The Genteel
October 26, 2020


Eunice Johnson at the Bill Blass show. Courtesy of Johnson Publishing.

Eunice W. Johnson effectively made beautiful-and-black both glamorous and attainable. With her husband John H. Johnson, she co-founded the Johnson Publishing Company and the legendary, trailblazing magazine, Ebony. During her reign as Ebony Fashion Fair's producer and director, she raised over US$55 million for black charities and started Fashion Fair Cosmetics, one of the first beauty ranges designed specifically for darker skin.

However, the illustrious travelling fair came to a sudden end in 2009 as Johnson's health deteriorated prior to her passing the following January, at the age of 93. Now, with her life and achievements in the rearview mirror, tributes like the one at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and an upcoming exhibition at the Chicago History Museum, aim to convey the significance of the Ebony Fashion Fair and Johnson's lifelong contributions to the fashion world.

Eunice Johnson with Yves Saint Laurent in 1973.
Courtesy of Johnson Publishing.

The Ebony Fashion Fair started almost accidentally when, in 1956, John Johnson was approached to sponsor a fashion show to raise money for a New Orleans charity. The idea for a touring philanthropic fashion fair was derived from the success of the New Orleans event. Starting with a roster of ten cities in 1958, the annual fair grew to incorporate 180 cities.

And so began Johnson's couture hunting missions to Europe, during which she amassed an enviable collection of top designer pieces, from the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy and Ungaro, to name a few.

In many ways, the fair acted as an extension of Ebony magazine, epitomising the beauty of being African-American whilst simultaneously helping to bridge cultural barriers through fashion. Not only did the fair showcase Europe's couture creations to black communities, but by discovering talent within those communities, the shows ultimately showcased the capabilities of many designers (such as Stephen Burrows) and launched the careers of numerous models and actors, including Richard Roundtree.

But putting together such an ambitious annual fashion tour wasn't as simple as a strut down the runway. During the 1960s, the fashion industry was yet to embrace black women, both on and off the catwalk. When Johnson began her European buying trips, keen to acquire large volumes of couture creations from high profile designers, she was often met with resistance. At the time, some couturiers were hesitant to dress black women for the fear that white women would no longer find their creations appealing. As a result, Mr Johnson reportedly once said that he and his wife would have to "beg, persuade, and threaten to get the right to buy clothes."

Through it all, Johnson maintained remarkable determination, negotiating fiercely and, according to The Wall Street Journal, spending up to US$1.5 million some years, qualities which eventually started to gain the attention of designers. As Kenneth Owen, Johnson's former Assistant Producer of the fair, explains on the fair's website, "She was eventually known in fashion circles as the largest buyer of European haute couture." 

In a 2001 interview with The New York Times, Johnson recalled the changes she helped affect within the fashion industry noting, "We were the ones who convinced Valentino to use black models in his shows back in the '60s…I was in Paris, and I told him: 'If you can't find any black models, we'll get some for you. And if you can't use them, we're not going to buy from you anymore.' That was before he was famous." Valentino agreed. 

We were the ones who convinced Valentino to use black models in his shows back in the '60s…I was in Paris, and I told him: 'If you can't find any black models, we'll get some for you. And if you can't use them, we're not going to buy from you anymore.

Anecdotes such as this provide a glimpse into Johnson's far-reaching fashion legacy - a legacy not limited to European shopping sprees. Despite the growing momentum of the the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the sight of black women wearing some of the finest threads Europe had to offer, still seemed incongruous to some.

1970s supermodel Pat Cleveland, who got her start on the Ebony runway, told The Wall Street Journal last month that objectors in the South were threatening but, "they understood that change was coming down the road." The fair helped to usher in a new image of the modern black woman, changing perceptions across the board.

Beyond her influence on the black community, Johnson's impact on the American fashion world as a whole cannot be understated. "Mrs. Johnson did not just bring couture to Black America, she brought it to America. She came before Elsa Klensch, before fashion was accessible," eulogised Wall Street Journal fashion writer Teri Agins, at the 2010 Metropolitan Museum tribute.

As a veritable fashion force, claiming a lifetime full of accomplishments, it might come as a surprise that both Johnson and the Ebony Fashion Fair - until recently - haven't received more robust acknowledgment from the fashion industry. As writer Harriette Cole noted on the Ebony website the day of Johnson's Metropolitan Museum tribute, "Oddly, this is the first time that the fashion community has formally honoured her [Johnson] - a true embarrassment." 

The reasons behind the tardy tribute appear varied. Eric Gaskins, a designer whose couture creations have been featured in the fair, told me, "because it [the fair] was the brainchild of an African-American publication with a runway filled with models of colour I believe the industry marginalised it as something less than it was."

Tilman Grawe
Tilman Grawe.
Courtesy of Johnson Publishing.

Joy Bivins, the curator of an upcoming exhibition of Johnson's couture collection at the Chicago History Museum, sees truth in this, but believes there may be more factors at play. As Bivins explained to me, "I suspect had she been based in New York or LA people might have known more about her. It [the fair] really was a philanthropic institution that supported black charities. So if you're not part of that world, or not in that community, chances are you wouldn't necessarily hear about it."

Johnson's influence lives on through the talents and careers of those she championed (such as Janet Langhart Cohen); models and designers who now have a platform from which to praise her efforts. Contends Bivins, "The people that she was able to really give an entrance into that [fashion] world have reached positions where they can reflect the impact she made, not just amongst those who know about Ebony… but for a wider community."

Gaskins is one of those people who can attest firsthand to the power of Johnson's generosity. Years ago, whilst accumulating pieces for the fair, Johnson placed an order with Gaskins for the most elaborate pieces in his collection; some to feature on the fair's runway, others for herself. Such orders continued for years to come; a vote of confidence, which meant a great deal to the designer. While Gaskins' business ultimately closed its doors in 2009, in a career spanning over two decades his designs had graced the cover of Vanity Fair, the racks at Bergdorf Goodman and the bodies of celebrities like Jennifer Lopez. 

With at least one design expected to be among the 70-piece collection on display at the Chicago History Museum exhibition, Gaskins believes that the show will reveal what a talent Johnson was. Gaskins predicts the exhibition "will open the eyes of many when they see the scope and taste, not to mention Johnson's uncanny eye for what was new and groundbreaking in fashion."

Running from March 2013 to January 2014, the exhibition will feature vintage pieces from labels synonymous with haute couture, as well as creations from lesser-known African-American designers. "The goal," says Bivins, is "to forward the Johnson Publishing Company's mission, which is to reflect and project the best of what it meant to be African-American back to black people."

And, as it turns out, also to the rest of the world. With the revival of the Ebony Fashion Fair slated for 2013, it's clear that while Mrs Johnson may have passed, her legacy is yet to go out of style.



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