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Legendary Model and Activist Bethann Hardison Talks Runway Diversity and the Road Ahead

Four months ago, on the eve of New York Fashion Week, prominent fashion activist and former model Bethann Hardison launched the Balanced Diversity campaign with the help of Naomi Campbell and Iman to end racism on the runway.  In an open letter to the governing fashion bodies of the four major fashion capitols— New York, London, Milan and Paris— she called out the industry’s white-washed model casts, citing a number of designers who had featured zero or one model of color in seasons past.  Designers paid attention, as did the public, and within weeks, it was being hailed as one of the most memorable, if not important, moments of the season.

As today marks not only the home stretch until the start of New York Fashion Week’s Fall 2014 season, but also more importantly, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we sat down with the legendary model and Coalition leader to discuss the effects of last season’s campaign on the fashion industry and the road ahead.  See our full interview with the iconic model and inspiring leader below!

1.  Since launching the diversity campaign last year, what improvements have you noticed in the industry?

There have been improvements that were both nice and unexpected.  The New York shows were featuring three, four, even five models of color, compared to just one or zero the season before.  London also made slight improvements, as did Paris.  However, the most surprising improvements were in Milan, where Georgia Armani used a model of color to open the show, Prada used five models of color, which is almost unheard of, and Jil Sander incorporated several models of color while they usually use none.  There was a noticeable shift in energy last season, and I think people suddenly felt out of their comfort zone, which is a good thing.

2. Does the Coalition have any special initiatives planned for this fashion week?  What are your next steps?

Yes, we have plans for something in February, but we never share them before it happens, so keep on the look out!

3.  Is there anything young models in the industry can do to help the ongoing diversity campaign?

Young models just need to be conscious of the movement and remember to not take it personally.  I ask that if anything makes you feel uncomfortable, please let your agent know.  Also, feel free to reach out to your elders of color, as they should be able to understand your situation.  The most important thing is to keep talking about it and to keep it in the forefront.  Remember, there’s nothing wrong with you, there’s something wrong with the system.

4.  Have the improvements on the runway last season carried over at all into other areas of the fashion industry?

Last season’s Balance Diversity campaign seemed to have had a positive effect on the other areas of the industry.  In advertising, several models of color earned major campaigns, such as Malaika Firth for Prada, and new face Riley M, who caught the eye of Riccardo Tisci, as well as a spot in the latest Givenchy campaign.  Editorially speaking, Italian Vogue, who has always been supportive of the cause, put Cindy Bruna on their December 2013 cover, while Joan Smalls graced the January 2014 cover of Elle.  Models taking over for celebrities is unheard truly of today, and certainly no small feat!  The January issue of American Vogue was also very diverse in an organic, unforced way.  There were portfolios of models like Anais Mali doing things that models of color have never done before in the magazine, and that’s very nice to see.

5.  Many young models look up to Naomi Campbell, Iman and yourself as role models.  Who were some of your role models growing up?

I didn’t have any particular role models in the industry, but there were people who inspired me.  Helen Williams and Naomi Simms were inspirational.  I was like a groupie!

6.  Finally, what is your dream for the year ahead?

The Spring/Summer shows often have more models of color, so the real challenge will be getting the Fall/Winter shows to reflect our global diversity.  That would be my dream come true.  I just want to see the design houses keeping up the momentum and continuing to improve with each season.  It’s been really nice building my relationship with the CFDA to support the message of diversity within the industry.  I hope American Vogue’s will continue to reinforce this need for diversity as well.  I also hope that we’re able to get more models of color to the shows in London, so the designers have more options when it comes to casting, and can make their runways as colorful as the world really is.

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