When Beyoncé sashayed into the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a nearly nude Givenchy gown this month, the spirit of Eunice W. Johnson was no doubt applauding every shimmy.
Decades before Vogue editor Anna Wintour transformed the Met’s annual Costume Institute ball into an international style juggernaut and the charity event of the year in New York City, Johnson was promoting black beauty with haute couture fashion shows that annually toured to 180 cities in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean.
During Johnson’s 50 years at the helm of the Ebony Fashion Fair, the event raised millions for black charities and made Chicago-based Ebony magazine the stylebook for legions of aspirational African-Americans.
Johnson’s savvy and Ebony’s influence are celebrated in “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” a show featuring 40 stunning garments by top-name international designers. It runs May 23-Aug. 16 at the Minnesota History Center.
“For young black girls like me who didn’t have a lot of role models you could see and touch, the Ebony Fashion Fairs provided a view of a larger life than you could imagine growing up on the South Side of Chicago,” said Robyne Robinson, the former Fox 9 anchor who is now arts and culture director at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. “They brought joy to black women because we got to see these beautiful clothes by designers who would never be in our neighborhood stores.”
In fact, the haute couture clothes that Johnson showcased were so exclusive they wouldn’t have been seen by anyone but the very rich and well-connected in the event’s early days.
That an Alabama-born Chicago style maven was able to gain access to European fashion salons was remarkable enough. That she then used the clothes to simultaneously build her family’s business, challenge racial stereotypes and redefine black glamour was revolutionary.
“The beauty of this exhibit is that it’s a dream for fashionistas, but there is something in it for everyone,” said Aleah Vinick, the History Center’s program specialist. “It is an unparalleled haute couture collection from Yves Saint Laurent to Alexander McQueen, but for people who are interested in cultural history it is so much more.”
Garments include a colorful Picasso-inspired dress by Saint Laurent, a classic Dior coat, a black leather jumpsuit by Jean-Louis Scherrer, a fabulously pleated cocktail ensemble by Krizia, a flamboyant yellow-and-black satin evening gown by Emanuel Ungaro and a sequined men’s evening suit by Guy Laroche.
There’s also a hand-painted bridal gown by Ungaro, a stunning silver raffia gown that the late Alexander McQueen designed for Givenchy and Karl Lagerfeld’s clever “shower head” evening dress with a spray of sequined “water” running down its back. Featured black designers include Stephen Burrows, Henry Jackson, Patrick Kelly, B. Michael and Fabrice Simon, the late Haitian-born couturier-to-the stars.
Johnson, who in her heyday spent an average of $1 million each year on clothes for the Ebony show, was especially close to Saint Laurent. He was one of the first haute couture designers to welcome her business at a time when some in the trade were reluctant to sell to blacks, even rich ones, because they feared that white clients would desert them.
“I think she made Beyoncé possible,” said Joy Bivins, director of curatorial affairs at the Chicago History Museum, where the show originated. Bivins curated the show with costume expert Virginia Heaven. “All these images of black beauty and black glamour, people got to know through Ebony magazine and the Ebony Fashion Fair.”
The clothes are on loan from more than 3,500 garments in the Ebony Fashion Fair archive, which is owned by Johnson Publishing, a Chicago-based firm that describes itself as “the curator of the African-American experience.” The publisher of Ebony, Jet and other periodicals, the firm was founded in 1942 by John H. Johnson and his wife, the former Eunice Walker.
A social worker by profession and a fashionista before the term was invented, Eunice W. Johnson was born to a prominent black family in Selma, Ala., in 1916. Her mother was an educator and her father a surgeon. She graduated from historically black Talladega College, where she majored in sociology and minored in art. She died in 2010 at age 93.
“Mrs. Johnson always had an interest in culture, art and things of beauty from her childhood,” Bivins said. “She comes from a world that was very segregated, but her family was very well-off and she was well-educated and things had to be just so. I’m sure she brought that to the magazine and the fashion shows, too.”
Ebony’s runway show toured the country for six months each year from 1958 to 2009. Besides the clothes, the events incorporated music and dance and launched black talents including legendary model Pat Cleveland and “Shaft” actor Richard Roundtree.
In the early years, performers were denied hotel rooms in the still-segregated South and sometimes restaurant access, too. During the 1965-66 tour, the Ku Klux Klan protested outside a Little Rock, Ark., hotel where the models were staying. “We were scared to death,” Cleveland recalled in a Wall Street Journal interview.
Johnson persisted, nevertheless, and the tours boosted the family business because each fashion show ticket included a subscription to Ebony or Jet. They also built goodwill because show profits went to black charities in each city, ultimately delivering $55 million for scholarship funds, tutoring, day care and other projects.
As a high school student, Robinson once auditioned, unsuccessfully, to model in the Ebony Fashion Fair. Her tryout took place in Johnson’s gold-walled office in her company’s Chicago headquarters.
“Very few black people had offices on Michigan Avenue in their own buildings, so it was like going into Wonderland,” Robinson said. “I was so nervous. She made me walk back and forth across her office twice, and I shook the whole time.”
Even now, “Ebony Fashion Fair means the world to me,” Robinson said. As for Eunice Johnson, “She wasn’t amazingly articulate; she was a Southern woman who had a big drawl. But she was very ahead of her time, and she’s legendary for what she’s done in the black community.”
And would she have approved of Beyoncé’s skimpy Met outfit?
“She would probably think it was too much” exposure, curator Bivins said. “But it was fashion, and of the moment, and she was all about that.”