‘Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,’ curated at the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA). (Photo: Robin Walker Marshall)
Ebony Magazine is undeniably one of African American culture’s most influential and immediately recognizable brands. For seven decades, the brainchild of iconic entrepreneur, John H. Johnson, has revolved around covering black news, personalities, politics, lifestyle and trends.
Still published monthly alongside its frequently updated digital version, Ebony’s insightful articles and photo archive that exceeds four million images, not only set out to shine positive light on black America internally but to offer mainstream America intimate portraits of black life.
The magazine birthed byproducts such as a groundbreaking cosmetics line specifically for women of color and the legendary Ebony Fashion Fair. Both outlets allow African Americans to use beauty and fashion as social change agents.
“The philosophy of it is really about achievement, success and living a better life,” proclaims Linda Johnson Rice, the Chairman of Ebony‘s parent company, Johnson Publishing.
Fashion Fair was a highly anticipated, annual fundraising affair that showcased haute couture and ready-to-wear collections. Traveling throughout America from 1958 to 2009, the production spearheaded by John’s wife, Eunice Walker Johnson, always attracted masses of immaculately dressed women and men of color.
One-of-a-kind garments created by both European and black designers were worn by black models strutting their stuff down the catwalk. The same runways to introduce designers of color like Stephen Burrows, Willi Smith and Patrick Kelly also feature collections by Todd Oldham, Bob Mackie, Christian Lacroix, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin and Christian Dior.
By the end of its 50-year span, the lavish Fashion Fair raises over $55 million. Eunice Johnson donated the proceeds to multiple charities, colleges and universities and hospitals. “She was not a superficial woman,” says Johnson Rice. “To be able to touch people in that way and to change people’s lives made a significant difference to her.”
As a young lady, Johnson Rice had the privilege to travel with her highly educated mother across Europe. They visited many salons and shows together to purchase clothes. Johnson Rice, wearing a fire-orange mini-Afro, taps her fingernail on a glass table top anytime she talks about her mother’s business acumen.
Her taps yield a slight gong-like echo after each statement.
Seated with her legs crossed in an all-black business suit, the media and fashion icons delightful and extremely poised daughter says her mother perceived fashion and beauty as vehicles to empower blacks and bring various communities together.
“She saw fashion not just for the beauty of the clothes,” says Johnson Rice, “but as self-expression and self-confidence. Her feeling was she wanted to have a show that showcased the best of fashion for an audience she loved, which are African Americans.”
Eunice Johnson’s legacy is immortalized though the traveling exhibition, Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair, curated at the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA). It’s the second event behind its Chicago History Museum debut to exclusively feature Eunice’s exclusive collection of evening gowns, sequined suits, cocktail attire and signature pieces.
“She always went for the very best of everything,” says Johnson Rice. “She didn’t take second rate anything. She was not somebody that thought these clothes were pretty. These clothes were more than pretty; they had a purpose.”
MODA’s hallway is draped with red carpet that leads into the exhibition spaces. Each side of the carpet is aligned with listening stations, photo collages and framed invitations. Visitors can even document their Fashion Fair experiences via blog posts on portals beside vanity-styled mirrors.
The mannequins on display wear fox and mink furs, satin, wool blends, leathers, lace, West African patterns, glass beads and ostrich feathers. Acclaimed designer B. Michael, who eloquently refers to his designs as “advanced American style,” has a multi-colored silk fall gown included in Inspiring Beauty.
He was personally contacted by Eunice during his stint designing millinery for the hit 1980s primetime drama, Dynasty. Ebony Fashion Fair’s organizer wanted to feature B.Michael’s work in an editorial she was producing on hats. The gracious designer remembers Fashion Fair’s New York showroom receiving over 200 calls upon his work being featured.
“Growing up, Ebony was one of our coffee table magazines,” says B. Michael prior to the launch of the Atlanta exhibit. “I, of course, was blown away. It was extremely exciting. It may be more exciting than getting the call to do Dynasty because it was much more relevant for me.”
Since his Fashion Fair feature, B.Michael’s designs have been commissioned by a range of talent including Beyonce, Cicely Tyson, Lena Horne, Whitney Houston, Nancy Wilson and Halle Berry. Now the proprietor of his own brand, b. michael AMERICA, he draws a parallel between Eunice showcasing his talents and celebrities he considers “Hollywood royalty” enlisting him to design original pieces.
“They come to you because you’re strong, and you can be honest,” adds B.Michael. “They trust you. There has to be that understanding and that relationship at that point between the artist and the muse for that to work. It’s an honor, but it’s my charge to do what it is that I do. That’s their expectation.”
