Bethan Hardison walked the runway alongside Iman as a model. As an agent, he discovered Tyson Beckford and mentored supermodels such as Naomi Campbell. As an activist, Hardison revolutionized the fashion industry. From runway shows in the 1970s to roundtables about the lack of racial diversity in the early 2000s, the former model has seen her swing toward and away from black models.
In “Invisible Beauty,” a documentary directed by Hardison and Frederic Cheng (“Halston,” “Dior and Me”), Hardison reflects on her personal journey, her fight to change representation in the fashion industry and the cost of being a pioneer. In addition to Hardison’s voice, the doc features interviews with her mentors and collaborators, including Campbell, Beckford, Iman, Tracee Ellis Ross, Fran Lebowitz, Pat Cleveland, Stephen Burroughs, Whoopi Goldberg, Ralph Lauren, and Bruce Weber. The film also looks to the future with insights into a new generation that Hardison has inspired, including Zendaya, designer-activist Aurora James and designer Kirby Jean-Raymond.
Ahead of the doc’s Sundance premiere on January 21, diversity Hardison spoke with Cheng about the importance of film and the fight for diversity in the fashion industry.
How would you classify this film? Is it a bio doc or a social issue doc? Or both?
Cheng: It’s a hybrid of all these things because Bethan is a hybrid of all these things. But I can tell you that it was definitely an editing challenge. Probably the biggest editing challenge I’ve faced in my career.
hardison: The only thing I always hope is that people can walk away knowing they learned something. You can just ask—that people get up and say, “Wow. That was interesting.”
Frederic, did you always know you wanted to co-direct this project with Bethan?
Cheng: The relationship between filmmaker and subject is often characterized by unequal access to power, privilege, and authorship. Who is allowed to tell the story? Who is allowed to control an image? Who has the privilege of self-representation? These questions have clear parallels to those raised by Bethan’s advocacy work. We wanted to put them at the core of our process. We worked together to make Bethan’s voice central to her storytelling. Through active inquiry and intergenerational dialogue, we sought to more fully explore the existential nature of a life well lived.
The doc explores the untold chapters of the fashion industry One is about the opening of the Soviet bloc, which flooded the industry with Russian models in the 2000s, leading designers like Prada and Calvin Klein to use only white, very thin models. Bethan, you fought that trend. Are you still fighting for ethnic diversity in the fashion industry?
hardison: Oh no. The industry is now very diverse. So, so ethnically diverse. It’s totally, like, Kumbaya. They learned. But I am concerned that they are going so far to the left that the pendulum swings back to the middle and then to the right. But in the end, I really think the industry is in it to win it.