Linda Johnson Rice, Desiree Rogers and Joy Bivins (the curator) win the prize. They are responsible for the exhibition, “ Inspiring Beauty” at the Chicago Historical Museum until January 5, 2014. Linda Johnson Rice, daughter pays homage to her mother with this presentation.
The exhibit showcases fashions from the Ebony Fashion Fair that began in 1958 and traveled America until 2009. The show was an elegant fashion show with Black models exclusively featuring European fashions from the couture houses of top designers, like Yves St Laurent, Oscar de la Renta, Pierre Cardin, Valentino and Emanuel Ungaro. Eventually African American designers like Patrick Kelly and Stephen Burrows were featured. The show was always themed and introduced haute couture to Black women. The shows were always creative, perfectly executed. The commentator Audrey Smaltz made the show exciting as she spoke with snazzy authority on fashion, romance and women.
The show was the brainchild and creation of the late Mrs. Eunice Johnson, wife of Mr. John Johnson. Together they built Johnson Publishing Company, the home of Ebony and Jet. Mrs. Johnson is being hailed today as a fashion pioneer, and an icon. She was a fashionetta before the word was known. Her sense of style ranged from exotic to tailored with flair. There’s a quote in the exhibit that describes her best, “well groomed glamour signaled success.” She had the best job. She toured the fashion houses worldwide to select cutting edge fashion. She looked for the new designer. She liked the avant-garde. Haute couture was her signature. She knew the perfect wrap. She liked the evening gown. She liked casual with fur. The clothes were high styled, colorful, and bold and a lesson in real time fashion. The dressed ensembles were pieces of art, worn with the right shoe, the right hairstyle and the right accent. She taught the world to dress with flair.
Throughout her 50-year career as a fashionetta, she bought over 8,000 garments and spent $1 million to $1.5 million per year in cash for the clothes that some hesitated to sell to her at first. She was persistent and eventually became the best customer to some of the best designers in the world. She was beautiful herself, always elegant.
Mrs. Johnson opened doors. She was a pioneer. She made way for the “Black model on the runway.” The girls were glamorous and came in all hues. They toured the segregated south on a bus with the entire crew, hitting 90 cities in a three-month period. The monies from the shows went to Black charities, scholarships, hospitals, schools and the like in the various cities. Mrs. Johnson raised $60 million dollars from the fashion shows in a half century. She created a make up line, Fashion Fair, realizing the problems the woman of color had in blending the right make up. She had the magic touch.
The Fashion Fair models were a work of art themselves. They had “body attitude.” They didn’t walk the runway they worked it. The clothes spoke as they strudded. The dresses twirled to live music. The outfits spoke volumes and always made a fashion statement, as those in the audience wondered where they might wear that piece. The fashions ranged from dress up for the opera or the gala, to simple after 5 to casual with a touch of fur to include sequins, ruffles and lace with exquisite colorful fabric. Some outfits’ even had boots and hats to match. She loved color and the models wore them brilliantly. The show always closed with a wedding dress. Not just any wedding dress, but something unexpected. Mrs. Johnson was before her time, or is it the world took its time to catch up to her. She had an awesome fashion sense. Today she might be a designer herself with the signature of Eunice. The exhibit is filled with video interviews of past participants memorializing the show from models to commentators to designers to those who were in attendance. It was a dress up affair, always special.
Historically Mrs. Johnson’s impact was that she took the beauty of the black woman to another level. She showed respect with recognition. She took the most beautiful clothes and dressed Black models and brought the height of fashion to the pages of the Ebony and the people at home in a live extravaganza. It was revolutionary at the time and it must have had trials and tribulations beyond belief. She opened the fashion industry from make up artists, hair stylists, to wardrobe mistresses to designers and more.
One of the most sparkling pieces of the exhibit is to sit at a table of Ebony and listen to the Ebony story in the words of Mr. John Johnson. He talks of starting Ebony when Black people were not in the news at all to negative images. He says he and his wife found Chicago “to be a place of magic and dreams” and reports his receipts in l987 were $170 million.
This is a success story to be studied. This is a must see exhibit. Beautiful. Awesome. Fabulous.