Within minutes of sitting on stage next to Fern Mallis at 92Y for the latest installment of "Fashion Icons" on Thursday night, Bethann Hardison had the audience bubbling with laughter. She was warm and relaxed with the longtime host, which makes sense — she is, after all, the only 92Y guest to have ever visited Mallis's weekend home in the Hamptons. Hardison is a woman of many stories, and she answered each question thoughtfully and fully, from her brief stint in a gang as a child to getting discovered on the streets of New York by Willi Smith. She's an open book about nearly everything, with the exception of her age.
"My father never told his age, my mother never told her age — I think that's my excuse," Hardison explains to Mallis. "But my real reason in my upper part of my mind is that it always delights me when people want to know what other people's age is. There are many people who don't mind saying how old they are, but I like to go out like you never know and then when it's all over, you say, 'She was that old?'"
Though she's a force in the industry and her impact is anything but a mystery, pinning down Hardison's exact title is also an impossible task. She's worn a plethora of hats in her life, from model to muse, to talent manager to producer. But perhaps the one hat that has remained throughout her life is activist. The proud Brooklyn-native has worked tirelessly to diversify the fashion industry, winning several awards for her efforts, including the Black Alumni of the Pratt Institute Lifetime Achievement Award, the Frederick Douglass Award and a CFDA Award.
Below are the highlights from Hardison's conversation with Mallis, including her experience modeling at the iconic Battles of Versailles fashion show, why she avoids the term "Black designers" and more.
On Willi Smith's Contribution to Fashion
Willi Smith was an up-and-coming fashion designer when he spotted a young Hardison running errands for the showroom she worked for in New York during the 1960s. Smith, who died in 1987, was taken by Hardison, and she quickly became his muse and eventually his assistant. She credits Smith for the creation of the authentic definition of streetwear. "If anyone created streetwear, it was Willi Smith," says Hardison. "Whenever you were out on the street, you always saw people in Willi-wear, so it became streetwear. Everyone had Willi Smith — and Willi was a basic sportswear designer, but his shapings were great."
Hardison also considered Smith a profoundly kind person who was well-liked in the industry: "He, as a human being, was so special. He really was that kind of charming guy that all the [interviewers] loved. He was wise enough to know how to send you flowers if something happened. He was just a well-raised Black kid," she said.
On the Loss of Freedom in the Modeling Industry
At the height of Hardison's modeling days during the late 1960s through the 1970s, she quickly become known for her ability to wow the crowd with her graceful dance moves down the runway — a complete departure from the current runway etiquette, which she considers much more confined.
"In that time frame, we could do anything we wanted," she explains. "The designers would hope that you'd come prepared to bring them inspiration.... That was the freedom at the time. You could do whatever your personality was — and the audience expected it."
Hardison tells Mallis that she was often dressed in "the worst" sportswear with the expectation that she could sell it through her personality on the runway. She recalls a time where she was sent out onto the runway by Calvin Klein in a plaid cowboy shirt, and she managed to absolutely wow the crowd. "I danced that whole runway. The audience went wild," recalls Hardison. "When I came back, Calvin said, 'What do you do out there?' But the shirt sold like you couldn't believe."
On the Famous Battle of Versailles Fashion Show
Among her many achievements, Hardison was one of 10 Black models — an unprecedented number at the time — to walk in the 1973 Battle of Versailles fashion show, a game-changing event that pitted French and American designers against each other in front of roughly 700 guests. The show, which featured Anna Klein and Oscar de la Renta, among others, took place at the Palace of Versailles in France and was an effort to raise money for its restoration.
Hardison, who nearly didn't go because models were required to walk in a minimum of three shows during the event and she was initially only scouted for two, recalls the thrill of the American designers wowing the predominantly French crowd with their variety of ready-to-wear and sportswear collections. "I defied everyone in that entire audience. I defied that entire room," says the fashion veteran. "I really wanted them to know that [the American designers] were here to take this because we had been put down so much."
On Gucci's 'Blackface' Sweater Scandal
Hardison, who now serves as a consultant to Gucci for their diversity initiatives, doesn't see the controversial balaclava at the source of the luxury brand's backlash earlier this year as an actual example of blackface, but she empathizes with those who do.
"Many people saw it as... blackface — that's how someone sees something and feels something. That's fair," says Hardison. "Was it the intent — the person making it saying, 'I'm just going to go out there and make some racist thing for people?' No."
But Hardison appreciates companies who take initiatives to mend whatever wounds their art causes, despite it being unintentional, by bringing people of color into the fold to provide another perspective. "[Gucci] pulling me in [for their diversity initiative] is big. I'm impressed," she says. "To be hired to advise the brand is wonderful."
On Why She Doesn't Like the Term 'Black Designers'
As a CFDA consultant, Hardison has been tasked with helping cultivate up-and-coming designers and facilitate diversity in the industry, but she's quick to explain to Mallis why she doesn't like the term "Black designers."
"I just like designers, and if you look at them, they're Black," she says. "'Black designers' sounds like a cult or a rash — like the measles."
Hardison discussed an earlier time where she saw a renaissance of designers, who happened to be Black, but that swell seemed to have gone down for some time. Now, she anticipates a fastly-approaching comeback, with figures like Pyer Moss's Kerby Jean-Raymond, LaQuan Smith and others.
"We're coming," she says succinctly.