Invisible Beauty Review: Bethann Hardison’s Vital Fashion Documentary

Sundance: Frédéric Tcheng and Hardison co-direct a compelling portrait of the groundbreaking model-turned-agent who represented Iman, Naomi Campbell and Tyson Beckford.

Progress in the face of systemic injustice does not come naturally, it is driven by sheer willpower – often by a radical visionary. In the case of racism in fashion, that person is Bethann Hardison. A pioneering model in the 1970s, she became one of the key agents of the ’90s, discovering first male supermodel Tyson Beckford and mentoring Naomi Campbell and Iman. When fickle trends threatened to undo all her hard work over the next few years, she boldly called out the industry’s blatantly racist casting practices and caused seismic change once and for all.

Hardison’s remarkable and fabulous life serves as an inspirational lesson in how to effect radical change within the system, and her methods can be studied thanks to the captivating new documentary Invisible Beauty.

Hardison serves as co-writer and director alongside prolific fashion documentarian Frédéric Tcheng (Halston, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel). Her presentation is fairly conventional, but there is so much information to provide that a straightforward approach seems appropriate. While it may seem unusual for a documentary filmmaker to profile herself, the mere fact of the collaboration suggests the unstoppable force of nature in sight.

Also, Hardison isn’t the kind of established character who begs for entirely subjective portrayal (if such a thing even exists); She’s an unsung heroine of the industry who deserves her overdue flowers. As a director, she doesn’t sugarcoat the more painful aspects of her personal life, like her somewhat strained relationship with her son, ‘A Different World’ star Kadeem Hardison.

The film opens with a parade of influential figures singing Hardison’s praises: Tracee Ellis Ross, Zendaya, Whoopi Goldberg, and Fran Liebowitz all make brief appearances, although a more comprehensive analysis is provided by Iman, Campbell, Beckford, and a host of fashion figures. Tcheng shot part of the film himself during intimate visits to Hardison’s upstate residence, and the filmmakers debate how to present the wealth of material. “It all starts in Bedford Stuyvesant,” says Hardison, before moving on to upbeat archival footage from the iconic borough of Brooklyn in the 1950s and ’60s.

Although her years with him were marked by austerity, Hardison’s father was an imam who mentored Malcolm X, and she credits him with radicalizing her. After attending FIT and NYU, she began working as a sales clerk in the clothing district, where she caught the eye of aspiring black designer Willi Simpson. A fit model, her androgynous looks and expressive personality got her start on the ’70s runways, where she walked alongside Beverly Johnson, Iman and Pat Cleveland.

Despite being all the rage in New York, Hardison always felt like she was “walking into a hostile environment” when modeling for Southern buyers. She fashions her characteristic defiant gait as a shield, citing Kurosawa films as early influences: “I always thought of samurai when I walked.”

bethann hardison, "Invisible Beauty"

Bethann Hardison, “Invisible Beauty”

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Egged on by the fashion industry’s miserable racial policies, Hardison turned to booking and representation to gain wider reach in the industry. She founded the Bethann Management Agency in 1984 and co-founded The Black Girls Coalition with Iman in 1988, both with the aim of supporting African American models. Her agency was known for discovering the most interesting and dynamic models from all backgrounds, including Kimora Lee Simmons, Roshumba, Veronica Webb and Beckford. Countless interviews with industry insiders underscore Hardison’s revolutionary impact on the fashion industry in the ’90s.

However, after Hardison retired to Mexico to plan her next move, the industry suffered a demoralizing relapse into white homogeneity. Led by Prada and Calvin Klein, the proliferation of unknown Eastern European models led to the “heroin chic” look of the early years. “Fashion is so dumb,” Hardison sneers. “These are lemmings.” In 2013, she organized a bombshell press conference in which she called out the blatant racism that had become the industry norm, with casting calls often declaring, “No black, no ethnicity.” This was followed by what has come to be known as “The Shame List,” a tally of high-profile designers guilty of using little to black models in their runway shows.

The film shares this information in a fast enough clip, and the runway shows and press conference footage give the impression of cultural artifacts being defined and preserved in real time. For those who didn’t pay much attention to fashion at the time, it’s an insightful record of what went on behind the scenes and an important reminder of just how much the fashion industry influences the media. It’s easy to draw parallels with the representation struggles in Hollywood, even if the film doesn’t draw these parallels explicitly. It’s an important reminder of how much the images we take, whether intentional or not, shape how we view the world. This is something Hardison understands all too well.

“My goal has always been to change the world, it wasn’t just about changing fashion,” says Hardison in the film. “That was just the tool I had.” In her later years, Hardison enjoys the kind of resurgence befitting her stature. She is still dressed by fabulous designers, photographed in beautiful dresses and consulted by the fashion industry’s elite. “Mother is living her best life,” Iman and Campbell joke to each other. For now, she seems content to work on her memoir and share her story on film. “Everyone I have thinks that moment,” she muses. “I think being alive is the moment.” Amen.

Grade: B+

Invisible Beauty premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

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Lindsay Lowe

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