Bethann Hardison comments on Rick Owens’ use of black step teams in fashion show, next steps in diversity fight

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Bethann Hardison, an activist in pursuit of diversity on fashion runways, certainly knows how to get your attention. After sending letters to all the fashion governing bodies of the world accusing several designers by name of not using models of color, she made many beyond the world of style notice her cause.

“To me fashion is kind of dead anyway,” she told theGrio at an event held by Essence on a recent Thursday.  “I don’t care how many clothes they make, I don’t care how many seasons they have.”

Reasons for defending models of color go beyond a mere desire to be provocative. During this most recent Fashion Week in New York City, the consistent trend of these women being underutilized recurred in the opinion of many critics.

Hardison, who has fought to increase fashion diversity since the ’90s, is just calling out the truth as she sees it.

“All I’m doing is reflecting it like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes,” she said backstage at the Time and Life building in New York City. “He doesn’t have any clothes on. So all I’m doing is repeating what has already been done. I’m just showing, if you can do it, then I can say it.”

Reactions to calls for diversity

Reactions to the letters sent by the Balance Diversity coalition (which Hardison leads) have been intense.

“Sometimes when you do something like that it shakes it up a bit,” Hardison said of the resultant shock that came from demanding that brands such as Calvin Klein Collection use more black models. “It gets it kind of exciting. People are like, ‘Oh my God, what are we doing? Oh God, did you see what they said?’ It changes the energy. That’s one reason you know it’s always going to be received.”

Noting how when “you’re talking about race” that “the media always eats that up,” Hardison told theGrio that over 100 outlets picked up the story. She also appeared on Good Morning America with supermodels Iman and Naomi Campbell to discuss their observations on race and fashion.

Rick Owens show: Not related to diversity issues

Not one month after making her media splash, designer Rick Owens used mostly black women for his Paris Fashion Week show. Numerous commentators assumed his show — which featured four step teams dancing  with angry faces — was a response to Hardison’s demands.

She scolded both the “Caucasion media” and “media of color” for trying to relate his vision to her issue. (Watch the video above for Hardison’s full, detailed response to critiques of the Rick Owens Paris Fashion Week show.)

“This was not runway models,” Hardison said of the black women who stomped and chanted on the runway. “This was not a fashion show that was the norm. We’re talking about when you use models, can we please maintain a certain balance of diversity. And I think with Rick, he just did him. Those letters went out two to three weeks before. He could never have done all that in two to three weeks.”

Hardison called out those touting his show for ignoring the real issue: those tastemakers “who basically leave people out consciously,” the former modeling agency owner said. “It has to be a conscious decision, because they’re not incorporated. Meaning, leaving out the non-white model.”

Next steps towards greater parity

What’s next for the Balance Diversity coalition? Have they heard from the dozens of designers named?

“Did I hear personally from designers? No,” she said. “Did we hear back from the councils of fashion? Yes. They don’t dictate to the designers, but yes, you hear back. But what’s been so nice is that it’s penetrated, because then certain people start improving. What we have to do is keep making sure that it maintains itself.”

Some have reported that Hardison will spearhead a boycott of fashion brands that are too homogenous.

But, Bethann Hardison is not calling for a fashion boycott to increase the use of women of color.

“Not I. Iman speaks of that,” Hardison told theGrio. “She does believe in, ‘Don’t buy if they don’t support. If they’re not reflecting your image, why would you buy?’ That’s a valid point, that’s for sure.”

Instead, the former model — who integrated modeling in the ’70s as a muse — is seeking more to change people’s minds.

“Me, I want everyone to be conscious,” Hardison told me. “I think if you can be conscious of what’s going on, be aware of what’s happening, and then you make your decision. But definitely be aware that we’re doing something, and we’re changing something.”

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.