What would the fashion landscape look like today without Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter? Do you remember the first time you were enchanted by her iconic debut album cover, on which she was strategically draped in rhinestones? When she graced the 2017 Grammy Awards stage, dripping from head to toe in gilded adornment, no one questioned the appropriateness of the regalia because she had been dazzling us with her fashion statements for more than a decade.
Similarly, Rihanna has dominated popular culture by making avant-garde fashion statements whenever the opportunity arises. We are fortunate to live in a time when the color of these women’s skin has not prevented them from becoming international household names.
Today, African-American women are mainstream trendsetters, but this was not the case in 1958, when Eunice Johnsonthe cofounder of Johnson Publishing Company, which published Ebony magazinepioneered the Ebony Fashion Fair, which is celebrated in Inspiring Beauty, a new exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art.
In fact, African-American women were often prohibited to shop at fine retailers, and their access to high fashion was limited to viewing the elegant women featured in the magazine’s pages. We probably would not have fashion icons like Beyoncé and Rihanna, who would not have been allowed to enter the fashion houses that now fight over the chance to dress them, were it not for the trail Johnson blazed.
She was born in Selma, Alabama, to an upper-middle-class family. Her passion for personal style developed early, yet she chose to pursue a sociology career. While completing her master’s degree, she met her husband, John H. Johnson, and a dynamic duo formed. She moved to Chicago with him in the 1940s. Then her love of haute couture led her to Europe to visit top ateliers in search of items for her personal wardrobe. Known for her impeccable taste, Johnson began to curate an impressive collection. She knew that there were many black women who loved fashion but did not have the opportunity to travel to Europe, as she frequently did.
Backstage management company The Ground Crew’s Audrey Smaltz, who was the voice of the Ebony Fashion Fair for seven years and sometimes traveled with Johnson on buying trips, recalls how she always purchased one thing for herself and two or three for the Fashion Fair.
“At the time, it was difficult for black women to even receive an invite, so designers were shocked to find Mrs. Johnson not only attending but purchasing garments straight off the runway,” says Smaltz. From the start, Johnson’s aim was to use the Fashion Fair tour as a fundraiser for African-American charities. From 1958 to 2009, the traveling show raised more than $50 million dollars for those organizations.
Johnson organized and produced the Fashion Fair with models of color gracing the stage. Even in the 1970s, African-American models were rarely seen in major fashion shows, so to attend one that featured only African-American men and women was groundbreaking. It was also well received. Smaltz recalls selling out the Kennedy Center in D.C.
At NCMA, Fashion Fair model Kimberly Kearse-Lane remembered how fast the models were dressed behind the scenes.
“I’ve never walked in another show where the changes were executed so quickly,” she said.
Kearse-Lane participated in an astounding 287 shows during her short tenure with Fashion Fair. Before appearing in the show, she was an aspiring model, but walking the runway in more than two hundred cities launched her modeling career and afforded her the chance to win the title of Miss Topeka. Her story is one of dozens shared by Fashion Fair alumni whose participation was life-changing.
The forty ensembles from the Ebony Fashion Fair on view at NCMA feature sequins galore, intricate needlework, and dresses in every silhouette, from ball gowns to mini skirts.
Though the garments are mainly for women, men are represented, too. There is an over-the-top, fully sequined suit, multicolored fur boots, and a full-length purple fur. The designers include names you will recognize, like Yves Saint Lauren, Bob Mackie, Givenchy, and Pierre Cardin, alongside designers you should get to know, such as Emanuel Ungaro.
André Leon Talley, a groundbreaking Vogue magazine editor, also worked for Ebony Fashion Fair early in his career. At his talk with Smaltz at NCMA Sunday night, he recounted how Johnson recruited him from Women’s Wear Daily.
“She insisted that I come work for her, and she always respected the opinions of her team,” Talley said. “Mrs. Johnson would return from Europe to her modernistic home kitchen, after spending thousands on couture, and bake a lemon pound cake from scratch.”
Talley painted a picture of a woman driven to share what she was fortunate enough to see in Europe with the African-American community.
Johnson accomplished her dream and left behind a legacy that will never be duplicated. It is a privilege to have this collection and its cultural impact illuminated at NCMA. If you are a fashion enthusiast, you cannot miss this exhibit.