ATLANTA (AP) — Long before Americans obsessed over the sleeves of its black first lady, Eunice Johnson was shining a spotlight on black beauty and style.
The wife of Ebony magazine founder John Johnson, she used her natural flair and healthy finances to create the Ebony Fashion Fair, a sepia-hued, touring fashion show that would spend 50 years bringing high fashion to generations of neglected black audiences.
Now, though, the future of the event that created pride in the black community is unsure.
Johnson Publishing Co. has placed the event on hiatus, citing Johnson’s Jan. 3 death. But the indefinite break also coincides with a fashion world opening its arms to diversity through a growing crop of black models and stylemakers, bringing the relevance of Johnson’s show into question.
As the mainstream embraces consumers of color — a shift reflected in everything from magazine covers to runway show guest lists — is there still room for an event born when so few saw black as beautiful?
It’s a question even Johnson Publishing must weigh.
“Management is evaluating how best to continue the legacy of Mrs. Johnson and also the Ebony Fashion Fair brand,” spokeswoman Jeanine Collins told The Associated Press. “To make a determination of whether this is the end, we wouldn’t be able to speak to that.”
The doors to the fashion world were firmly shut for most black consumers in 1956, the year the Johnsons were first approached about hosting a mini-fashion show fundraiser for a New Orleans women’s group. It was a success, and by 1958, the Johnsons had expanded the concept into a touring exhibition that would go on to raise more than $55 million at more than 4,000 fashion shows for scholarships and other community organizations, according to Collins.
It was known for its colorful models and over-the-top couture — with mainstream designers like Christian Lacroix and Vivienne Westwood — and for helping generations of black women and men gain self-esteem, said Vogue editor-at-large and Johnson friend Andre Leon Talley.
“We were a race that was told we were inferior even down to the level of fashion,” Talley said. “Mrs. Johnson showed us you are beautiful.”
Yet even Talley himself — a black man near the top of the masthead of the fashion bible — is a testament to how much the world that gave birth to the Ebony Fashion Fair has shifted.
Today, Ethiopian Liya Kebede is the face of Estee Lauder, while Teen Vogue markets black models Jourdan Dunn and Chanel Iman as icons of fashionable American youth. Black designer Tracy Reese’s runway show attracts buyers from the country’s top-tier stores and boutiques.
Louis Vuitton has marketed a shoe with hip hopper Kanye West, while a 2008 issue of Italian Vogue featuring all black models was so popular it spawned a Web site called Vogue Black.
Even modeling agencies are scouting more black girls — the result of consumer pressure, according to Roger Padilha, founder and creative director of
New York’s MAO Public Relations, which casts models for labels like Baby Phat.
He pointed to Michelle Obama as a prime influence.
“Condoleeza Rice didn’t walk around wearing Jason Wu,” Padilha said, referring to the former U.S. secretary of state. “Nowadays we have a woman of color who is wearing fashion designers.”
This isn’t to say everyone is satisfied that all things are equal on the catwalk. The Gawker-owned Web site Jezebel, for example, counted up the faces at New York Fashion Week last month, and found that of 122 mainstream shows, barely 16 percent of models weren’t white.
Still, it’s a marked improvement from Johnson’s early days. And black consumers have a renewed interest in high fashion, spurred on, Padilha said, by increasingly stylish celebrities like Zoe Saldana and Kerry Washington, both Fashion Week front-row regulars.
The shift has gradually dimmed Ebony’s influence. It’s been years since the show launched the careers of models like Pat Cleveland.
It echoes a pattern reflected at nearly every level of society: As blacks flock to formerly all-white institutions, it often spells the demise of community mainstays born amid segregation.
But in the fashion world, some say it’s a shift that comes at a high cost.
“We still have a way to go,” said former model Bethann Hardison, a fashion diversity advocate who has hosted three summits on the topic since 2007.
Many black designers continue to operate largely outside the scope of even Mrs. Obama, who came under fire from the Black Artists Association last January for not including black-designed fashions from her inaugural wardrobe.
Hardison gives the industry a C+ overall on including people of color, but she quickly notes niche markets like the Fashion Fair have done little to promote diversity in the mainstream.
“The Ebony Fashion Fair had really nothing to do with fashion — it was about clothing a community and it was a business,” says Hardison. “Ebony Fashion Fair being temporarily stopped … is not going to change anything.”
“The day that (Ebony Fashion Fair) is not needed is going to be a great day indeed. Unfortunately, it’s something that is still needed,” says Padilha.
Black stylemakers such as Atlanta salon owner Dwight Eubanks hope to fill the void left as Ebony fades. Eubanks hopes to open a department store featuring black designers with a style that represents their ethnicity.
It still remains up to blacks, he says, to promote their own beauty.
“They don’t design for us,” Eubanks says. “But who’s buying Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana? It’s our community.”
Photo by James Mitchell. Eunice Johnson