Mirror, Mirror: Her Ebony show lifted barrier to haute couture

Eunice Johnson and designer Yves Saint Laurent. Some of the styles Johnson purchased for her shows are displayed at Macy's Center City.
Eunice Johnson and designer Yves Saint Laurent. Some of the styles Johnson purchased for her shows are displayed at Macy's Center City.
Posted: February 09, 2011

There was a time when most African American women didn't know who Yves St. Laurent was, let alone believe they could ever own a crisp YSL pantsuit.

But that was before Eunice W. Johnson.

Johnson, who died a little more than a year ago, spent more than 50 years introducing all things fashionable, fabulous, and fly to brown-skinned belles, first with her husband, John, by founding Ebony and Jet magazines, and then through her runway show, the Ebony Fashion Fair.

Billed as the world's largest traveling fashion show - in its heyday the extravaganza stopped in 170 cities - the show featured more than 200 over-the-top, colorful and avant-garde looks worn by black models at a time when African Americans were still banned from basic privileges like trying on department-store clothes. Over its lifetime, the Ebony Fashion Fair raised $55 million for African American charities.

Now 25 of the 6,000 pieces of the collection that Johnson amassed will be on display through Monday at Macy's Center City as a tribute to the black community's first true couture czarina.

"Mrs. Johnson was a pioneer," said Macy's spokeswoman and native Philadelphian Deanna Williams. "The Ebony Fair brought haute couture to tens of thousands of women over several generations who would not have ordinarily had a chance to see it."

The retrospective, called "For the Love of Color," will travel to 10 cities, including Houston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and San Francisco, and feature designers from Valentino to Versace, from Bob Mackie to Marc Bouwer. Highlights from the Philadelphia show, which can be seen in the store's display windows and in Macy's Grand Court, include a glittering Reem Acra, a red Carolina Herrera, and a Geoffrey Beene mini.

If, like me, you never got a chance to see the Ebony Fashion Fair, this exhibition is a definite must-see. Those who treated the two-hour show, launched in 1958, as an annual outing say they still remember the good feelings they got from seeing awesome fashions on brown models. The fair was one of the first outlets for black designers such as Stephen Burrows, b.Michael and Philadelphia's own Willi Smith, and attendees never knew what celebrity would show up in the audience. (During the years when Shaft was popular, Richard Roundtree appeared. And almost every year, the handsome twin models Rod and Ron Fuller attended.)

Bernice Minor, the 84-year-old doyenne of the Philadelphia Cultural Committee, which always hosted the local show, said people felt proud just to be there.

"Not only were there fashions in the show, the audience was sharp, too," Minor said of the event held in Philadelphia at the Academy of Music, and in later years, at the Kimmel Center. "Everybody was dressed to kill, and sharp."

That black women couldn't try on clothes or shoes in the late '50s at Wanamakers, now the Center City Macy's, makes the retrospective even more poignant.

Linda Johnson Rice, now chairman of her parents' company, Johnson Publishing, used to travel to London, Paris, and Milan with her mother to purchase pieces from the likes of John Galliano, Chanel, and Miuccia Prada - an unfortunate requirement when most designers were lending their clothing to charitable fashion events.

"Frankly, the designers were skeptical lending the clothes to her, an African American woman who they didn't know anything about," Rice said. "So, in order to get the clothes she really wanted . . . the best clothes she could, she had to buy them."

It turned out to be a benefit. Eventually, Johnson developed a love of "archiving clothes," and the collection, her daughter said, is now "invaluable."

"We bought the most extravagant pieces that we could. The idea was to show that African American women could wear anything they wanted. You couldn't be inhibited by the color of your skin."

It was the skin color of her models that inspired Johnson to launch a makeup line in 1973 also called Fashion Fair, eventually touted by stars such as Diahann Carroll and Aretha Franklin.

Roberta Alford of Center City is grateful for the primers she received at Fashion Fair. She went to the show annually with her mother and sisters.

"That was one of the ways I learned how to mix prints and patterns," Alford said. "I can remember seeing my first peplum outfit there in the '70s. We looked forward to it every year. These were our grand masters."

Johnson, who was born in Selma, Ala., but spent most of her life in Chicago, was so respected by the fashion community that last year - shortly after her death in January - the Metropolitan Museum of Art held a luncheon in her honor displaying dozens of clothing items from her personal collection. Vogue editor Anna Wintour was in attendance.

The Ebony Fashion Fair had its last run in 2009, so it could be retooled, said Rice, who is hoping this year's retrospective will help revive the excitement around the once-annual event and maybe bring it back permanently.

"She wanted to bring African Americans the best," Rice said. "That will always be her legacy."

Mirror, Mirror:


Reception honoring Eunice W. Johnson

5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Macy's Center City, 1300 Market St. R.S.V.P. by noon to deanna.williams @macys.com

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.

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