Black is Beautiful

How Ebony's visionary Fashion Fair brought beauty and style to Black America

Contributor: Rhianna Jones

Before there was the empowering adage “Black is Beautiful,” and before the mobilizing Black Power Movement that shaped a new vision of Black America, there was the Ebony Fashion Fair Show. What started as a one-off fashion fundraiser in 1958 evolved into a legendary enterprise, thanks to the pioneering vision of founder Eunice Johnson, wife of publishing giant John Johnson. Through her executive role over Ebony and Jet magazines, Eunice had a longstanding history of bringing art, culture and sophistication to the African-American audience. In founding the Ebony Fashion Fair Show however, she took the empowering pages of the publications and translated them onto the runway. She gave the community unprecedented access to haute couture, inspiring them through fashion and fantasy.

Though today we can watch the latest runways with a simple Insta-scroll, for decades, fashion shows were an exclusive, industry-only affair. One generally digested la mode through magazines, weeks after they graced the catwalks, while some would experience them at their local department store, and even less in their actual closets. High fashion was [almost exclusively] marketed for the white American and European audiences, with the African-American clientele left neglected. Mrs. Johnson changed this with her cross-country traveling Ebony Fashion Fair Show.

The publishing magnate trekked across the globe to acquire the clothes, having to prove her worth to European designers unaccustomed to black clients. She acquired more than 8,000 pieces over five decades, becoming the top American – and sole African-American - purchaser of couture. She also enabled lesser known African-American designers like Patrick Kelly and Stephen Burrows to elevate their creations alongside iconic couturiers a la Dior, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent. With the inspiring experience, she gave black women an aspirational vision of who they could be, what they could wear, and where they could go.

The influence of the Ebony Fashion Fair Show extended far beyond the catwalk, though. The traveling production toured with an all-black glam squad, and 10 models –including the now famous Pat Cleveland – in tow, traversing the country including the segregated Jim Crow South. The models set an empowering standard, refusing to play into Southern segregation, dining on the bus from city-to-city rather than entering colored back doors. They showed in big city venues, high school gyms and small town stops alike, rendering the distant world of high fashion accessible to the black masses. It was the event of the year that gave the black middle class an occasion to dress to the nines, get a taste of how ‘the other half lived,’ and reach for the glamorous stars outside their discriminated surroundings.

Over the Fair’s 50-year reign, the community evolved from “colored,” to “negro” to “black,” but in Mrs. Johnson’s eyes they were always beautiful. With extravagant names and themes like “Fashion Sizzle,” “For the Love of Color,” and “Color Fantasy,” each Fair gave black women an aspirational lens through which to see themselves. She even introduced plus-sized models and musical accompaniment to the runways – both unprecedented – putting her light-years ahead of the industry we see today. They were joyous, celebratory occasions, embracing a new lifestyle of Black America. Mrs. Johnson broke industry barriers, giving black women a window to haute couture, paving the way for black models, and bringing a world of glamour to over 170 cities nationwide. The fair was much more than just a fashion parade, raising over $55 million dollars for black charities, scholarships, and organizations.

It is in this same world of visionary Black America that Fashion Fair Cosmetics was born. When Mrs. Johnson noticed models backstage having to mix foundations to create the right blend for their skin, she discovered an untapped market to explore. Initially she approached big cosmetics companies to develop lines for women of color and was sadly met with widespread hesitance and corporate doubt. Never one to take no for an answer, she took matters into her own hands, creating a capsule make-up collection as a mail-order package. Women clamored for the product by-and-large, and in 1973 she introduced a full range of products to the market. Fashion Fair Cosmetics – named after the show – is to this day the largest African- American owned cosmetics company in the world.

As the cosmetics company grew, so did its cultural cache, becoming the go-to beauty brand for supermodels and celebrities alike. Diana Ross, Pat Cleveland, Beverly Johnson, Pam Grier, Grace Jones, Leontyne Price, Aretha Franklin – our eternal muses - that favored the brand. Regardless of age, size, color, whatever, it was the brand for black, bold and beautiful women across the nation. If they were fabulous, they wore Fashion Fair Cosmetics.

While the Ebony Fashion Fair Show ended after Mrs. Johnson’s death in 2009, her trailblazing legacy lives on through the cosmetics. She dedicated her life to bringing style, beauty and sophistication to the African American audience, and the cosmetics line reminds us that there are no barriers to black beauty. Make-up, like fashion, has the power to transform us into whoever we want to be. Armed with bold eye or a fierce lip we can take on the world, Eunice Johnson style. Fashion Fair Cosmetics invites all women to be unapologetically bold and unabashedly beautiful.