Trailblazing fashion icon Bethann Hardison, who is both the subject and co-director of the documentary Invisible Beauty, wants to be super clear about what the film is about.
"I keep telling people it's not my life story, but it's the story of my life," she explains. The distinction is critical for Hardison: The film is a portrait of the pioneering model, agent and activist — who became one of the first high-profile Black models after appearing in the historic Battle of Versailles fashion show in 1973 — as she looks back on her decades-long fight to diversify fashion.
Now, at the age of 80, Hardison directs the project with French filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng, who has helmed documentaries about Christian Dior, Halston and Diana Vreeland. Invisible Beauty combines archival footage from the '60s and '70s with present-day interviews with the likes of Naomi Campbell, Iman, and Zendaya about how Hardison has pushed boundaries and forever changed the fashion industry for generations of models to come.
The film, which debuted during this year's Sundance Film Festival, also documents the writing of Hardison's forthcoming memoir, a happenstance that Tcheng calls "a godsend." "It was a blessing because Bethann is always moving forward," he says. "So, in the middle of the action, this was an opportunity for Bethann to stop and take stock of what had happened."
A.Frame: Was this the first time you'd been approached about making a documentary about your life and career?
BETHANN HARDISON: Laymen have said it. People knew I was working on another film, and they would say, 'Somebody needs to do a documentary on you.' I heard that a couple of times, but I wasn't interested; however, when the other project kept going dormant, it was easier just to make a film about me. When Frédéric and I met, we had known each other a little before, so we spoke about it, and it turned out to be the thing to do.
Why did you feel Frédéric was the right man for the job?
HARDISON: I didn't think I needed to have my story told a certain way. I never thought I even had a story. Other people think so, and I'm trying to go along with the masses. I couldn't care less about it, but I liked his previous work. When I got an award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, he shot a three-minute film on me for them. Frédéric and I started to talk, and he said, 'I want you to direct it with me.' When he wanted to do it, I was pleased as pie.
FRÉDÉRIC TCHENG: I didn't know I was the right person, but I was hoping. I think there was a lot of mutual respect and curiosity about each other, and definitely on my end. I was very taken with Bethann's personality when we made the short film. I was different enough and similar enough to Bethann to understand part of the story but also gain and grow from other aspects of Bethann's personality. For me, it's all about getting to know a person on an instinctual level. I understand Bethann, and she's like a mentor to me. I don't know how to explain it.
How much of what you planned for the documentary, narratively and content-wise, changed once you got into the process?
TCHENG: You can write things ahead of time, but I recently looked at my synopsis from before we started shooting and some elements are there, but not all of them. I think the collaboration was very important. The aspect of memory and Bethann looking back at her life was there from the beginning, but you never know how it will turn out until you actually shoot it. That's the adventure of it. We signed up for this journey together and to try to figure it out as we went. There are mountains and valleys, and sometimes you lose the thread, so you're unsure where to go, but then you show it to Bethann, and she spots something you missed.
Bethann, filming Invisible Beauty coincides with you writing your memoir. Was that planned or a happy accident?
HARDISON: The book came along because people have been asking me to write one for 30 years, but I never could get to it. An agent came into my life just as we started to film, she got my proposal out to publishing houses, and that's how it happened. The film took precedence, and I had to stop writing, but the book is not something that is to support the film per se, although it became a common thread.
TCHENG: For me, it was a godsend. It was a blessing because Bethann is always moving forward, so in the middle of the action, this was an opportunity for Bethann to stop and take stock of what had happened. It allowed me to film her going through that process of looking back, exploring her life, and telling the story to an audience. It was an opportunity to film Bethann writing, which I found fascinating. Our DP, Mia Cioffi Henry, and I spent hours filming Bethann in bed, writing. And she was really doing it; we weren't just staging it for the camera. That's my favorite footage in the film. It revealed different aspects of her personality, which was fascinating.
Was Invisible Beauty always the title, or was that something that came later as part of the process?
HARDISON: It was something that I always had for another film that I was working on that was an exposé about the fashion industry and the model industry. I came up with the title, Invisible Beauty. It had a lot to do with The Invisible Man from back in the day, because it was like the girl was disappearing, and people called them beauties, and I flipped the script on that. I kept the title, and then, when we were going to do the film about me, they wanted to call it Bethann-something, and I said, 'No, no, no.' I insisted that Invisible Beauty had to remain.
TCHENG: There are also a couple of moments in the film where people mention the word invisible, so it felt coherent, too.
When it came to archival footage, what was available already, and how much came from Bethann and others?
TCHENG: Bethann had a lot, despite not thinking she did. Once we started opening closets and finding boxes of tapes, we realized there were gems everywhere, which was great. Bethann's network, like Issey Miyake and Stephen Burrows, all contributed with incredible runway footage from that time. We had a lot to work with, which was great, but that's why the first rough cut was seven hours long.
HARDISON: He got it down to four, and then showed it to me. And it was then that I thought we should do a series. That was when I became a believer and said, 'Oh wow, I do have a story.'
In terms of everything that didn't get used in the documentary, is your plan to give that archive to a museum?
HARDISON: That's the objective. You make a film and hope you complete it and people see it. Because you don't get money making films this way, your objective and hope is that it lives beyond your life. I want it to be seen by students in universities and colleges, and it will be. You want it to go to impact communities. It will. I intend to place my things in an institute, and this film could go with it. That's the intention, so it's a legacy film for me.
The film documents your impact on the industry. How different do you think it would have been had you not done what you have done?
HARDISON: If I hadn't stepped into the ring as a model, maybe it wouldn't be so different. But me being the person who cared to make a difference, to help my industry not go down that rabbit hole they were going down, if I hadn't done that, I think our industry would be different. My intention, as I say in the film, was to change all industries. If I could get people to see and get used to seeing the person of color, as well as whites and Asians and Latinos, then it'll affect other industries as well. I knew that was what I could do. I mostly learned that from this film because I didn't think I had. I was so busy doing the work that I didn't know it was a story.
One of the first soundbites in Invisible Beauty is from Tyson Beckford, who says, 'Bethann is Black history.' That's a powerful statement to have on your shoulders.
HARDISON: Well, it's not on my shoulders. It's on his, because he said it! [Laughs] I'm just like, 'Okay, if you say so!' To me, this is a kid I came up with and watched be every bit of a knucklehead, but he is also a good guy in so many ways. You think you know your kids, and then you sit there and watch this interview with him, and it was impressive. We saw a lot more of it than the audience gets to see. I appreciate everything he said, because I never knew he felt it that deep.
Invisible Beauty ends with you attending a Gucci event at LACMA in Los Angeles. Why did you feel that was the way to conclude it?
HARDISON: It appealed, because it involved the joy of a woman who still enjoys doing things. I had younger editors than myself, and it's juicy for them. It was so inspiring to them. They loved to see that here I am loving BTS, this K-pop band, and there's me wanting to learn Korean, and I'm still dancing. For them to see that continued joy, they're like, 'She's still on it and doing it!' [Laughs] For them, that was a nice way to close it out.