Wednesday, January 6, 2010

LEGENDARY: Eunice Johnson, Our Fashion Fair Lady (1916-2010)


Grace and class are two words family and friends use to describe Eunice Walker Johnson, the founder of Johnson Publishing, Ebony Fashion Fair and Fashion Fair Cosmetics, who passed away Sunday at the age of 93.

Eunice Johnson looking over sketches with Yves St. Laurent

Mrs. Johnson was a visionary who understood that image is everything to the Black community. Armed with luxurious haute couture gowns, statuesque brown beauties and a runway, Mrs. Johnson sought to redefine the image of the Black woman. She forced fashion designers to take notice of the beauty of Black women and how our darker hues could accentuate or enhance their designs. At the same time, Mrs. Johnson introduced us to a world of luxury and art, and helped to elevate our self-esteem. “She was an astute fashion person who had more than just fashion in her background. She was an interior designer. She was a lover of art", says Audrey Smaltz, founder of The Ground Crew, a fashion show production company, and former Ebony Fashion Fair commentor from 1970-1977. "She introduced me to luxury, art and culture way beyond what I went to school for. I graduated with an art degree. She took me to a Ph.D.”

The Ebony Fashion Fair began in 1956 as an idea by the late Jessie Covington Dent, who was looking to put on a fashion show that would benefit the Women's Auxillary of Flint-Goodroch Hospital in New Orleans. Enter the late John H. Johnson, founder of Johnson Publishing Company and the husband of Mrs. Johnson. The show was a success and Mr. Johnson, along with his wife, decided to expand it into a multi-city traveling fashion show to help raise money for other charities. Over the years, Ebony Fashion Fair raised more than $55 million for various charity organizations.

In the beginning it was rough. Many designers refused to sell their clothing to Mrs. Johnson because, according to Mr. Johnson, they were concerned that "white women wouldn’t value their designs if they were worn by Black women". However, through perserverance and her Southern charm, Mrs. Johnson won them over, becoming the largest buyer of European haute couture, according to Kenneth Owen, assistant producer of Ebony Fashion Fair.

Via the Ebony Fashion Fair, Mrs. Johnson was also instrumental in launching the careers of some of today's fashion legends like Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, Roberto Cavalli, and Pierre Cardin when they were the new kids on the runway. The work of Black designers, like B. Michael, Willi Smith, Patrick Kelly and Stephen Burrows were also regularly featured throughout the years. Pat Cleveland, one of the first Black supermodels, cut her teeth on the Ebony Fashion Fair circuit, as did actor, Richard Roundtree and TV personality, Janet Langhart Cohen.

Mrs. Johnson is survived by her daughter, Linda Johnson Rice and granddaughter, Alexa Christina Rice. In honor of Mrs. Johnson's philanthropy and contribution to the fashion industry, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will hold a special tribute on January 11th. According to, this event was planned months in advance prior to Mrs. Johnson's passing.


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