The documentary “Invisible Beauty” presents a history of the modern fashion industry through the eyes of Bethann Hardison — an octogenarian model-turned-advocate whose life has acted as a proof of concept for Black style. Hardison co-directed the film with Frédéric Tcheng, and through a combination of archival footage and present-day interviews, the pair show the impact of Hardison’s efforts to expand the fashion industry’s view of what constitutes beauty.
Hardison was born in 1942, and in interviews, she recalls with pride that she grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. She summered with family in Louisiana, and there, she observed the injustice of racial segregation — an institution which failed to intimidate Hardison. Her unshakable sense of self-worth happened to coincide with a striking exterior beauty and a city girl’s instinct for how to accentuate her strengths. It was this combination of pride and personal style which opened doors for Hardison in the fashion scene of 1970s New York. She became a model, participating in famed fashion events such as the 1973 Battle of Versailles, where Black American artists stole the show from the established French elite. Later, Hardison’s vision of Black style led her to start her own modeling agency, and finally, to push for equal opportunities, hiring and pay.
The documentary shows how Hardison embodied a vision of public life; to meet her gaze was to look into a future that was diverse, powerful and unapologetic. Hardison and Tcheng use interviews to show how Hardison acted as a mentor for generations of Black artists, from Iman to Naomi Campbell to Zendaya. At times, the film is hampered by the sheer amount of information there is to condense from across a 50-year career, but Hardison is never less than a fascinating subject — an artist whose medium is industrial disruption.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. In theaters.