Arts & Culture

For so many women, the Ebony Fashion Fair show was about much more than the clothes

The Ebony Fashion Fair featured all African-American models taking the runway in clothing by the likes of Christian Dior, Givenchy, Yves St. Laurent and Vivienne Westwood, just to name a few. This is Givenchy by Alexander McQueen, Evening Dress, haute couture, fall/winter 1997–98, synthetic raffia mounted on silk gauze, appeared in The Jazz Age of Fashions.
The Ebony Fashion Fair featured all African-American models taking the runway in clothing by the likes of Christian Dior, Givenchy, Yves St. Laurent and Vivienne Westwood, just to name a few. This is Givenchy by Alexander McQueen, Evening Dress, haute couture, fall/winter 1997–98, synthetic raffia mounted on silk gauze, appeared in The Jazz Age of Fashions. Courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company, LLC

Growing up in Topeka, Kan., in the 1970s and 1980s, Kimberly Lane didn’t see a lot of women who looked like her. Lane, an African-American girl surrounded by mostly white neighbors, had few examples outside her family of African-American beauty, femininity and style.

But then the Ebony Fashion Fair came to town.

The traveling fashion show – founded by Eunice Johnson, Ebony fashion editor and wife of the magazine’s publisher – brought glamour, beauty and haute couture fashion to cities across the nation from 1958 to 2009. The traveling show featured all African-American models taking the runway in clothing by the likes of Christian Dior, Givenchy, Yves St. Laurent and Vivienne Westwood, just to name a few.

For little girls like Lane, the event was more than just a fashion show. It was a powerful statement that African-American women were just as stylish and successful as any other woman.

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Kimberly Lane was selected to model on the Ebony Fashion Fair tour from 1987-1988. She never imagined she would model in the fashion show that she grew up watching. “(My mom) wanted me to see women like me on stage,” Lane said. “She would take me to help me build my self-esteem being a dark-skinned, tall, gangly girl my entire life. She wanted me to be able to carry myself with confidence.” Courtesy of Kimberly Lane

“I grew up with Ebony Fashion Fair,” Lane says. “My mom took me to the shows back when I was growing up in Kansas. At that time, the dolls and the characters on TV were mostly Caucasian – it was really difficult to find something you could relate to.

“She wanted me to see women like me on stage. She would take me to help me build my self-esteem being a dark-skinned, tall, gangly girl my entire life. She wanted me to be able to carry myself with confidence.”

A new exhibition at the N.C. Museum of Art celebrates that legacy. “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair” opens Oct. 28. The touring exhibition – originally developed by the Chicago History Museum in conjunction with Johnson Publishing – includes clothing featured in the fashion shows throughout the decades, along with behind-the-scenes photos and other archival material from Ebony.

The museum will host several related events to coincide with the exhibit, including an opening night fashion show and a conversation with Vogue magazine contributing editor André Leon Talley, who grew up in Durham.

Much more than just an homage to the fashion show, the exhibition illustrates cultural shifts for African-Americans – and American culture, as a whole – from the 1950s to the modern era.

“This exhibition is a time capsule, in a sense,” says Jennifer Dasal, associate curator of contemporary art at the museum. “It eloquently and succinctly shows how fashion changed over a 50-year period while at the same time exemplifying the power of fashion during that time and onward to today.”

More than just clothes

Ebony magazine was founded in 1945 in the midst of the Jim Crow era and was one of the first publications of its kind – a monthly magazine created by and for African-Americans.

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Eunice Johnson, at work in 1970, was the Ebony fashion editor and wife of the magazine’s publisher when she founded the Ebony Fashion Fair show. The traveling show brought glamour, beauty and haute couture fashion to cities across the nation from 1958 to 2009. Chicago History Museum Courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company, LLC

In 1958, Eunice Johnson capitalized on the brand’s caché in the African-American community to start a charitable fashion show, the Ebony Fashion Fair. The first show, held in New Orleans, raised funds for a local hospital. Over the years, the show generated millions of dollars for hospitals, civil rights groups, community centers and scholarships.

The Ebony Fashion Fair not only raised money for charitable organizations, it also raised the profile of up-and-coming African-American designers and models mentored by Johnson. Designers such as Lenora Levon and Quinton de’ Alexander found commercial success under the tutelage of Johnson. And models such as Pat Cleveland, Judy Pace and Terri Springer went on to have successful careers after appearing in the shows.

As a young girl watching those impossibly chic women saunter down the runway, Lane never imagined she, too, would someday grace that stage. But after her mother submitted her photo to Johnson Publishing, Lane was selected to model on the tour from 1987 to 1988.

“They picked all different types of girls – light skin, dark skin, tall, short – it covered the spectrum, and everybody was absolutely gorgeous,” says Lane, who lives in Charlotte and will attend the opening celebration.

