Sunday, January 10, 2010
A Tribute to Eunice Johnson
Many of you will know this great Lady and some of you may not. Eunice Johnson was the creator, along with her husband, of Ebony Magazine. She died on January 3, 2010 at the age of 93 years old. The Johnson Publishing company in Chicago has other titles on its roster like Jet, but Ebony was the jewel in their publishing crown. What is extraordinary is its longevity and the fact that there was no other publishing company owned by an African-American with its breadth and influence. In short, Eunice Johnson was a living legend.
The magazine was a staple in my house growing up. My mother still gets it each month. It was created for African-American men and women, particularly women to share with them and expose them to fashion , culture and the who's-who of African-Americans. It was one of the first fashion magazines along with Vogue, GQ and Andy Warhol's Interview that I read as a kid. I remember being awed by the glamour of it's editorial pages, much like I was with the even slicker Conde Nast offerings. What affected me most was my Mother's loyalty as a reader. She explained early on that her early years were spent in a segregated United States where everything was divided between White and Black. The colleges my parents went to were Negro colleges and the restaurants , hotels and stores where they shopped in the 40's and 50's were for Negros and were not mixed. With the advent of this magazine in 1945, there was finally a fashion magazine created for Black people by Black people and it was a gigantic point of pride for the readers and subscribers. My Mother's loyalty was largely influenced by that simple fact.
As I grew older, I saw the magazine as marginal and felt that it didn't satisfy my growing appetite for the "best and latest" of what was in the larger world. Like many of us I bought into the power that is VOGUE. What I didn't see at that time was that I was buying into one, at the sacrifice of the other. My so-called "trading up" was a negation and undermining of a publication that was valid, informative and something I could learn from. I was like so many people guzzling the Kool-Aid and even pouring the powdered contents into my hands and licking it up, despite it's intense sourness. Silly, myopic me was too blind to notice that Eunice was introducing me to some of the best of European Haute Couture and Ready to Wear from here and abroad. My mind screwed up the equation ( I always stunk at math) and decided that if my Mother liked it, it had to be uncool.
It wasn't until many years later when I'd done my time in Paris at Givenchy and opened my own house that I came face to face with the power and generosity of Ebony. All along since the 50's Eunice Johnson had started a traveling fashion show that covered the United States. It was largely geared towards and attended by African-American women. It was usually held on Sunday afternoons and millions of women would attend in their finest clothes. The Fashion Fair showcased the latest in Haute Couture from ALL of the top houses in Paris and Rome: YSL,Dior, Ungaro,Valentino, etc. and the best houses in New York: Blass, Oscar, Mary McFadden, you name it. One year when the new Fall collection was opening for market, my Sales Director got a cal from a Ken Owens, the buyer for the Fashion Fair, asking if he could come and see the collection. When I found out he was coming, I didn't know what to make of it. They weren't a store, so what would they be coming for? It turns out, they had heard about my collection, Mrs. Johnson had seen my things at Bergdorf Goodman and made a point to include African-American designers in the show. Ken was very soft spoken, to the point of being shy. I showed him the collection and he shot about 12 pieces with his camera. As he left, he said he'd show the pictures to Eunice when he got home and would be in touch the following week. He also said that they would pay in advance for whatever they might choose. I thanked him and thought that it was a long shot considering he'd shot the most elaborate, expensive pieces in the collection along with fur: Chinchilla to be precise. We're talking a lot of cash in advance.
Sure enough, a week later I got a fax(remember those?)with an order. EVERYTHING he shot they ordered, including the Chinchilla. I was dumbfounded. Four weeks later the check arrived. It was huge. Everything was ordered in size 6 and 8 and there were a couple of duplicate orders for evening gowns and suits in size 10. I figured the 10's were a typo, so I called Ken to thank him and ask if in fact he had a size 10 model or was it a mistake. He explained then that the 10's were for Mrs. Johnson. She loved the collection and wanted some of the pieces for her own wardrobe. That was very flattering. This experience repeated itself season after season in the very same way. The rules never changed.Part of what was so extraordinary about her show was that she bought the most Haute Couture pieces of any one person in the world (a fact that remains strangely unspoken), the show has raised more than $55 million for scholarships, community groups, hospitals and civil rights groups. That's called giving back.
A magazine that I looked at as a young teen and later put aside for others turned out to be one of my most loyal clients. This was like a circle, almost as though my Mother had had some sort of cosmic influence. My Mother and many friends around the country saw those shows with my clothes included and always sent back word that they loved them and were so proud of them. I found out that The Johnsons have kept an archive with everything from all the past shows(assuming it survived the road) and that everything that they bought from me was in the archive. I'm very honored knowing this and pleased that I had a small part in the history made by Eunice Johnson and the Ebony Fashion Fair. I'm also proud of the editorial pages I was fortunate to have in the magazine.She gave more to African -Americans than the magazines and Fashion Show. Eunice created Fashion Fair Cosmetics, the first cosmetics collection targeted for women of color. The success of it inspired Revlon, Avon and Max Max Factor to do the same. Up until then African-American women had to make do and mix colors to suit their complexions. Eunice was a pioneer on many fronts.
There will be a tribute to Mrs. Johnson tomorrow at the Met in NYC. It will surely be a moving experience. I understand that Desiree Rogers will present a Proclamation on behalf of President Obama. That's fitting and more than deserved. I'm a little disappointed that, again, the Social Secretary has been given this momentous responsibility and not the First Lady. I can only hope it's done with grace, respect and tact. In closing, I'd like to say Thank You to Eunice Johnson for her loyalty and belief in me. I will never forget her and the gifts she gave to so many; selflessly and consistently.