Text by JARED GRABOW
Photography by WILLIAM LORDS
It’s the early 1970s and fashion icon and innovator Calvin Klein had just started to bring runway shows to his large loft in lower Manhattan. A who’s who crowd of designers, models, and magazine editors hobnob with industry preferiti, awaiting the next act. The music stops. Out steps the young, beautiful, black model, Bethann Hardison. Dressed in a plain plaid country shirt and dark bell-bottom pants, she cues the music with a nod and waits. A slow beat starts, and she starts to tap her feet. A formerly trained tap dancer, she improvises a routine, and the crowd goes wild. Minutes after, an elated Calvin would come grab her away from the crowd in bewilderment. “What was that?” The CK finance team would tell her that the shirt she wore would be the most sold in their collection to date. She stole the show. In a sense, this one event would be a microcosm for the rest of her career and life. Fearless. Inspiring. Authentic.
Walking up to her Gramercy Park apartment on a crisp fall day, you get the sense that you are stepping into history. “My friends and I used to ride our bikes around different neighborhoods just like this one”, she says, “just hoping to live in a place like this one day”. Bethann’s stylish yet eclectic apartment includes artwork from Andy Warhol and an anthology of African wood sculptures. Aside from pictures with elite fashion icons are stacks of fashion magazines spanning decades lined across several coffee tables. It’s just the place to cozy up for a long conversation with the hope that you’d have no particular place to be.
Bethann’s career is pretty much common knowledge among people who have followed fashion throughout the years. Most know her as a top model, agent, manager and mentor. And many consider her to be a strong voice promoting diversity in the world of fashion. Before there was a Naomi Campbell or a Chanel Iman, there was Bethann Hardison. Her story starts in the humble origins in Brooklyn, in the gritty pre-gentrified Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood. It was there that her mother, primarily raised her, taking weekly trips across the neighborhood to visit her father. Early on, she enjoyed following her mother around town, and distinctly recalls growing up around the local neighborhood bar scene. “I’ve always wanted to be a good woman to a man, and to own a bar”, Hardison grins. “My mother always used to say the same thing”. Hardison acknowledges what many would probably agree with: Life is better with a partner. “As a female, it’s one of your destinies. You get with someone and you just want to be good at it. You keep one foot in front of the other and keep doing good things”. When asked what role the bar scene had in her upbringing, Hardison expands. “Well there’s just something about bars. I liked the old school ones. It didn’t matter if you were black or Irish or whatever. Back in the sixties it was kind of like Amsterdam. People would just come in and sit. They’d come in and out, and spend all day in bars, finding friends, finding loves, there was such a raw energy”. People watching turned into a love for clothes. In her teenage years, Bethann got her start as a “showroom girl” in the Garment district in the early 1960s. It was there that she met the late, great designer Willi Smith. He had seen her around town several times and had mistaken her for a fellow designer. It wasn’t long before Willi had the idea that Bethann had to be a part of his team. “Willi wanted me to be his muse”, Hardison explains. Bethann started to attend appearances and events with Smith. “It was mostly all just for fun. I didn’t know exactly where it would lead”. On a couple occasions, Hardison would personally run Smith’s designs to Bernie Osler, who led the American apparel conglomerate, Federated Holdings. Federated was where all roads would lead to in he US apparel industry in the sixties. The only thing that surpassed Osler’s personality was perhaps his size. “He was a big guy, like [Casablanca movie star] Sydney Greenstreet”, Hardison explains. Bernie would go to Europe several times a year to try to find new ideas for his stores. He’d come back from trips to Paris and Milan with truckloads of new clothes, and needed a platform to put them on display to Federated’s group of buyers. “Bernie was a big Broadway lover, and that’s just how he wanted his fashion shows”. One day Willi asked Hardison to run some samples over to Bernie that he wanted in the next Broadway style fashion show. Hardison seized the opportunity. Shortly after introducing herself, she pushed all the chips to the middle. “If you want a good show, you’ll have me in it” Hardison said, turning as she walked out the door. She walked the few blocks across the Garment District back to Willi’s studio, and when she walked in the door he stood smiling. “I don’t know what you said, but Bernie just called. He wants you in the show”.
This big break would lead to many appearances and to Hardison making a name for herself. But to Hardison it wasn’t about having a celebrity status. It was always about the clothes. “People throw around that word – fashion. What does it even mean anymore? People should say they are designers of apparel, not fashion designers. People can’t even get to the word since it sits on such a glamorous pedestal. It’s not real”. To Bethann, her job was to sell the clothes. She just so happened to be great at it. “Give it to Bethann. She’ll sell it”, became the anthem of many of the top designers at the time. In an era when black women were just starting to break into consistent modeling work, Bethann was able to consistently deliver.
