An Empire of Empowerment

By Ruhama Wolle
Photos courtesy of the Museum of Art

 Eunice Johnson at work, 1970 photo courtesy of johnson publishing company, llc

Eunice Johnson at work, 1970
photo courtesy of johnson publishing company, llc

Fashion, history, and competition coalesce at this year’s Ebony Fashion Fair. Since 1958, the Ebony Fashion Fair has exhibited exquisite ensembles that give vision to black America through fashion. At its inception, creator Eunice W. Johnson wanted every woman to experience fashion—and she overcame racial prejudice to create a world that really didn’t exist before.

In a time when European fashion houses were segregated, Johnson was determined. Essentially by taking European fashions and putting them on black and brown models, she was able to influence perception so that people finally got a sense and a celebration of black style. Johnson’s imagination for her community created a surreal and inclusive consumer culture for African-Americans to explore design, fashion, and art.
    It’s a culture that has evoked a lasting impact: “The first time I saw women who looked like me be so fashionable was in the pages of Ebony,” says Desirée Rogers, former White House social secretary who is now CEO of Johnson Publishing Company.

What started as a fashion show to raise money for a hospital in New Orleans has evolved into one of the largest traveling fashion tours of today, raising more than $55 million for charity. Designers including Oscar de la Renta, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, and Valentino came to respect Johnson, who is being honored as part of the “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair” exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Open to the public from October 28th  through January 21st, the exhibit features 40 ensembles from various designers as well as photographs and memorabilia from Ebony magazine.

In many of the garments in the exhibit, you see a combination of diva stage wear and avant-garde pieces. One particular piece—the “I Love Fashion Scandal” (Fall/Winter 1986) by black designer Patrick Kelly—reveals the current conversation in fashion of “color and diversity.” His piece is a play on racial stereotypes in the U.S. from bygone eras. On the front of the gown is a facial caricature that relates back to the images of pickaninnies in the early 1900s. Kelly’s life and business partner, Bjorn Guil Amelan, explains that deliberately “focusing on stereotypes in his work was his way of celebrating [diversity], not hiding it. He wanted to make it ours and remove the poison.”

 photo courtesy of johnson publishing company, llc

photo courtesy of johnson publishing company, llc

inspiring-beauty-opening_38016870422_o copy.jpg

To celebrate the opening of the “Inspiring Beauty” exhibit, a memorable runway fashion show featured design students from local universities: Appalachian State, North Carolina A&T, North Carolina State, and UNC-Greensboro. The students competed for cash prizes and were evaluated by fashion industry icons, including Zang Toi, Faye Clerk Moseley, and Victor and Sarah Lytvenenko of Raleigh Denim. Desiree Hedrick, a student at N.C. A&T, took home the 1st Place Best of Show award and a $1000 prize. Her winning entry, titled “Power Meets Beauty,” was a purple jumpsuit with a wire vest.

During the event, former model Shayla Simpson explained, “We touched so many lives, it wasn’t just about the models being on stage and selling beautiful fashions across the country and entertaining people. Thousands of young people went to college because of Ebony Fashion Fair.” The exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Art showcases how Eunice Johnson shaped fashion as a whole, paved the way for African-Americans in the industry, and ultimately challenged the concept
of beauty.