get plucked. This one is getting a trophy.
“I became so emotional, because all I could think about was the revolution,” Ms. Hardison said of her reaction. “Viva la revolution. First thing, I said, ‘I’ve got to call Fidel!’ ”
She kids — about Mr. Castro, at least. If she is a revolutionary, she is a merry one, more a good-humored educator than a scold.
Still, Ms. Hardison’s approach is unvarnished by political correctness. “I looked and I saw,” she said. “I figured if they could do it, I could say it.”
It helps that she has been an insider for decades. She began modeling in the late 1960s, appearing with Pat Cleveland and Alva Chinn in the 1973 “Grand Divertissement à Versailles.”
She then became a modeling agent, founding Bethann Management in 1984. It was, she said, a “white agency,” but it also represented many models of color, among them Veronica Webb, Roshumba Williams and Tyson Beckford. When designers were disinclined to at least consider any but white models, she was inclined to press the point.
Eventually, she tired of the modeling world, and in 1996 she shut her agency and moved briefly to Mexico. But when, in the late ’90s, the trend for highly individualized models shifted toward more clonelike casting, Ms. Hardison felt beckoned back.
A friend, Kim Hastreiter, the founder and editor of Paper Magazine, said, “I remember talking to Bethann, saying, ‘Wow, you left fashion, and there’s not one person of color on the runway.’ ”
Ms. Hardison returned to agitating. She created the Diversity Coalition, which she says comprises concerned industry professionals at all levels (and of all races). Its roster remains anonymous, though Ms. Hardison has appeared publicly with two members, the models Naomi Campbell and Iman.
“In my heyday, black models worked more than they worked today,” said Iman, who calls Ms. Hardison her closest friend. “I thought, what the hell is this on about?”
Ms. Hardison said: “When a designer today uses all white kids, I just think, what’s wrong with them? And I love white kids. But I just don’t understand how you can do that.”
Last September, the Coalition published open letters to the directors of the CFDA and analogous bodies in London, Milan and Paris, naming those designers whose runway shows included no or only one token model of color. (Somewhat controversially, Asian models were excluded from this count.)
A follow-up came in February. Whether the direct result of the letters or not, the numbers had improved. Shows that had previously included no models of color in the Coalition’s reckoning, like Céline’s, suddenly had four.
The designer Phoebe Philo is “a girl who we knew was cool,” Ms. Hardison said, “but they’ve never, from the time she’s been there, used anyone of color. That’s so stupid. Yet the Céline accessories are some of the best accessories, and every basketball wife’s got one.”
The goal, she added, is a more even balance. “We don’t have to make it 50-50,” she said. “But we need to catch up a little bit.”
Ms. Hardison now divides her time between several projects: a planned documentary on diversity in fashion; a few clients she continues to manage, including Mr. Beckford; and needling the industry on inclusiveness.
“I find it a joy to bring some energy back to fashion, by calling it out,” she said. “Fashion needs it.”
Even many on the receiving end of her bullhorn don’t hesitate to support her.
“Everyone was in 100 percent agreement” when she was suggested for the award, said Steven Kolb, the chief executive of the CFDA.
Michael Bastian, who hires Ms. Hardison as the casting director for his runway shows, said: “Everything she’s saying is something that needed to be said. And she’s a great one to say it.”