Eunice Johnson, along with the models and designers, encountered prejudice quite a bit. International designers didn’t know what to make of black models wearing their creations nor did they think Johnson could afford the clothes.
Never one to be discouraged, Johnson, an alumna of Talladega College, Loyola University, Northwestern University and the Ray-Vogue School of Design, was always ready prior to any meeting or buying trip she took.
“My mother was always very prepared,” says Johnson Rice. “She was the only African American woman there. She did her homework. If she was going to speak on a subject, she studied on it. That took vision on her part, courage, and strength.”
Audrey Smaltz, Fashion Fair’s commentator from 1970-77, concurs with Johnson Rice’s recollections of Eunice being a visionary. Smaltz remembers her announcer past as “the most exciting, most fabulous job in the world.”
On one occasion, Smaltz, whose full-service agency staffs fashion shows and photo shoots, traveled with Eunice to purchase an original piece from Pablo Picasso. Joking that Johnson showed her how to drink the best wine, Smaltz refers to the matriarch as “a brilliant businesswoman who knew art.”
According to Smaltz, Eunice introduced the American fashion community to high end brands like Fendi and Valentino. When Bill Blass attended Fashion Fair in New York sometime in the early 1970s, he’s caught off guard when he hears 2,000 African Americans in the audience scream his name call-and-response style.
“[Eunice] bought everything from the designers,” says Smaltz. “She brought designers to America who would’ve never come here. We always traveled first-class, but we didn’t always get into every show back in the early ‘70s. They didn’t invite us.”
A purveyor of high standards, Johnson typically invited young designers in to show their sketches to her. The Selma, AL born fashionista often turned the garments inside out to look at the stitching.
Johnson Rice calls her clothier mother “a stickler for presenting yourself in the best light with authority, knowledge and confidence.” Her mother, she adds, is a “much tougher negotiator than her father.”
“She knew what it meant to have something well made,” says Johnson Rice. “She was about perfection and was demanding. If she liked it off the bat and you hit it out of the ballpark, she’d take the piece right then and there.”
Adds Johnson Rice, “She always had to sell herself. When she walked in the door, before she ever said anything, what they saw was a black woman but a black woman dressed within an inch of her life.”
B.Michael, a former designer for Oscar de la Renta and Nolan Miller, admits he never officially perceived himself as a black designer. As his career progressed, thanks in part to Fashion Fair, he acknowledged his cultural identity as an essential part of his work.
“I didn’t have that as a mission,” says B. Michael. “I saw it as an opportunity to do my passion. When you work with another designer, it’s about executing their vision. I recognized the historic value of being a person of color. This exhibit is a very exciting moment for me to relive it and share it.”
Model Pat Cleveland was 15-years-old when she met Eunice Johnson in 1966. She was among the slew of black models who used Fashion Fair as a launching pad to enjoy a trailblazing modeling career for women of color.
“[Eunice’s] purpose was to bring the black American public forward,” says Cleveland as part of a panel. “She was a warrior. She was out there knocking down doors making sure people got a look at something they could never ever see.”
Another model, Ramona Saunders, offered insights on Johnson’s empathy. “She was open, and she listened to people,” she says. “She would present her case, but she would give other people the floor because she cared. She always wanted to affect people in the most positive way.”
A recurring theme in many conversations about Johnson is her selflessness. “She was a powerful woman who had a lot of money to spend,” says Cleveland, “and she didn’t spend it foolishly.”
B.Michael’s company manufactures everything in America and supports causes around education and the arts. The designer is turning his attention to helping young designers perfect their skills and providing opportunities for them to express themselves.
He attributes his philanthropic and humanitarian endeavors to Johnson.
“Eunice gave us the example of how we can take something we all love that is beautiful and luxurious,” he says, “and at the same time use it as a means of being philanthropic. That’s a lesson I can say I learned early from her.”
Sadly, the Queen of the Johnson dynasty died in 2010 at age 93 from renal failure. Johnson Rice paces from room-to-room throughout MODA admiring the collection of over 60 garments.
Walking with one arm across her chest and her index finger on her chin, the heir to the Johnson throne is proud to stand on the shoulders of such influential parents. Though Fashion Fair is a thing of the past, it still goes down in history as a transformative experience that placed blackness on a pedestal.
“Every time I see the exhibition, I’m floored by my mother’s vision and the tenacity she had to put on a production like this,” says Johnson Rice still tapping her finger on the table. “This was no easy feat. It was born out of a need for African Americans to see themselves in a positive light.”
Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair is on display at Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA) from Oct. 19, 2014 to Jan. 4, 2015.
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.
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