‘Invisible beauty’: Fashion icon Bethann Hardison tells it like it is

In 'Invisible Beauty', fashion icon Bethann Hardison tells it like it is

Bethann Hardison doesn’t like the word beauty. She told me that the day after the premiere of her first film, Invisible beauty, at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday night. A documentary she directed with Frédéric Tcheng, the story focuses on her life and contribution to the world of fashion, and in particular the rise of models with personality, especially black models.

“We can talk about bodies, but beauty is not something I’m comfortable with, it’s something else,” she tells ESSENCE. “People always want to talk to me about beauty, and that’s not my thing.”

In 'Invisible Beauty', fashion icon Bethann Hardison tells it like it is
Bethann Hardison appears in Invisible Beauty by Bethann Hardison and Frédéric Tcheng, an official selection of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival Premiere Program. Courtesy of the Sundance Institute | photo by Olivier Toscani

It’s an interesting sentiment considering that fashion and beauty are inexplicably linked in most people’s minds, as even the film’s title implies. Nonetheless, the story of the project shows Hardison’s rise in the fashion world, in which she broke boundaries as a black model with what her friend and photographer Bruce Weber describes as an “interesting face” combined with an androgynous look, revealing that she was indeed among the models who were the pioneers of its birth. Particularly notable in Hardison’s modeling career was the time when she was part of a team of models who went to France in 1973 and participated in the Battle of Versailles show. Due to the inclusion of black models like Hardison, the American act stood out and was well received by the audience.

Hardison has of course been more than just the face of the fashion world, beginning her pre-model career working in the clothing industry to owning her own modeling agency after many years of modeling, even being responsible for introducing Tyson Beckford to the world while contributing to the careers of big names like Naomi Campbell, Veronica Webb and Iman.

However, it was Hardison’s activism in the industry that cemented her position as a true fashion advocate and icon, and one who had the power to change the industry in terms of representation. From creating the Black Girl Coalition in the late ’80s to making a comeback in the post-2000s era to calling out the racism of the fashion industry—no doubt—Hardison has always been at the forefront of change and representation.

“It’s hard to be an activist,” says Hardison, “it takes a lot of energy.”

The article continues after the video.

Tcheng, who describes himself as “not a fashion guy,” wanted to partner with Hardison, whom he met in 2014, because he fell in love with her personality as much as her story.

“The way she talks is philosophical but also very funny,” Tchend said, adding, “I had to grow up to make this movie.”

The growth and awareness of the industry’s relationship to black models, thanks to Hardison’s work, runs strongly throughout the film. The project also depicts her complex upbringing and experiences as an adult, including her life as a mother who raised Kadeem Hardison, who later became an actor, notably starring in A different world.

Throughout the film, Hardison is direct and authentic about who she is, what she has accomplished, and even what she has contributed. This includes, perhaps, the topic of conversation that this film will most likely stimulate, representation. In this sense, Hardison is not just trying to make room for black people, but for everyone.

“It’s not a black community, it’s not a white community,” she says. “It’s about the community, the global community.”

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