Activist and former model, Bethann Hardison, has been a longtime fighter for diversity in fashion and some have called her the industry’s conscience. She’s spent countless hours on panels and doing behind-the-scenes work to improve our industry and country. As the Black Lives Matter Movement has grown in recent weeks, I was curious what Hardison had to say about everything going on so I called her earlier this month and again last week to talk about the issues facing our world today and what the industry can do.
I have such admiration for you as a leader and just wanted to talk to you for a couple of minutes and hear your perspective about everything going on and maybe some words of encouragement, how we can all do better. I’m curious what your outlook is. Do you think things will be different after these couple of weeks?
Do you want to know if I think this is going to be different? Immediately? I think things are already different. In my entire life, I have been someone who was a bit militant in my early years before you were born. I have gone down roads of demonstrating, rioting and marching and this is the first time, I have never experienced it close up even within the city and the swelling of it. [Hardison is currently residing in Upstate, New York] The rallying environment of it. I have never seen it like this. This is something completely different. This is not the way we the people riot. I believe that strongly and I don’t care what anyone thinks. Somebody else came here and got involved and is utilizing it to do whatever their intent is. We don’t riot like that, we don’t go on tour. At first I was upset because it’s my city, but in the end it comes with the territory. One may be demonstrating peacefully, one may be destroying stores, one might be burning down buildings, whether it’s to my liking or not, it’s all part of the revolution. It’s not like a question of “What do you think will happen?” Well, I’m not sure. When everyone can watch and see an officer with his knee on someone’s neck while someone is asking for a breath to be taken because the oxygen is leaving him. Everyone saw that. So it has had an effect on everyone. With the unrest, that was something that helps to put the mayonnaise on the bread. The truth of it is that everybody is now having to feel the need, they maybe always had solidarity, but now they have to raise their hand and show that they are stepping up. They will now do something different in their company and be more conscious of certain things. That’s what is most important to me.
What’s affected you the most?
The racism started with COVID-19 when minorities were hit the hardest. Even before racial injustice that everyone is marching for. With COVID-19 making everybody be in place, sit in the seat, be quiet, don’t go far, don’t go out of the house, but many of us were not able to do that because they couldn’t isolate. That gives you an opportunity to be aware. Then this thing happens. Mr. Floyd dying is one thing, the destruction of the stores and the cities is a whole other thing. It has an effect. For me, I am quite annoyed because I am a born and bred New Yorker and I don’t like my city being destroyed because I don’t blame or imply that, the fact Mr. Floyd lost his life is not greater but this is beyond that, this is some other stuff. We get angry, we stay in the neighborhood and we care for our own. We don’t go far. We don’t get that kind of energy. So will things be different? Yes in some conscious way it will be, everything maybe won’t be so blatant. Maybe we can’t make huge changes in everything but there will be people, there will be companies who don’t want to be on the wrong side of it. I’m saying to everybody that they have a voice to be heard. Be on the right side of history. Don’t worry about what people on the Internet are going to say. Show up and do the right thing loud. Let people know that you care. The haters are still going to question you but you don’t want that to stop you from actually standing up and saying the right thing. It’s very difficult for white people to talk about racial issues and not everyone can do that. I understand that. It is a very difficult subject, you don’t want to say the wrong thing, you don’t want to be wrong, you don’t want to not step up, you don’t know what to say, but you just don’t want to come off as politically incorrect. You have to have the courage and have people of wisdom around you. It just doesn’t necessarily come with the territory. Not every human being is wise, no matter what color we are.
What do you think of the recent initiatives from the CFDA to support black talent? Were you content with what they issued?
It is a great initiative. Put the key in the car and the motor turns on. Anytime somebody gets that to happen it’s brilliant. We are seeing a mandate from an organization because sometimes it takes a moment, the right time to happen, for people to be able to find the right way to stand up. I think with these initiatives they stayed in their lane. I tell everybody please just stay in your lane, don’t start going outside of trying to solve things that are beyond you. Stay where you can control and actually do it, don’t bite off more than you can chew. Run your own race. I think they stayed right in their frame of where they could be effective. I am happy that the CFDA also chose the NAACP because that’s old school establishment. The CFDA is not in charge of designers, they can’t make designers do anything. All they are is a council, they’re an umbrella. Designers, brands, and retailers still have to do their own thing.
What else do you think the fashion community can do right now?
That is the kind of stuff I deal with every day. I like what the Gucci Changemakers are doing, of course, because I’m a changemaker. They have been doing philanthropic work for some time. Nobody knows it because they just do it. The Gucci Changemakers have sponsored different organizations in the United States to help underserved communities and give 20 scholarships to students who are interested in the business of fashion or fashion design. That’s what brands can do when they can: give scholarships. Now, who does that? It is very important to stand very strong in a point of crisis. You have to be very heels in the sand. Don’t waiver. Your language should be if they want to question you, they can. They can always talk back but the point is that you have to stand strong. It is a great moment for any brand to make improvements and do more.
Are you feeling optimistic about things?
Somebody asked me that yesterday and I said I am feeling hopeful. Hope is not a word that I normally use. I’ve never doubted in my mind the reason why I was so devastated in 2016 once I learned the results of the election of the President of the United States, I knew it was for 8 years. May I be wrong. Everyone said it wasn’t possible but I never doubted two terms and I have never wavered from this thought. I can only think of plan B. What are you gonna do when this is the way you didn’t want it to go down? I don’t have the freedom or the good mind to be hopeful because I am just thinking about circumstances. I don’t look at that like “Oh my god, we are all going to die, I’m moving! I’m leaving America!” I haven’t gotten that far. At the end of the day, I am a New York City kid who likes my country even though we have a really tough moment right now. Really tough. Everybody in the world can see why it’s tough. They see who is the lead horse. For me, I just think you have to be very strong, wise and prepared. Some people aren’t saying the most peaceful things but it’s not over just because it doesn’t look so good for awhile. It’s not the end. It might take a moment to get to the next light. We certainly don’t want this administration and this gentleman. If it’s going to change surely we need to see a change in the White House. I would even take the Senate if I can get the Senate!
I’m hoping for both!
I am so proud of my local government, my governor, my mayor, so many people have woken up and smelled the coffee. A lot of things will be done differently and it’s not just about race. Society is different than what it was a few months ago. I only hope people have taken advantage of the pause. Whether you were solo [during quarantine] or doing schooling with your kids, that has helped make things change. Things aren’t going to be exactly the same again. I don’t know how many people are dying to hug other people and kiss other people, but I think things have changed. We have something to put our minds to with fixing basic education, racial injustice, and police brutality.
Lots of work to be done!