Bethann Hardison, a model turned New York agent, pioneered the campaign for diversity on the catwalk with the message that fashion is not only white.
She strutted the runway herself in the 1960s and 1970s, then carved out a career finding and promoting the coolest models of any skin tone, until in 1996 she briefly moved to Mexico.
AdvertisementThen the trend for supermodels with individuality -- some of them black -- gave way to a uniform, almost entirely white look as designers shifted the focus from the girl to the clothes.
Horrified to see so few black models on the runway in Milan, London, Paris and New York, last year Hardison founded the Diversity Coalition to publicly name and shame the fashion houses who used only one or no model of color in their shows.
In a blaze of unwelcome publicity, many of them, including some of the largest fashion houses in the business -- Prada, Celine, Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani and Jil Sander -- scrambled to diversify their line-ups for the fall/winter 2014 shows in February.
Around 30 models used in a runway show, and some now use up to five black or latina women.
"Bethann really is a force and people listen to what she has to say," says legendary designer and president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Diane von Furstenberg.
The CFDA in June honored Hardison with an award.
"The response was good," acknowledged Hardison in an interview with AFP at her art-studded home in Gramercy Park, where a Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring grace the entrance.
For most of her life -- and Hardison is coy about her age -- she has been devoted to promoting diversity in fashion.
In 1973 she was one of 11 black models chosen to represent America in the Versailles fashion face off, when the best French designers competed with the best of the United States.
New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham remembers Hardison wearing a silk jersey dress and looking like an empress.
"She shot the fiercest look she could possibly can at the crowned heads of Europe... They were terrorized!" he told a New York event on Wednesday.
Strikingly dressed in a Moroccan tunic and an anklet, her large dark eyes gleam with a slight hint of fatigue but also pride.
She recalls how a magazine editor recently told her "you're not cool if you don't have girls of color in your advertising."
In the 1980s while running her own agency, she founded the Black Girl Coalition alongside supermodels Iman and Naomi Campbell to advocate and to support African American models in the industry.
In 1993, she took on the advertising industry, which "didn't reflect the consumer that was Asian, Latin or black," and told AFP that "within two years that changed".
Campbell, the London-born British supermodel, told AFP that she looks upon Hardison as "like a second mother". "She is honest," said Campbell when asked what she liked most about Hardison.
"It's important that we spoke up with Bethann," says Campbell of her involvement in the Diversity Coalition. "It's simply wanting to have a conversation and just make people aware."
Her role in giving more visibility to minorities, her ability to influence designers, editors and nurture young talent whatever its background has been welcomed by many powerful voices.
"When she closed her agency in 1996, the modeling business began to slowly lose its diversity again," wrote Kim Hastreiter, editor and cofounder of Paper magazine.
Little by little the trend increased for lookalike models, seemingly devoid of personality but tall and lean-limbed so that the eyes concentrate only on the clothes, reasserted itself.
Hardison attributes the shift to the aesthetics of Miuccia Prada, who set a trend by not using supermodels in order to keep the focus on the artistry of the clothes.
"At that point the casting directors said 'no black, no ethnic'," said Hardison.
It was in 2008 that Italian Vogue ran a first 100 percent black edition, a challenge to the largest couture houses in the world, in a spread that featured Hardison herself.
Menswear designer Michael Bastian said Hardison had been one of the best casting agents out there, praising her for looking deeper than skin color in searching out the right model.
"She's just gotten to a point of her life where she's like you know, fuck it, if no one is going to say this, I'm going to say this," he told AFP.