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.
Fashionista: The number of folks who attended Ebony Fashion Fair (EFF) is staggering. What do you think the show meant to the audience? Linda Johnson Rice: The Ebony Fashion Fair show was and is very important to its audience. The show was often an introduction to high fashion--the show was the first time they got to see high fashion up close and personal and in such a theatrical presentation. The show was a sense of pride for the audience. A show that came from EBONY and was developed just for them, it made them feel special. The audience was proud that a Black woman brought fantastic clothes to their communities and exhibited them. All of that, and it was a sustained and reliable way to raise money and give back to their communities—more than $55 million raised in the 50 years.
Conversely, what kind of influence do you think your mother and EFF had on the designers she bought? My mother’s relationship with designers and fashion as a whole, had impact on them, their designs and the community. Pucci asked my mother to find a black model for him, one of the first models to appear on the runway. Pucci was inspired by my mother; he witnessed her style, grace, elegance and sophistication. He saw her influence in the states and that she was buying his clothes, picking the most fabulous of them, and presenting them to a new audience in a theatrical way. Yves St. Laurent could also be said to have been influenced by her; his designs certainly had influences that were African-American and African. Her presence opened their eyes to African American buying power.
Why buy instead of borrow such expensive couture pieces? What was the significance of that? Simply, it was more practical. The show wasn’t a one-off charity show, where you can use it and send it back. She bought the clothes so she could showcase them, from city to city—from 10 cities, to 20 cities and so on.
Did she experience any resistance from the global fashion community in organizing this annual event?
Did she experience any resistance from the global fashion community in organizing this annual event? No.
Ebony credits the inspiration for the show to Mrs. Dent, but what do you think the weight of your mothers impact was once she connected with the project? My mother’s involvement and support of the show(s) had tremendous weight and impact. She had the creativity, style, sophistication, knowledge and access to capital that made the show into what it grew to be.
Was there/is there any serious rival to EFF? Not in my recollection.
Do you consider your mother a fashion icon, and what made her so in your eyes? Absolutely! My mother had vision. She selected the most theatrical and intricately designed pieces by the top designers. She also reached into the African American design community, identifying young talented talent. And then brought them all together to create a show like no other. She “told” African Americans nationally that they could wear anything. She helped create self-confidence. She leveraged the show to raise millions of dollars to help a community in need—the show sent African Americans to college, it helped benefit the disadvantaged, the homeless and the sick among other things.
What was distinctive about her style? Her style was distinctive because she would push the envelope–-she was never afraid, she dared herself to be different, she had no fear of fashion, at all.
Are you disappointed she never made the best-dressed list? Yes. She was overlooked and well deserved.
Click through to see photos of Johnson at shows, with fashion luminaries like Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld and Andre Leon Talley, and of the EFF through the years.
Photos: Johnson Publishing Company