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.


Unknown said...

I read your tribute to Mrs Johnson with tears in my eye. Ebony and Jet magazines were placed along side Vogue, Essence and the New Yorker in my childhood home. I remember always reaching for Ebony first because the clothing and make-up always seemed so much more dramatic to me and reflective the relatives and neighbors who "dressed to impress" on a Saturday night and a Sunday morning at church. Like you I lost touch with Ebony and Jet but am forever grateful for the road Ms Johnson's publication opened to me

Anonymous said...

Nearly all of your posts resonate with me, but this one was particularly moving. Perhaps because my relationship with Ebony was similar to sentiments you described. Thank you for highlighting this truly remarkable pioneer on your blog.

Beauty Is Diverse said...

Great tribute. She was a great woman.

Dandy said...

What a lovely post.

Jose said...

I was extremely touched by this tribute. I was one of those kids who exposed to the world of haute couture first by those spreads in Ebony (and, I have to add, my mothers' copies of Vanidades!). It was very impactful to see that beautiful black women donning the work of the world's best designers.

Later, I used to question why Ebony never presented fashion in the style of the "general market" titles like Vogue, Elle and Bazaar. I used to wonder "Why aren't they listing fashion credits? Why aren't they showing sportswear and career clothes?" But your piece concurred, that as we moved on to those other titles, that we did not then "get it."

It wasn't about consumerism, it was about glamour. It was about exposing black women to the idea of craft at the highest level, of reflecting their own sense of style and suggesting the possibility of their own glamour every day.

The other magazines could get caught up in the game of appeasing advertisers by disguising promotional copy as information. The Fashion Fair and its section in Ebony were communicating a vision: no credit card required.

P.S., F.C.:
You know, to be fair to Desiree Rogers, she is a friend of the Johnson family. It makes a tremendous amount of sense for her to have presented today.

I know it offends many that her glow often competes with that of her employer, the First Lady. However, in this case she was the completely appropriate choice.

km said...

Inspiring! Thank you for sharing, Fluff!

Old School Brand said...

What an amazing tribute, what a wonderful opportunity you shared with this legend of style and media.
I too grew up with Ebony and jet magazine prominent on the coffee tables of the matriarchs in my family. I can that I was influenced early on later realizing a modeling career that took me to the far corners of the globe working with some of the designers you described.
Thank You for sharing your eloquent story,

Angela said...

This entry was well written and says it all. When I was little my mom would take my sister and I to the Ebony Fashion Fair every year (usually around Easter). We loved looking at the beautiful clothes (on and off the runway), the 1 full figured model..that always brought the house down...and of course the pair of FINE male models...that somehow always ended up stripping down to electric blue or hot pink colored g-strings. The Ebony Fashion Fair had it was one of the many highlights of my childhood, always a staple on my social calendar! Best of all, after the show once we got home, my sister and I would practice sashaying down our hallway, while yelling out in our best "moderator voice", I'M ANGELA ROBINSON from the CHOCOLATE CITY!!!! I know y'all remember those days. Rest in Peace Mrs. Johnson, thanks for the exposure!

Divalocity said...

Mrs. Johnson introduced many of us to a lot of the designers we have today. The Ebony Fashion Show was the first time that I heard of Ralph Rucci, Tarlazzi and others. I've attended four of their shows in my lifetime and the people attending the event itself was a fashion show.

You know you're right when you said that some people looked at the JPC as being lower than Vogue and Fashion Fair not being MAC or some other high-end cosmetics when in fact they were just as good.

I still buy Fashion Fair Cosmetics and will renew my subscription to Ebony and Jet Magazine because they are still influential.

And yes, her daughter Linda J. Rice and Desiree are close friends. After all that's the first magazine that I first saw her in and she has been featured in it's pages quite regularly.

I hope with the financial difficulties that the magazine is facing that Linda doesn't sell off the Haute Couture Collections, but instead open up an exhibit within the JPC Headquarters or some other venue so that they can display these designs. They can't let anyone else seize this opportunity or it will be a loss for them.

Anonymous said...

I was a reporter for a newspaper in North Carolina and one of my assignments each year was to do a preview and review of the Ebony Fashion Fair when it came to town. One year, I scheduled a phone interivew with Mrs. Johnson and found her to be one of the most pleasant individuals I have ever interviewed.

About 16 years ago, prior to my my fraternity's national convention in Chicago, I contacted the promotions director for the Ebony Fashion Fair to see if it was possible to take a tour of the building. I was told that Johnson Publishing no longer granted tours, but since it was me and because I had wrtten so many articles about the Ebony Fashion Fair, they would make an exception.

The promotions director at that time gave me a tour of the building and before the tour's conclusion, she said: "I have a surprise for you." Well, that surprise was a meeting with Mrs. Johnson. I was awe-struck. She and then-commentator Pamela Fernandez were looking at photos that would be used in the upcoming season's show. She shook my hand and gave me a hug and thanked me for my coverage of the Ebony Fashion Fair. You can only imagine what a thrill this was for me.

Since then, I continued to cover the Ebony Fashion Fair and interviewed many of the people still associated with the show - Ken Owen, Stephen Williams, Staci Collins and Jada Jackson Collins. As a matter of fact, I interviewed Jada when she was a model with the troupe.

I am no longer a reporter with the paper, but I go to the show every year when it comes to my city, and I make it a point to go back stage and talk with Stephen.

In essence, Mrs. Johnson was and still is the Ebony Fashion Fair.

Robert said...

Great post, thanks for shedding light on this wonderful person. I'm among those who've never opened an Ebony, feeling intimidated and maybe not black enough. Rather, not black at all. Shame on me. Can't wait to open one now!

What a great woman, and such a befitting honor.

Unknown said...

What a wonderful and vry touching tribute. She sounds like an amazing person. Until your post I did not really know about her all that much.

Barbara said...

Peace be with Mrs. Johnson. I think Desiree rogers was fine choice and I am disappointed with your last comment concerning Mrs. Obama. Let's not tear Ms. Rogers down. After all, she is a personal friend of linda Johnson Rice and needless to say, "She is the epitome of class."

Anonymous said...

Take it from someone who has only a cursory interest in fashion, but Johnson Publication, i.e., Ebony, was a colossal force in the African American community, comparable to the power of community churches. That Michelle Obama could not pay tribute, in person, is indicative of how out of touch the White House can be.

Anonymous said...

Many years ago while working at Merrill Lynch in NYC, I was given the opportunity to relieve our receptionist for lunch. I looked in her desk for something to read and there was Jet and Ebony. And thus began my journey. As a white man, I had never thought to pick up these publications. I began to look forward to covering her lunch break. Thank you for my trip down memory lane. And you Eunice for the enlightenment and education.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Mrs. Johnson,

I will always love you for the beautiful fragrances, I wore Ebony(which broke my heart when you stopped making it) and then they stopped selling Fashion Fair 1, i pray that someone whill bring those frangrances back out, but now with you gone, i do't think I will be able to anymore open up everyones eyes and noses when i walked into a room with your frangrances. Thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!jvk