In November 1973, the world of fashion gathered at the Château de Versailles, emblem of French opulence, for a fundraiser that had become an unforgettable event. The Battle of Versailles was a parade that pitted French designers against American designers, a David and Goliath situation between couture royalty and new world entrants. What Americans lacked in theatrics and set design, however, they made up for in personality. Of the 36 models America invited to walk, 10 of them were black – an unprecedented number for the industry (then and, truth be told, now). Among them was Bethann Hardison, who talks about the experience of invisible beautya documentary she co-directed with Frédéric Tcheng (Dior and me).
“I knew those people thought we were less,” Hardison said of the French spectators in attendance. “The more I walk, the tougher, stronger and more intense I become with an attitude.” His gait was resolute, vigorous and defiant. “I let them know we were there,” the model added in her testimonial. The audience loved it. At the end of his moment, they threw down their programs and burst into thunderous applause. Hardison knew then that Americans had won the battle overseas, and it inspired her to apply a similar energy to changing the industry at home.
A solid hymn to a pioneering model.
invisible beauty is a grateful self-portrait of the fashion world’s maverick, a thoughtful story of how one woman worked to move her industry’s tenacious needle of progress forward. With Hardison as co-director, the film takes on the tone and structure of a memoir instead of a standard biopic. A taped conversation between Tcheng and Hardison plays early in the project, establishing its collaborative structure. In a world where black women’s work is too easily buried (in life and thereafter), it makes sense that Hardison, a woman whose fingerprints have touched every part of this rigid industry, would want to enshrine her legacy .
Duet volley ideas for different ways to start the documentary. Should they start with Hardison writing his memoirs, outlining the challenges of self-reflection? Or do you dive deep into his career, chronicling his various advocacy efforts? They decide on a simple timeline, taking the film to Hardison’s youth in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
Hardison, who was born in 1942, is optimistic about her early years. She attended a mostly white school in New York and spent summers with relatives in Jim Crow in North Carolina. An awareness of the differences between these two places germinated early. At school, she participated in several extracurricular activities, from cheerleading to track. The peers accused her of acting white. Hardison was unfazed: “If you’re going to the circus, you better get on the merry-go-round,” she said of being one of the few black people in a white space.
This sentiment underpinned Hardison’s approach for the rest of his life. Even reflecting on her relationship with her parents, who divorced when she was a child, Hardison maintains a low-key optimism. Her charisma and pragmatic approach to obstacles made her a natural leader and problem solver once she entered the fashion industry.
Hardison fell into modeling, but once out in the world, she dominated. invisible beauty chronicles her accomplishments on the runway through interviews with Hardison, fashion critic Robin Givhan, industry stalwarts and friends and mentees like Naomi Campbell, Iman and Tyson Beckford. What emerges from these warm anecdotes, sparkling testimonies and good memories is the image of a woman committed to feeding the community in a relatively hostile context. Campbell – moved to tears at one point – repeatedly refers to Hardison as a second mother; Beckford agrees, recalling how Hardison used to set up meetings with younger role models to help them build real, lasting relationships.
The Battle of Versailles was a turning point in Hardison’s career – a moment, as described by friends and colleagues, that seemed to give the sitter a renewed sense of purpose. She returned to the United States and soon after set up her own agency. She focused on changing the industry from the inside out, recruiting models from marginalized backgrounds and helping them land gigs. In 1988, she founded the Black Girls Coalition to support black role models, and in the beginning she held town halls to foster conversation and urge industry leaders to confront their discriminatory practices. The general public as well as insiders will appreciate the details and the candor of invisible beautythat doesn’t cloak her characterization of the fashion world as extractive and trend-obsessed.
Hardison and Tcheng predict that some viewers might be put off by Hardison’s integrationist political strategy (the idea of teaching white executives to empathize and tolerate), so they also include a section that shows the maverick engaging with a younger generation of models and designers. It’s a fulfilling and demonstrative coda of a more awe-inspiring characteristic of Hardison’s style of leadership. She doesn’t expect the next group of people in the industry to necessarily agree with her methods — she just wants them to have the guts to fight their battles.
As The Black GodfatherReginald Hudlin’s ode to musical director Clarence Avant, invisible beauty is an illuminating and solid anthem to an influential industry leader. There are lessons learned and questions ultimately left unanswered. Hardison is more honest than most bio-doc topics, but the sidestepping or vagueness around certain topics — his relationship with photographer Bruce Weber, who was recently charged with sexual assault, for example, or efforts to reconnect with her son – leave nagging loose ends. Perhaps Hardison, who ends the documentary by reviewing the pages of her manuscript with an editor, will answer it in her memoir.
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