Just when Hardison’s modeling career was set to take off, her personal life had her balancing another role – motherhood. Her young son Kareem was starting to grow up, and even in early childhood his budding personality was on display. Kareem showed an independent spirit, and shared his mother’s passion for the arts. Hardison recall’s one story that demonstrated Kareem was comfortable in his own skin at an early age. While only around ten years old, Kareem’s classmate had invited him to go on a trip with his family to the small island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. Hardison drove Kareem to the airport, and handed him the ticket. “I thought he may be nervous, or I’d at least have to walk him up to the gate”, Hardison remembers. The young Kareem kindly thanked his mother for the ticket, grabbed it, and made a beeline for the security gate without looking back. Hardison laughed. He was his mother’s son. Not long after, she started to consider Kareem’s future. What did he want to be when he grew up? During a few busy years while Bethann’s modeling career was particularly demanding, Kareem was living with his grandmother BedStuy. Bethann came back for a visit between shoots, and an idea jumped out at her. “Why don’t you try acting?” Bethann suggested. “Start now by acting as a boy who lost his dog”. Kareem shrugged, giving a look that basically said “why not?” He paused for a second, and slowly started looking around the room. Then he walked around the room, looking under tables and behind curtains. Slowly his face transformed from a saddened look to despair. The chilling performance gave both his mother and grandmother goosebumps. At such an early age, he was able to do what few actors could. He drew in the audience without saying a word. “That’s it”, Hardison said. “Whenever anyone asks what you want to do, you say you’re an actor”. Years later Kareem would act in “The Cosby Show” and get a lead role in “A Different World”. Bill Cosby pulled Bethann over one day at an event. “That son of yours – he’s got timing”, he said. “The Cosby Show” was one of the first television depictions of a healthy black American family, which would have an impact both on black communities, but also in the perception of these families among people of different colors. When asked if Bethann knew this impact as the show was happening, Bethann pauses. “Nobody knows the impact of something while they are creating it. You try to create and find truth, but the accessing the impact always comes later”.
As Bethann’s modeling career was winding down, her second act would prove to be equally successful. Hardison spent several years at the modeling agency Click, which was founded in 1980 by brothers Frances and Joey Grill along with Allan Mindel. Bethann quickly found a home with Click, and her strong work ethic and keen eye for talent would help turn Click into one of the top agencies in the business throughout the 1980s. “We weren’t bigger, we were just better”, Bethann recalls. “We spent a lot of time thinking about visualizing the image we were after”. Bethann describes the type of models that gave Click its unique and edgy brand at the time. “We called them clamdiggers. They were the kids on the beach, the boys next door. The girls weren’t the perfect pretty blondes. They were edgier. We started to change how people looked at the model”. Soon this new look was in demand. Names like Ralph and Calvin came calling. Magazine editors started to reevaluate everything they thought they knew about what a model was. Hardison recalls what it was like at the peak. “The phones rang off the hook. We barely took lunch breaks”. While Hardison was at the top of her game with Click, she started to get some advice from friends and industry colleagues, who recommended that she start her own agency. Two of her friends pushed her to get things started, and even offered to help find the startup capital. “I only thought I was going to do it about three to five years”, Hardison remembers. “Five years became fifteen”. Hardison’s previous success and rolodex would open doors for the new agency, and she would play pivotal mentoring roles for both Tyson Beckford and Naomi Campbell. Hardison’s reputation for finding new modeling talent led to strong relationships with designers, who praised her ability to deliver different looks than competing agencies. These unique looks also helped brands such as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein develop financial success. Hardison compares that era of modeling to the new celebrity crazed culture which has driven the bottom line of the fashion industry today. “It’s a wave that’s turned into a tsunami, and the tsunami is the celebrity”, Hardison suggests. “I would call Kate Upton a celebrity first, model second. When I look at Gwyeneth Paltrow I don’t see the product. When I see a model I always see the product. In some ways I think the celebrity takes away from it a bit”.
Recently Hardison has taken on an activist role to advocate for the diversity of color on the runways. Through the years, particularly the 1980’s, Hardison played a more direct role of finding and developing unique and different modeling options. Now she continues bringing awareness to the issue in other ways. One example is the open letter she wrote, naming over fifty fashion houses including top names such as Alexander McQueen, Chanel, Prada, Versace, and Marc Jacobs for their lack of a commitment to diversity. Many point to Hardison as a voice of reason in an industry that has been criticized as out of touch with modern times.
Hardison has had a rich life and a full career. She has impacted countless lives. Ironically, much of what she accomplished was a byproduct of her strong persona, tireless work ethic, fortunate encounters and the times in which she lived. The funny part is modeling really was never part of the plan. “Remember, all I ever really wanted was to be a good woman to a man, and to run a bar”, Hardison laughs. “I think I still want to own that bar”. Fortunately, I think one of those goals has been known to lead to the other.