Ebony On the Runway

Ebony Fashion Fair's
Models present some of the designs in Ebony Fashion Fair's recent "Fit to Be Fabulous" show at the Kennedy Center. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 5, 2006

Ebony Fashion Fair is the perfect confluence of popular culture, racial uplift, community pride, tantalizing entertainment and good business. The elaborate roadshow, which is in its 48th year and travels to 179 cities, celebrates style, glamour and the fervent belief that dressing up and dressing well are good for the soul. A fashion show is not church, but there can be something redemptive in a piece of well-chosen finery.

At the production's most recent stop at the Kennedy Center, a moment of earnest prayer interrupts the pre-show, red-punch reception. "Loorrd, we are here today," begins the faithful speaker with a breathless quiver of emotion that lets the room know, yes, Lord, we are going to be here with our heads bowed for quite a long time. There is so much for which to be thankful.

Fashion Fair models spin coats and fur-trimmed capes over their head like disks of flying pizza dough, catching them gracefully and positioning them just so around their slender shoulders. They pirouette center stage like exotic birds with flamboyant plumage. These ready-to-wear pyrotechnics are part of the show's appeal, for the audience knows that when a model canters out clutching a demure shawl around her shoulders, something enticing lies below which will be revealed with the kind of fanfare trademarked by Diana Ross in "Mahogany."

The show's pair of muscular young men are charged with flirting with the ladies of the front row. No matter if those ladies are old enough to be their grandmothers, the lively come-ons are innocent, as raunchiness is not part of the Fashion Fair legacy. Still, the gentlemen take every opportunity to be topless, serving up their pectorals like so much grade-A beef and on occasion, making their chest muscles dance like marionettes.

"This is one smooth show," says John Syphax, a psychologist from Washington dressed in a cocoa-colored suit with metallic buttons, who is an audience regular because his Aunt Ethel always corrals him into buying a ticket.

Fashion Fair highlights the Ebony brand while funneling readers to the magazine. It raises money for local charities, especially those that focus on education. Ebony is an institution that, like W.E.B. Du Bois, believes in uplifting the race. It is committed to showing black women -- and men -- in the most flattering, golden light.

Sometimes, the best light is high-wattage klieg, shining on a Las Vegas-style spectacle.

A Fading Glamour

Fashion Fair was developed by Eunice Johnson, who along with her husband, John, founded Johnson Publishing Co. John Johnson died in 2005 and left behind a legacy that includes not only the fashion extravaganza and Ebony magazine, but also Jet magazine and Fashion Fair Cosmetics.

The couple's daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, 47, is president and CEO of the company, which is headquartered in Chicago. And it falls to her to usher Ebony Fashion Fair into the future. Rice says the show is too potent a branding device to let fall into disrepair.

Over the years, Fashion Fair has matured into a cultural institution that has raised more than $52 million for local and national charities and has helped Ebony magazine reach a circulation of 1.7 million. The Washington chapter of the Continental Societies Inc. has hosted the show for 42 years; the group regularly raises about $30,000 for its outreach work with disadvantaged children.

Fashion Fair is an exemplar of corporate synergy, but it also is showing the effects of age. Its audience no longer is filled with the kind of young men and women who once vamped in their own designer duds, giving the show its heady aura. The show's arrival in a city no longer generates the anticipation it once did. How can it, when cable television now provides a steady loop of runway footage? Celebrities do not flock to the show.

"We had the creme de la creme ," says Audrey Smaltz, who once served as Fashion Fair's onstage commentator. "Sidney Poitier came to the show. Bill Cosby came to the show. Muhammad Ali came to the show. They were coming for the girls. It was an event. Every show, people got dressed up. They had on gowns and suits."

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