Clothes aren’t just clothes – they signify so much more.

Jennifer Dasal, N.C. Museum of Art

The models were groomed not to just present well physically, but also to represent the Ebony brand through their behavior. Lane says she and her fellow models were taught to always carry themselves with poise and respect because they were seen as role models to the community. That point became especially clear after shows when young girls would come backstage for autographs.

“The little girls who came behind the stage were so important to me,” Lane says. “We all had a story of growing up where women of color weren’t considered pretty, so I always made sure to write something in their book to inspire them, to keep them going and tell them, ‘You’re absolutely beautiful, and you have to believe in yourself.’ 

Even the clothing selected by Johnson for the shows served as a form of inspiration for audiences. It was revolutionary to see women of color in couture clothing that had long been deemed something just for white women.

“Clothes aren’t just clothes – they signify so much more,” Dasal says. “And the Ebony Fashion Fair was one of the first shows of its kind to express to all women – regardless of their race or outward appearance – that they could say something about their essential selves by the colors they wore, the type of material chosen, and the occasions for which a person would dress up or dress down.

“To a whole section of the American public – black women – this was a revelatory statement, particularly when haute couture had, up to that time, been so fiercely divided upon racial lines.”

Lasting legacy

Though the Ebony Fashion Fair wrapped its five-decade run in 2009, the event’s influence on both the African-American community and the fashion industry as a whole continues today.

The Fashion Fair cosmetic line – a prestige makeup brand – continues to be one of the top selling beauty brands in America today. Johnson founded it in 1973 after she tired of specially mixing colors to match the skin tones of her models.

And the show’s legacy as an incubator for African-American talent and a showcase for the beauty and power of the African-American woman permeates the fashion industry, from student designers inspired by the show’s artistic sensibility to young entrepreneurs modeling their own careers after the Johnsons.

“It showcases black excellence and it really means a lot to me to be a part of it,” says Wes Rowe, a student designer from N.C. A&T State University whose work will be featured in the exhibition’s opening night fashion show on Oct. 28. “It puts a lot of responsibility on me to execute excellence and elegance that’s befitting of the legacy of this event for the African-American community.”

Jennifer Bringle is a freelance writer. She can be reached at jenniferbringle@gmail.com or on Twitter @jcbringle.

About André Leon Talley

With André Leon Talley’s towering 6-foot-6 frame often draped in voluminous furs, colorful capes or impeccably tailored suits, he has become one of the most iconic – and hard to miss – figures in the fashion industry.

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André Leon Talley, former American editor-at-large of Vogue, is in Charlotte this week to curate a retrospective of Oscar de la Renta's work for a new exhibit at the Mint Museum. Cindy Ord Getty Images for SiriusXM

But before he became a Vogue editor and fashion show front-row staple, Talley was a Durham boy, reared by his grandmother in the Bull City and educated at N.C. Central University. He returns to the Triangle next weekend to attend the opening fashion show for the “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair” exhibition. On Oct. 29, he will talk about his days as a fashion editor at Ebony. (The fashion show is sold out, but tickets remain for the talk.)

After graduating from N.C. Central, Talley earned a master’s degree in French studies at Brown University. Initially eyeing a career in teaching, the world of journalism and fashion proved too alluring to avoid. He started out working for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, and volunteered for Diana Vreeland, the famed former Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar editor, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

After stints at Women’s Wear Daily and W, Talley landed at Vogue in the 1980s, working in several positions, including creative director. He still occasionally contributes to the magazine.

Known for a larger-than-life personality befitting his grand physical presence, Talley has lent his fashion knowledge and quick wit to everything from the judging panel of “America’s Next Top Model” to hosting the Vogue podcast.

Through his storied career in fashion, Talley has worked with some of the industry’s most iconic names, but his time with Eunice Johnson at Ebony still stands out.

“I knew Mrs. Johnson well and worked with her for one year, making her annual trips to Europe and New York,” Talley said in a statement released for the exhibition. “It was a unique moment to capture how a visionary believed aspirational fashion could enhance the black community and raise funds for local charities. It’s an honor to celebrate this exhibition.”

Details

What: “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of the Ebony Fashion Fair”

When: Oct. 28-Jan. 21, 2018

Where: N.C. Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh

Cost: $15 for adults, with discounts for youth and seniors (non-members); free for members, college students from 5 to 9 p.m. Fridays, and children ages 6 and younger

Info: ncartmuseum.org

▪ Oct. 28, 2 p.m. Designer Studio with designers in residence Katherine Diuguid and Precious Lovell. Free.

▪ Oct. 28, 8 p.m. Opening Event with runway fashion show and dance party. (sold out)

▪ Oct. 29, 6 p.m. A Conversation with André Leon Talley. $40 members, $45 non-members.

▪ Nov. 2, 4:30 p.m. NCMA Educator Expo. $7 members, $10 non-members.

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