Before the recent months of nationwide marches calling for social justice and the fashion industry’s subsequent interest in supporting Black creatives, Bethann Hardison was quietly strengthening a group of Black designers.
Like much of what she does, Hardison took action to try to elicit change without seeking publicity. Intent on helping young brands and designers of color and working under the umbrella of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Hardison enlisted the help of proven advisers such as designers Patrick Robinson and Tracy Reese about 18 months ago. “I just do the work. I’ve just been busy doing the work. I didn’t even give it in a name until a couple of weeks ago,” she explained matter-of-factly.
Now known as the Designers Hub, the group consists of 25 to 30 designers. After a pandemic-induced pause, meetings are becoming more frequent. Whether learning the ins and outs of wholesale, building an e-commerce site or what retailers look for in a collection, participants are getting frank and practical insights from professionals. “My objective is to make businesses stronger — young brands, young Black brands specifically. The reason I had to go down that road was I got tired of people saying to me, ‘Where’s the Black designer?’ I used to say all the time, ‘They’re around.’ It’s just not that everybody is going to be Virgil Abloh,” Hardison said. “But that doesn’t mean that people aren’t in business and doing business.”
Unlike several other collective and corporate initiatives that were in response to a global call for social justice and racial equality, the Designer Hub is not a new entity. “This has not been motivated by what’s come upon everybody right now. This is something that was just necessary to do. You could see it. I did,” she said.
For years, Hardison, a former model who later had her own agency, has been lobbying brands, casting directors, designers and fashion authorities for more diversified designer runways, advertising and editorial content. “To change society, I wanted people to visibly see color so they would become very used to it. It would help to change all industries — and it has. You start to see more Blacks and browns in the magazines, on the covers and on television shows,” said Hardison, noting that the commercial advertising agency had been like that since the late Nineties.
Once the fashion models were more diversified, Hardison started to focus more on championing designers of colors. Aside from working with designers Willi Smith and Stephen Burrows, Hardison grew up in the garment business, working in various capacities. She is now sharing that knowledge with future generations of designers, including some who have a second job.
Hardison was recently named executive adviser of global equity and culture engagement at Gucci. “What’s nice about them is that they respect so much the work that I’ve done and they don’t want to interfere with that too much,” she said. “Now it’s a much bigger job and responsibility based around the diversity, equity and inclusion build.”
Ashya’s Ashley Cimone and Moya Annece; Edas’ Sade Mims; Romeo Hunte; Studio One Eighty-Nine’s Abrima Erwiah; Christopher John Rogers; Fe Noel; Kenneth Nicholson; Sergio Hudson, and Sukeina’s Omar Salam are among the participants. After COVID-19 took hold, the group’s monthly meetings were temporarily suspended. In June, they reconvened and are now connecting more frequently. While many were significantly impacted by the shutdown, the Black Lives Matter movement has led to a greater interest and some business for Black brands, but “that still doesn’t make up for all you lost,” Hardison said.
A Designers Hub site will be developed with bios about the participating designers. Those who are in search of immediate information about the group can contact the CFDA, Hardison said. The goal is less about how to become famous and more about developing a business that you can leave to your children, she said.
After running the idea by the CFDA, she found advisers who could help develop the designers, assist in creating their business plans, map out necessities for their companies and answer their business questions. In addition to Robinson and Reese, the Designers Hub’s advisory team includes consultant Lisa Metcalfe, Alexander Wang alum Stephanie Horton and retail specialist Wanda Colon. E-commerce, maintaining customers and owning infrastructures are a few subjects Robinson discussed with the designers. While so many creative people sometimes get caught up with the art and they think that people have to accept this art, Robinson said he has been dispelling that. “I keep saying, ‘It’s about the customer. Are you making a consumer product that connects with people, talks to them and has a story behind it?’” he told WWD.
Sales, financing, sponsorship, marketing and social media are key issues the less-established designers are eager to discuss. A two-day group outing to Instagram’s offices was planned prior to the shutdown. Free to participants, the Designers Hub is geared for solving any problem that they might have, according to Hardison. “They are given an idea about how it can be better, what they can do about it or what is normally done,” she said.
Three of the participating companies — Fe Noel, Studio One Eighty-Nine and Sukeina — are about to get additional mentoring through Vogue and the CFDA.
After starting a brand in 2012, Noel said she turned it into a real business in 2015. She spoke highly of the Designers Hub’s mentoring and how Hardison expedited her debut at New York Fashion Week. “We were on top of the world in February and then look at what happened in March. But it was an amazing experience and we were able to be a part of it,” Noel said.
All in all, the Designers Hub helps on many different levels. “As a designer, you’re working in your own little bubble and you have these woes that you can’t share with anyone. You’re just doing the best that you can, especially when you’re independent or you feel outside what the fashion world is. It was a great way to get inside information,” Noel said.
Committed as he is to supporting Hardison, Robinson said he is “a bit skeptical” about the degree to which the fashion industry may change. “Everyone is right now pushing a Black agenda, putting a Black model on the cover, promoting a Black photographer — or a Black anyone. That needs to be sustainable,” he stressed.
He continued, “People like Bethann are going to make sure that people are held accountable — that you can’t just show it this month and then September and October come and you go back to your old policies and old practices. I have a lot of faith in Bethann to lead the call. She has a very big voice that carries and people listen. But I don’t think we’ve walked down the path far enough. I’m 100 percent sure that we’re not there yet. We have a lot of work to do. A lot.”