Tuesday, January 12, 2010

EUNICE W. JOHNSON MAVERICK FASHION ICON


Tuesday, January 12, 2010
EUNICE W. JOHNSON MAVERICK FASHION ICON © By Polly Guerin

KUDOS TO YOU EBONY FASHION FAIR LADY
Dear Ms. Johnson: I applaud your life of amazing achievement. As wife of the late John H. Johnson, publisher and chairman of Johnson Publishing Company, Inc. you partnered in 1945 by naming the company’s flagship magazine geared to black readers, by calling it "Ebony,"after the fine-grain dark wood. It remains the world’s most popular Black-oriented magazine in which you also wrote a special fashion feature. However, imprinted in my memory is the fact that you produced and directed the iconic Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling fashion show that set the pace for black fashion for half a century. I bow with admiration to your powerful persona and also to you as a leading lady, as a businesswoman and as a philanthropist, and a visionary who also created the Fashion Fair cosmetics a leading product line for women of color.
THE FASHION FAIR
As a member of the fashion press I had the opportunity to observe firsthand the Ebony Fashion Fair, which was usually held on Sunday afternoons, and how lovely a scene did the audience portray. Dressed in their Sunday best, hats and gloves the ladies arrived fully expecting to view an extravaganza the likes of which had never been presented to the black community before. The exciting fashion show made over 175 cities during its annual tour of the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. From the start the tours aim was to bring attention to aspiring young black designers, including Leonora Levon, Quinton de’ Alexander and L’Amour, and to present the best of the haute couture to the black community. Over the years the fair focused on charity and raised more than $55 million for both local and national charitable organizations, civil rights groups, hospitals, community centers and scholarships. Your vision and your largesse make you Royal Celebrity in the annals of fashion history.
LAUNCHING MODELS’ CAREERS
It is a known fact that the Ebony Fashion Fair traveling runway shows are credited with launching the careers of many African-American models and most importantly, changing perceptions of minorities in fashion. Statuesque African-American models like Pat Cleveland, Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell, Iman and Beverly Johnson have graced those runways. When Mrs. Johnson was in Paris attending the couture shows to purchase fashions for the Fashion Fair shows, she even convinced Valentino to use black models in his shows in the 60s. Using the power of her prestige and deep pockets she threatened that if he could not find black models, she’d get some for him. Then she added, “And if you can’t use them we’re not going to buy from you anymore.” Obviously that was before he was famous. According to Johnson Publishing Co., the Ebony Fashion Fair has produced more than 4,000 shows and continues today to fulfill its role model for black women worldwide.
ATTENDING THE COUTURE
One day when I was covering the couture fashion shows in Paris as a journalist for WWD, I was on my way to the Yves St. Laurent show and bumped into Audrey Smaltz, who was working on the shows and assisting Mrs. Johnson. Audrey recalled how Mrs. Johnson traveled to the fashion capitals of the world including Paris, Milan, Rome, London, New York and Los Angeles to personally select and purchase more than 200 garments by internationally acclaimed designers and couture houses to be featured in the shows and for which she spent over $1 million annually. Resistance by the couture to sell to Mrs. Johnson soon vanished when they realized her considerable influence and buying power. Mrs. Johnson began producing the shows in 1963 and it rapidly become the most talked-about fashion event across the United States.
FASHION FAIR COSMETICS
Something else seriously concerned Mrs. Johnson. She noticed that the Ebony Fashion Fair models were struggling unsuccessfully to find cosmetics in shades that matched their deeper skin tones. It gave her the idea of starting, in 1973, Fashion Fair Cosmetics, a prestige line that African-American women could buy, for the first time, in major retail department stores. The first lady of cosmetics for black women revolutionized the cosmetic industry and due to the growing popularity of Fashion Fair Cosmetics influenced firms like Revlon to produce a line called Polished Ambers for black skins, Avon followed and so did Max Factor. Fashion Fair cosmetics for women of color is sold in nearly 1,000 stores across the United States, Africa, the Caribbean, France, England, Canada, Switzerland and other foreign countries.
GROWING UP IN SELMA, ALABAMA
Eunice Walker was born in Salem, Alabama on April 4, 1916. As a youngster growing up in Selma Eunice was always fascinated by style and clothing. Not only did she make clothing for her dolls but it was her physician father, Dr. Nathaniel D. Walker who took the greatest pride in the shirts that she made even working the button holes by hand. It’s no wonder therefore that Eunice earned her high school degree in sewing and tailoring at the high school at Selma University. She graduated from Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama in 1938 with a degree in sociology and earned a master’s degree in social work from Loyola University in Chicago in 1941. She met John H. Johnson at a dance in Chicago in 1940, and they married after she graduated from Loyola. Throughout her lifetime Eunice Johnson has received numerous awards and among the Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters conferred on her by institutions of higher learning Talladega College is prominent among them, renaming its Division of Social Services and Education in her name and inducting Johnson into the university’s prestigious hall of fame.
FAIR THEE WELL
It is no surprise that a planned event was scheduled to honor Eunice Johnson. As reported in Women’s Wear Daily, the trade fashion bible of the industry, the “FAIR WELL” event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur was a luncheon planned for months in advance to honor Eunice W. Johnson. The event, however, took on an added poignancy when the famed philanthropist, co-founder of Ebony magazine and the Ebony Fashion Fair passed away on Jan 3, 2010 at the age of 93. The event became a celebration of a life’s achievement and a tribute to the Mrs. Johnson. Pat Cleveland recalled, “I met Mrs. Johnson when I was 14. She put me in her fashion fair.” Accolades poured in and most notably was a letter from President Obama, in which he paid tribute to Johnson’s legacy. “As a philanthropist and entrepreneur, Eunice wrote a chapter in history.” And so we must say goodbye and Fair Thee Well for you deserve the praise of the angels and paid homage by the world that has lost one of its most amazing women.

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