By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010; E01
Eunice Johnson transformed a small charity fashion show for a New Orleans hospital, organized at the behest of Dillard University in 1956, into a traveling extravaganza and fundraising force. Her efforts tapped into the desires of a marginalized black community to declare itself fabulous.
When Johnson died at 93, just three days into the new year, it had been decades since Ebony Fashion Fair -- her roadshow of designer ready-to-wear and haute couture -- had resonated as profoundly as it did during its heyday in the 1970s. But Johnson's place in history was already secure.
By the time the spectacle was suspended in fall 2009 due to the recession, it had raised more than $55 million for charity -- mostly for education. And it had provided a grand stage where black men and women could strut -- not in their Sunday best, not in clothes worn for the glory of God, but in glory of individuality and dignity.
Johnson had been married to John Johnson, who founded Johnson Publishing, the media corporation that owns Ebony and Jet magazines. He died in 2005 and the company was taken over by the couple's daughter Linda Johnson Rice. Eunice Johnson was the corporation's secretary-treasurer, but she was mostly known for the spectacle of frocks that she oversaw and that toured the country for some 50 years.
Charity fashion shows were nothing new when Ebony Fashion Fair first took to the catwalk and they continue to be a favorite fundraiser everywhere from linoleum-lined church basements to five-star hotel ballrooms. But Ebony Fashion Fair wasn't merely focused on fancy clothes and pretty models. It was an audience-participation event. Guests felt compelled to dress in their most flamboyant finery because a ticket to Ebony Fashion Fair was an invitation to flaunt one's success, one's self-confidence and even one's self-worth. Black women and men -- average folks, not just the rarified few -- could define themselves as glamorous and elegant. They could be stars on their own stage.
Today, it may be hard to imagine how a fashion show could represent such social striving and elicit such pride. After all, fashion has become so democratic. Now, everyone has access to a designer point-of-view -- whether it is at a Christian Dior boutique or in the aisles of Target. Black style is regularly celebrated, appropriated and commercialized. And black designers dress everyone from the woman on the street to the woman in the White House.
But back when Ebony Fashion Fair began, fashion was a wholly different kind of business. It was exclusive. Fashion shows were hush-hush events tucked into a social sphere that was difficult to pierce. It was quite something for Johnson, a black woman with an iron will, to step into a top designer's atelier with its snooty staff and declare her intent to purchase tens of thousands of dollars of the most outre fashion. Only the most progressive and theatrical pieces would satisfy Johnson. No matter that she could write big checks; she still had to fight for her place, her respect -- for her right to be called Missus. Eventually, she won over the industry.
Johnson delivered the secrets of Paris and Italy to the black community. She gave her audiences access to a haughty world in an era before Web casts, Web sites, blogs and Twitter feeds. She had the audacity to believe that a black woman might be interested in Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino even if she could not afford it. Johnson did not condescend.
Ebony Fashion Fair wasn't a shopping show. Audience members weren't taking notes about which looks they would buy. Johnson was giving people information, fantasy and the reassurance that, yes, this world belongs to you, too.
Fashion Fair was engaged in racial uplift through personal style. The show celebrated African American beauty, but it was not interested in being provocative, which might explain why it lost its luster in an era of hip-hop gangster style and jolie-laide models. The last model it helped launch to stardom was Pat Cleveland in the 1970s. The trends celebrated on Johnson's runway increasingly had nothing to do with those detailed in the pages of magazines such as Vogue or Harper's Bazaar. She'd have more millinery in a single show than the mainstream glossies would photograph in an entire year. And as her audiences grew older and died off, young people did not fill the seats. Fashion Fair became a kind of artifact of an earlier time, when people focused on carrying themselves with dignity instead of fretting about having been disrespected.
Johnson accumulated a warehouse of designer frocks that might someday make a fine exhibition on fashion's history. But that is not her most valuable legacy. Instead, it was her message that fashion is a vocabulary uniquely suited to expressing pride, declaring solidarity, exploring insecurities and, ultimately, claiming one's place in the world.