To call The Ebony Fashion Fair a fashion show doesn’t quite sum up the experience. It is a 90-minute celebration of fashion, black beauty, sex appeal and glamour that is one of Black America’s must-attend events each year.
Eunice Johnson’s name became synonymous with the traveling fashion show when she dared to venture to Europe with her husband, the late publishing magnate John H. Johnson, to purchase designs from French haute couture fashion houses — an unheard-of practice for blacks in the 1950s. The Ebony Fashion Fair matriarch died of renal failure last fall at age 93.
“She was eventually known in fashion circles as the largest buyer of European haute couture,” said Kenneth Owen, assistant producer of Ebony Fashion Fair. “As time progressed she would spend a million dollars each year on 200 complete ensembles featured in the hour and a half presentation.”
To celebrate Johnson’s bold and successful fashion vision, Macy’s partnered with Ebony and Fashion Fair Cosmetics to showcase some of the late style maven’s designs at a month-long exhibit during Black History Month. The event, which features designs from Johnson’s personal vault, kicked off on Jan. 27 in New York and made its way to the Aventura Macy’s for a four-day display Feb. 10 – 14.
“It is an honor for Macy’s to stage a celebration of Eunice Johnson’s contributions to fashion, beauty and American history,” said Martine Reardon, executive vice president of marketing for Macy’s.
One of ten locations to showcase the exhibit, the well-attended opening day reception at the Aventura Macy’s featured several of Johnson’s stylishly colorful designs, live music, hors d'oeuvres and video footage from the New York showing.
“Macy’s approached Johnson Publishing Company and said they wanted to pay tribute to Eunice Johnson during Black History month,” Jeanine Collins, Johnson Publishing’s corporate communications coordinator said. “We’ve had a long-standing relationship with Macy’s, for more than 30 years and it was just a natural fit.”
Born on April 4, 1916, in Selma, Ala., Eunice Johnson came from a prestigious family. Her father, Nathaniel D. Walker, was a medical doctor who practiced medicine for five decades; her mother, Ethel McAlpine Walker, taught education and art at Selma University. The institution was founded by Dr. William H. McAlpine, her maternal grandfather, who also founded the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. Inc. and was close friends with Booker T. Washington.
Johnson was working as a social worker when she quit her job to support her husband’s vision of starting a magazine that focused on black life. When he turned to her for help with naming the publication, she chose Ebony because it means “fine black African wood.”
The fashion shows began several years after the magazine’s 1945 launch. The spark came when Jessie Covington Dent, wife of Albert W. Dent, former president-emeritus of Dillard University in New Orleans, needed an innovative way to raise money for the Women’s Auxiliary of Flint-Goodrich Hospital in New Orleans. She approached John Johnson about sponsoring a mini-fashion show.
The charitable event was such a success that the Johnsons decided to take the show on the road for a 10-city tour to benefit other organizations. Those shows featured four female models and ticket prices that ranged from $3.50 to $12. When the models were unable to find make-up shades to match their skin, the Johnsons created Fashion Fair Cosmetics.
To date, more than 4,000 shows, that now include males and plus-sized models, have been performed in the United States, the Caribbean, England and Jamaica. Ebony Fashion Fair has raised more than $55 million for scholarship groups.
Renee Michelle Harris may be reached at RMHarris15@Bellsouth.net.
Photo: Design by Balestra from EBONY Fashion Fair Runway Show.