Ebony Fashion Fair and Eunice Johnson

Ebony Fashion Fair
An exhibit was held at the Chicago History Museum.

Eunice Johnson (1916-2010) and her husband, John H. Johnson (1918-2005) created a publishing empire that included the highly successful Ebony and Jet magazines.

In 1958 when a friend asked her for help putting together a charity fashion show, Eunice began what was to become a 51-year tradition of sponsoring a traveling fashion show featuring African American designers and models. The focus was always on raising money for causes relevant to the black community.

How the Johnsons Began

Ebony Fashion Fair

The first magazine introduced by the Johnsons was Negro Digest, published in 1942 as a response to the very successful Reader’s Digest.  As the Johnsons intended, the readership came and stayed. Within a year, they had a circulation of 50,000.

Based on the strength of this publication, the couple launched Ebony magazine in 1945. Ebony was the African-American answer to Life magazine, featuring bold, interesting photography.  As of 2010 circulation was 1.25 million readers.  Jet magazine, a weekly news magazine, was begun in 1951. It, too, was very successful.  As of 2014 Jet has made the transition to be fully digital.

Ebony Fashion Fair

In 1958 a new opportunity presented itself. A friend of Eunice Johnson’s asked Johnson to help her with a fashion show for a hospital in New Orleans.  What began as a one-time event soon became a major fundraising enterprise with black models wearing clothing by black designers. It was all overseen by Eunice Johnson.  Johnson knew from her experience with the magazines that African-American women needed to see aspirational clothing that would inspire them to be the middle- and upper-class people they could be.

Ebony Fashion Fair

As the popularity of the Ebony Fashion Fair grew, Eunice Johnson purchased a luxury coach so that the models and all the clothing could travel throughout the nation. By 1991 they were making 190 stops in the United States, the Caribbean, and Canada. In each location, the Ebony Fashion Fair would partner with a local charity to help raise money for everything from scholarships and community facilities to medical research for diseases specific to African-Americans. Over the course of its 51-year history, over $55 million was raised.

Challenges of Traveling While Black

The lifestyle was far from glamorous for those on the road. In the South, particularly early on, the bus would stop for gasoline, and the restrooms would have signs: “No Blacks in Ladies Room.”  Because most Southern hotels would not accommodate blacks, Johnson had to find and arrange with local families to provide places for her models to stay.

Getting everyone fed was also a challenge. The Johnsons believed strongly that their models and staff should not stoop to the Jim Crow laws of entering restaurants through a back door, so a light-skinned model would be sent in to place a food order. Many meals were eaten on the bus. (Also see the The Green Book: A Travel Guide for African Americans.)

Ebony Fashion Fair

The Ebony Fashion Fair was held in a wide range of venues. By the early 1990s the New York show was being held at the New York Hilton, but in small towns it was often held in the community rooms of churches or in veterans’ halls.  No matter what the location, it became a “see and be seen” social event. Mothers and daughters or groups of friends established traditions of getting dressed up and going to the fashion show as a social highlight of the year.

Fashion Shopping on a Major Scale

Eunice Johnson loved fashion and knew her readers and show attendees deserved to be “in the know.” She proudly featured black designers like Lenora Levon, Rufus Barkley, and Angela B’Nai but she also wanted to include haute couture.

Ebony Fashion Fair
Eunice Johnson

In the beginning however, it was hard for an African-American client to book appointments with the top ateliers in Paris. Valentino and Emilio Pucci were among the first to come around, but other designers resisted, worrying what exposure to that market would do to their lines.

Eunice Johnson went ahead and acquired the clothing she wanted through retail channels and then began a file collecting the press notices from around the country that mentioned the various designers in the Ebony Fashion Fair. She then approached the designers like Dior, Ungaro, and Bob Mackie and showed them the publicity they could get by doing business with her.

Soon Eunice Johnson was spending $1 million to $1.5 million per year and easily getting any appointments she wanted. She was able to bargain on prices by indicating she was ready to leave empty handed. If they resisted her request for better prices, she would simply fold the check she was holding and prepare to leave. She rarely left empty-handed.

Giving a Boost to Black Models

Ebony Fashion Fair

When Pucci and Valentino were looking for black runway models, they turned to Eunice Johnson for help.  Johnson also helped introduce African-American models like Pat Cleveland, Naomi Campbell and Barbara Smith who went on to great careers.  The Ebony Fashion Fair also used a few male models, and Richard Roundtree, an actor made famous with the “Shaft” films, was first given major exposure when hired by Johnson in 1967, according to an article in the New York Times. (5-24-2012)

In an NPR interview, daughter Linda Johnson Rice said: “[Eunice felt that fashion] could be used for black empowerment.  She just wanted to prove there was nothing you couldn’t do; there was no barrier to black beauty…  “

Fashion Fair Cosmetic Line

With both the magazine work and the fashion show, another issue bothered Eunice Johnson—that of makeup colors for black people.  It took blending numerous colors to get the right shade of foundation for the models.  In 1973 she introduced Fashion Fair Cosmetics, and she soon got the product into top department stores.  Diahann Carroll and Aretha Franklin were among the many black stars who were happy to appear in the ads.

This prompted Revlon, followed by Avon and Max Factor, to come out with competing lines, as they began to realize the importance of this market.

 Johnson Background

Eunice Walker was born in 1916 to well-educated parents in Selma, Alabama. She was one of four children. Her mother was a school principal her father was a physician.  Eunice graduated from Talladega College in 1938 and went on to get a master’s degree in social work from Loyola University in Chicago.  She met John Johnson at a dance during that time, and they were married after she graduated from Loyola in 1941.

In 2012 Teri Agins, fashion and style writer for The Wall Street Journal, commented on an article in The New York Times about how Eunice Johnson never made the Best Dressed List: “Eunice Johnson left a huge footprint on American fashion history and it is a travesty that she was never included on the Best Dressed List.”

Johnson Publishing Today

Their daughter Linda Johnson Rice carries on the publishing business her parents started, and there is talk of reviving the fashion fair, which ended in 2009 when Eunice could no longer run the show.  However, to date, nothing has been announced.

In early February 2015 Ebony magazine announced that their historic photo archive was on the market.  The collection contains photos of images such as Billie Holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. and Sammy Davis Jr.  Many of the photos were taken by their staff photographer, Moneta Sleet Jr., who was the first African-American photographer to receive a Pulitzer. The Prize was received for a photo Sleet took on the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. The touching photograph captures widow Coretta Scott King with their five-year-old daughter pressed forlornly against her lap.

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12 thoughts on “Ebony Fashion Fair and Eunice Johnson”

  1. Dear Ella,
    The last Ebony traveling fashion show was in 2009, partly because fashion has become more inclusive of all types of models for all shows. If you are interested in modeling, investigate some of the agencies that represent models—but check them out ahead of time. Some of them might not be good businesses. Thanks for reading and posting. Good luck!

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  4. You know, you are so right. The traveling fashion shows would have been fun and festive and social…all the things that are missing in our lives right now.
    Thank you for posting.

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  8. I remember when I was growing up and was able to go to the fashion shows. There you would see and feel the elegance and classy feel of being a Beautiful Black Woman. You enjoyed reading Jet and Ebony. Because they looked like you. They made every Black little girl feel Beautiful and Proud of our color. And every fashion show you got a subscription of your choice. And someone in every household read the magazine. Thank you so much for being in many Black homes.

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