Among the many faces in Gap’s latest collaboration with The Brooklyn Circus, founded by Haitian-American designer Ouigi Theodore, is former model and fashion icon of longevity and wisdom, Bethann Hardison. The main goal of the collection was to bridge the gaps between age, gender and style, and to unite both Brooklyn Circus and Gap’s aesthetic of 1960s black culture motifs to commemorate 16 years of community and the motifs and iconography of Global Village and to build Americana. Hardison is known for her iconic brace in the Battle of Versailles fashion show in 1973 alongside just ten other black models, which was unknown at the time; She has now taken her career even further by mentoring the burgeoning and emerging ‘Who’s Who’ of fashion in many of her fields. She founded her own agency, Bethann Management Agency, in an effective attempt to diversify the catwalk and has since been known for her unfiltered and ever-present wisdom. Even when she is not in a room, she is mentioned by fellow fashionistas who hold her in the highest regard.
Gap has worked with other fashion legends like Dapper Dan and this wasn’t Hardison’s first collaboration with them and it certainly won’t be the last. Her initial interest in being the face of this particular campaign was that The Brooklyn Circus was something to learn about. “I’m a big Gap fan; I’m an old school Gap fan. I find it funny how people can be so successful at something and you just don’t know about it. For me, I was more interested in learning about it than The Gap wanted me to come and be a part of it, then I found out more about the eminent “how can I not know about this?”. But there’s so much out there that we don’t know, and it’s so important that we base ourselves on things.” She mentioned that both brands have something that everyone needed, so the mix of the two made perfect sense . Brooklyn Circus was special to her because it’s so community-oriented, a tribe she called it.
This life was always meant for her. “I think I came to earth to do all of that,” she says. All her life she knew that she was already successful at the age of 12 because she wrote a book about her life. She remembers: “I was a latchkey child and could just be free. My grandmother and my mother worked and when I got home from school my clothes were ready and I had my key around my neck and I just went and hung around until it was time to come home, which is usually the case around six o’clock. You’ve got four hours to really do it. Then I started building relationships and going to churches. My grandmother and my mother didn’t go to church. They wished me well as I walked out the door on a Sunday morning, but I made friends and supported my social activities.”
Hardison’s good young long life was filled with firsts when she told her mother that she would not drop out of performing arts school and go to a high school that was suggested to her by a man in fashionably dressed. “This white guy went to Brooklyn High School, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and I was so impressed with how he looked as number one, but also with what he was talking about going to this other school. I went home and told my mother that I wasn’t going to do performing arts. She’s not a helicopter mom. She doesn’t know anything other than what I tell her. I go to this high school after all. I didn’t realize at the time that we were being taken to this white school by bus, but I took such advantage of this school.” She became the school’s first black cheerleader and was chosen for all after-school events. Hardison is a born leader, and all of the changes in her life and career made her realize that she came to this earth to do just that.
She noticed something was wrong on catwalks, so she made it her mission to change that. Many contemporaries in the fashion industry would happily turn to Hardison to find a single black model for them, usually out of 20 to 40 models. Her reaction always shaped these mindsets, knowing that most of the time this was out of ignorance rather than overt racism, and her tenacity when the model desired at the time was only white remained because she genuinely believed in those with whom she worked. In her new film Invisible BeautyShe tells her story through multiple lenses about everything she has been able to contribute to the modeling and fashion industry.
From mentoring designers and creatives to building her own tribe, Hardison’s name is in fashion history, and she doesn’t seem even close to making more history. She co-directed Invisible Beauty with Frederic Tcheng. She originally had an idea for a film starring three black models from different cultural backgrounds because she couldn’t really see a story revolving around them. With some persuasion, she began filming with Tcheng, and the film was selected by Sundance two years earlier. “Although this is my first time working on a film at Sundance, although I was at Sundance many times in the early years, it was very nice to be selected and to hear that all the programmers voted yes for this film. Then they gave us the opportunity to be one of four films in the entire festival. They chose to show the high school students, which was a great honor for us. It was such a diverse group. You just don’t even think that they got the film when they’re so young, but they do. You really care. It’s not a fashion film.”
“Stay in their lane and run your own race. Just stop looking left and right and wasting time.”
Your next steps will surely be just as impactful as your other achievements and accolades. She’s been around long enough to see significant changes in their respective industries. “It’s too much out there. That wasn’t the case in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. There weren’t that many brands and people banging on doors to get in; it was so different.” Hardison has worked with designers such as Willi Smith and Stephen Burrows. In fact, she credits streetwear to the late Smith and sets out her thoughts on streetwear today by saying, “I don’t see the streetwear that people say is streetwear anymore. I don’t know where it is except for Supreme and Stussy; I don’t understand anything else, and that’s not even streetwear for me. This is casual wear only. So, the generation, the way they do things between the music business and the fashion business, they give those titles. It just pisses me off. So I think the difference between now and then is that there’s a lot more, there’s so much more choice and there’s a lot of creativity out there.” Even fashion week is having such an incredible shift where the attendees are always wearing flashier and, as she puts it, flashy clothing.
Because she has seen so much in her life, heed her advice on how to follow the vagaries of your desires. For those of you who want to be models, she says, “Try to get into technology.” For those of you who want to start an agency, she bluntly said, “Please don’t do that; there is enough. The people are unhappy [laughs].” For those of you who want to be entrepreneurs, “Do yourself and me a favor and get someone to work first. Don’t be shy about it. Don’t act like you gave up on your dream. No, you are taking advantage of a situation and opportunity.” Don’t worry; It stretches more for the unconvinced, like a friend who just wants you to be successful says, “When something calls, do it. I think what I would say to anyone is to not do the whole “I want to do what she did” thing. Decide what you want to do and try if it works for you. If not, get off. If you really want it, keep at it. Don’t do it because you see people on social media or you see someone else succeed at something. You just have to find your own name. So what I would say to everyone: stay in their lane and race your own. Just stop looking left and right and wasting time. If you need to go back and find out about something, don’t be shy. Go back and learn. Get the technical information about something that is necessary.”
The The limited edition Gap × The Brooklyn Circus Capsule is available now on Gap.com and at select Gap stores and The Brooklyn Circus flagship store in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, NY. In honor of the late campaign creator and host Stephen “tWitch” Boss, Gap is supporting The 988 Lifeline with a donation to Vibrant Emotional Health.
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