High Style

10.21.11

Ebony Fashion Fair's Reboot

The legendary traveling show returns to Chicago today, headed this time by the magazine founder’s daughter partnered with Desiree Rogers.

In its heyday, Ebony Fashion Fair was one of the hottest tickets around. Beginning in 1956, the lavishly designed traveling fashion show hit the road with primarily black models, stylists, and makeup artists while also offering African-American communities the rare opportunity to witness international couture designs personally chosen by the late Eunice Johnson, the co-founder of Ebony magazine. On Saturday, fans of the chic production and savvy fashionistas in general will have a chance to purchase a piece of fashion’s past during a live auction at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago.

Eunice Johnson and her husband, John H. Johnson, went down in history as the founders of Ebony magazine—but for decades their brand provided the black community with much more: the news. Fashion Fair makeup was a mainstay in the most households during the ‘70s and ‘80s while the ‘90s saw the company expand to African-American-themed greeting cards and beyond. The company, now headed by the Johnsons’s daughter, Linda Rice Johnson Rice, is continuing its expansion of the iconic brand, especially with bringing on former White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers as chief executive officer of Johnson Publishing Inc.

‘’My mother changed the way people from vastly different backgrounds experienced fashion.’’ said Johnson Rice, who serves as the chairman of Johnson Publishing. “She loved all beauty in fashion and art and wanted that offered to the black community as well. There was also no way we could continue to house all those clothes because there all so many pieces from so many years. So we wanted to give people a chance to see the clothes and buy them at great prices.’’

Prices for the avant-garde designs range from $50 to $300, which Johnson Rice said is in keeping with her mother’s belief that high style belonged in the everyday lives of all women.

Using her fond memories of attending Pierre Cardin’s 1960s Paris runway show as a 7-year-old as inspiration, Johnson Rice painstaking chose more than 7,000 items of clothing, shoes, and accessories from the company’s large archive collection to sell both in stores and online. The collection mixes well-known names such as Chanel, Christian Dior, Halston, Bill Bliss, Givenchy, and Valentino with largely unheard-of African-American designers.

Johnson Rice’s mother, Eunice Johnson, began traveling the fashion capitals of the world in the early 1950s to find designers to use in her Broadway-patterned fashion shows. The result was the Ebony Fashion Fair, which traveled to 170 cities per year and eventually raised more than $55 million for various African-American charities.

“My mother was ahead of her time in terms of a black woman traveling and buying couture fashion from all over the world. That’s history that should be preserved and shared with as many people as possible.’’

But the best is still to come for the Ebony Fashion Fair. Johnson Rice admits holding on to a number of the collection’s truly high-end designs for use in an upcoming retrospective dedicated to her mother, who died in 2010. The Chicago History Museum will showcase most of Eunice Johnson’s personal wardrobe as well as other one-of-kind fashions from Ebony Fashion Fair in an exhibit her daughter hopes will travel the country—similar to the wardrobes of Princess Diana and first lady Jackie Kennedy.

“That’s the plan at this point,’’ says Johnson. “To show the world how varied and diverse fashion and the people who buy it are. My mother was ahead of her time in terms of a black woman traveling and buying couture fashion from all over the world. That’s history that should be preserved and shared with as many people as possible.’’

The live action begins at 10 a.m. CT on Oct. 22 and allows online bidding at Lesliehindman.com