Let’s start with this deliciously descriptive–and dishy–sentence in Cathy Horyn’s recent column in the New York Times about the selection process for Eleanor Lambert’s legendary Best Dressed List. “I sensed that…names were dropped into the ring basically so they could be swatted away.” Horyn was referring to a meeting between Lambert, founder of the International Best Dressed List, and her selection committee. As they picked–and dropped–names, one that was never even uttered was Eunice Johnson, the well-dressed doyenne of Johnson Publishing Company (publishers of Ebony and Jet Magazines). While her love of couture never impressed the selection committee for the International Best Dressed List, it made an impression on countless lives including that of then-unknown icons like model Pat Cleveland and actor Richard Roundtree (a.k.a. Shaft) with the Ebony Fashion Fair.
Fondly referred to as EFF, the concept was launched by Mrs. Jessie Covington Dent in 1958. Dent was the socialite was wife of Alfred W. Dent, former president emeritus of Dillard University, and friends with Johnson Publishing Founder John H. Johnson. When she approached Mr. Johnson about a mini-fashion fundraiser for a local charity in New Orleans, he told his wife Eunice Johnson about it. Mrs. Johnson immediately came on board, transforming the concept from a local to a global one. The one-off charity fashion show was re-imagined as the Ebony Fashion Fair, an annual traveling fashion show which gave African-Americans an opportunity to see what they’d only read about: dazzling, glamorous, dramatic couture pieces. Johnson personally traveled to London, Milan and Paris where–as the only woman of color–she’d sit front row selecting and purchasing looks from houses like Yves Saint Laurent, Bill Blass and Emanuel Ungaro. Her selections made the rounds from the U.S to the U.K to the Caribbean. In all, EFF presented over 4,000 shows over 50-plus years, and raised more than $55 million dollars that went towards helping charities and college students across the country.The fair, which shuttered in 2010 soon after Johnson passed away, is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Rumours of its relaunch have been circulating following an official announcement of an EFF exhibit at the Chicago History Museum, opening March 16, 2013 and running through January 4, 2014. Curators are keeping mum about the exhibit, but fortunately, Johnson’s daughter isn’t. Linda Johnson Rice, Chairman of Johnson Publishing Company, was kind enough to chat with us about her mom’s style, the importance of the Ebony Fashion Fair, and her thoughts of the competition.