“Invisible Beauty,” co-directed by Bethann Hardison and Frédéric Tcheng, is a wonderful profile of Hardison, the model, agent and activist who paved the way for models of color. Dubbed “the godmother of fashion,” Hardison not only worked tirelessly to get non-white models on runways and in magazines, but also created a coalition to ensure representation, visibility and accountability in an industry that has a racism problem . Scenes in which she mobilizes colleagues to draw attention to the problems of discrimination show not only her power, but also how she earns respect.
“I believed in my industry.”
In the film, Hardison also vividly talks about growing up as a latchkey child, which helped her develop a sense of independence. She has a nose for talent and helped Iman, Naomi Campbell, Tyson Beckford and so many others achieve success. Hardison also arranged for her son Kadeem to take acting lessons; He had his breakthrough role as Dwayne Wayne in “A Different World” and talks about his complicated relationship with his inspiring mother.
The archival footage and fashion shots featured throughout the film are fabulous, but it’s the impressive Hardison herself that’s the real draw here. “Invisible Beauty” showcases how she serves as a mentor, raises awareness, and advocates for diversity with dignity and authority. But she also shows her vulnerable side, which is why the film evokes such an emotional response.
Hardison and Tcheng spoke to Salon about their new documentary.
What motivated you to work on this documentary?
Frédéric Tcheng: Bethann and I met in 2014 when we were collaborating on a short film, so we knew each other. I was very impressed by her personality. She was working on a film that was different – it was based on three models – but it remained dormant. We talked about collaborating on a feature. I was interested in doing something different from my other films [“Dior and I,” “Halston”]. I found Bethann to be someone I found fascinating and someone I could trust, and someone I could look up to and learn from. I could do something else with her. The collaboration was about giving Bethann a voice and being as close to her as possible and telling her story.
Bethann lived such a full life; How did you decide what to include in a two-hour film?
Tcheng: Bethann was wise and she reminded me that the movie wasn’t about her life but her story. I understood what she meant. We decided to tell a specific story. Her [forthcoming] The book will reveal much more, but the film takes the audience by the hand and walks them through the way this woman changed her industry and started a conversation about diversity in the fashion world. There was an interesting tension when we were filming. We interwoven these two elements in the film together with our editor to find the right balance.
Bethann Hardison: It came down to editing. I didn’t think I had archival footage. I had an assistant who digitized all my archives. But when we decided to make the film, we had a lot – a lot more than we expected. And my relationships with Issey Miyake, Calvin Klein and Stephen Burrows could become even more. Things were being shot and no one knew what we were going to get. I wasn’t there for the other interviews. I had to let people talk [Fred] tell their story. I was ready to talk about anything. I enjoyed talking about my life.
Tcheng: We had great editors. Everyone worked on a specific aspect of the story. That was the challenge. We have archival footage, testimonials and real footage of Bethann today, and it’s up to you to make it work as a story. It was different from my previous films, which were archival or just plain true.
Bethann Hardison with the Black Girls Coalition in 1991’s “Invisible Beauty,” a Magnolia Pictures release. (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/Oliviero Toscano)
Bethann, you are an exemplary businesswoman who speaks truth to power. Can you talk about your approach to creating change?
Hardison: People love how calm I am and how I handle things with grace. I believed in my industry and had well-known designers supporting me. I trusted her brain to hear me when I spoke. When I had to write letters, it was huge. I had to believe in my heart that they didn’t know they were falling down a rabbit hole. I nudged the bear. I knew the bear and I counted on him, the bear. If I showed it to them intellectually, they would think that I am not who I am. My father always told me that I was very diplomatic.
Bethann, you have brought about incredible change in the industry and blamed it for racism. Do you think things are improving?
Hardison: Yes, I think it has improved a lot on the model industry side. The industry has changed, but they also need to find diversity behind the scenes. I see a lot of editors and writers coming forward in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. But we see that there have also been significant changes in the business world.
You have an incredible “eye,” as they say about artists. Can you talk about your vision and how you see things and say, “It’s good, or can I do better?” You also knew which models looked good and were suitable for a campaign.
Hardison: The only [model] I had to represent Tyson [Beckford]. Before him, there were all these kids that I was crazy about. Steven Meisel [the photographer] told me I had a great eye. I didn’t want to have a modeling agency or be in business alone. As I heard from other people, I realized how carefully I thought about the type of children I took in. I had to compete with white colleagues and wanted to have black, Asian and Latino children because no one else would. As a black businesswoman, I know I wouldn’t be a “Woody Allen movie.” [all white] like I always said. The people I chose were always such good-looking kids. This is the modeling industry. Then you get into the fashion industry and have to sell what you have.
“It goes beyond fashion.”
Tcheng: Bethann’s perspective extends to filmmaking, her houses, the way she dresses and the choice of font for the film. She guided me to choose the music and not make the obvious choices. She had a very discerning eye.
Frédéric, you have now made four films about people who work in the fashion world. What is the appeal of this industry and how has your immersion in this world shaped your perspective?
Tcheng: I’m not a fashion person. This is not a fashion film; It is related to fashion but goes beyond fashion. I try to make films that don’t just appeal to the fashion world. It’s about the human story, and when you find one like Bethann’s, everyone can relate to it. The audience responds to her life and philosophy and how you can live your life in interesting, unconventional ways. She always said she had no ambition or plan, and that’s true. It’s about seizing opportunities when they arise and being there for them.
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Bethann talks about telling her story through the people she knows. What can you say about each other now that your collaboration is complete?
Hardison: What a kind spirit Frédéric is and how he cares for me. You don’t know until you work with someone, but I must have known. He is talented. We had a rule when we disagreed: Whoever wins an argument can do whatever they want to do.
Tcheng: I learned how to make a bed from Bethann. [Laughs] That was very valuable. I learned so much wisdom. She is Libra and has the power to understand the other person. Don’t assume the other person thinks this way or wants to do this. This is a superpower, you stay open to the other person and don’t come with preconceived ideas.
“Invisible Beauty” opens September 15 in New York City and expands to Los Angeles and additional markets on September 22.
Documentary interviews by Gary Kramer