By: Jackie Jones
Fashion and business icon Eunice Johnson, widow of Johnson Publishing Company founder John Johnson, died last Sunday. She was 93. “It certainly was surprising news to hear, even though she was up there in years,” said Bryan Monroe, former editor of Ebony magazine. “She was really a passionate, energetic matriarch of the (Johnson Publishing) family.”
He said Johnson used to come to the offices regularly to visit her daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, who took over the publishing empire after her father’s death in 2005, and still dropped in once a month or so and would occasionally have lunch with the staff.
Eunice Johnson is scheduled to be honored at a luncheon on Monday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for her work with the Ebony Fashion Fair, the premiere event featuring black designers and models for generations of African Americans.
She also served as secretary-treasurer of Johnson Publishing, home to Ebony and Jet, and other titles since the mid-20th century, but it was Johnson’s work as producer and director of the Ebony Fashion Fair that made her a force to be reckoned with.
The traveling fashion event was a staple in the black community and sponsored by sororities, women’s clubs and the Congressional Black Caucus spouses to raise money for local charities and nonprofit organizations, including the United Negro College Fund, the Urban League and the NAACP. The Fashion Fair thrilled audiences throughout the U.S. the Caribbean and England. It even spawned a popular cosmetics line.
While the Fashion Fair showed the work of fashion legends Yves St. Laurent, Bill Blass and Nina Ricci, it also provided a home for black designers, including Kevan Hall and Tracy Reese. The Fashion Fair was, “for so many African Americans, both the introduction to and the validation of high fashion,” Monroe told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
In September, citing the troubled economy, Linda Johnson Rice, chairman and CEO of Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., announced the fall season of the Ebony Fashion Fair had been canceled. In a statement posted on the Fashion Fair’s Web site (www.EbonyFashionFair.com), the younger Johnson said the extravaganza that has raised more than $55 millions in its 50-year history was witnessing the toll that the nation’s recession was taking on many businesses, including the fashion show’s corporate sponsors.
The Tampa Tribune reported before the end of the year that a new version of the Fashion Fair would debut in Tampa this spring. The Fashion Fair “just had incredible resonance, especially in the black community, particularly at a time when it was a separate community and not being acknowledged in the broader fashion community,” Robin Givhan, fashion editor at The Washington Post, told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
Givhan noted that one of the reasons Eunice Johnson enjoyed a reputation as a major purchaser of couture clothing was the “design houses wouldn’t loan them the clothes” for the fashion show, as was done for other shows. Johnson was forced to purchase them in order to use them.
“They really did not toot their horn the way it should have been tooted,” said fashion writer Teri Agins, author of “The End of Fashion.” “You can say with no hesitation that Eunice Johnson introduced European high fashion to the U.S. – period.”
“A big part of my fashion education began with the Ebony Fashion Fair,” said Agins, who began attending the show when she was a junior high school student in Kansas City. “I would just like to see some public acknowledgement of its history. It was an education. It was fun. It was glamorous. It was the social event of the black calendar in every city where it went.”
Back in the 1960s, before cable television and the Internet, details of couture shows were limited to tidbits in fashion magazines and occasional newspaper pieces. With the Ebony Fashion Fair, haute couture was brought to the U.S. and straight to the black community.
When smoky-voiced Audrey Smaltz, a statuesque woman with a background in fashion retail, became Johnson’s aide-de-camp and commentator for the Fashion Fair in 1970, the presentation of fashion in the U.S. was unalterably changed.
“Back then, nobody knew about this stuff,” Agins told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “The fact that (Johnson) and Audrey went over and bought this stuff and then gave black America the first exposure was major.”
The designers’ names and the French couture terms rolled easily off Smaltz’s tongue, and she put the audience on a first-name term with designers, telling them little tidbits about their work.
“I would tell them, ‘If you’re wearing Pucci, you know his first name is Emilio because he signed the fabric with just his first name,’” Smaltz said. “I would talk not about the obvious. I would talk about the bias (of the seam).”
The shows were often like call and response. When she prepared to introduce a designer’s outfit, she would say “If the first name is Bill then the last name is … ” holding the microphone out to the audience, which would respond, “Blass.”
“They didn’t talk down to the audience. She introduced Fendi to the United States. It had no exposure, retail or otherwise, before then, so then you think about the ripple effect… It was just very glamorous and even visionary for them to go over there and do that,” Agins said.
Because African Americans had become familiar with designer names through the Fashion Fair, when licensing of perfumes, purses and other items hit the U.S., black Americans were among the first and biggest customers.
Smaltz, who grew up in Harlem, said her mother worked as an elevator operator at John Wanamaker – a major, high-end department store in New York and Philadelphia – and was able to acquire some expensive china and linens and other items to give their family a sense of some of the finer things in life, “but it took Eunice W. Johnson to really take that diamond in the rough (Smaltz) and explode it.”
Smaltz, founder of The Ground Crew, a full-service backstage organization for fashion shows and special events, said Johnson took her to Europe to buy clothes for the fashion shows, but she also got an education that couldn’t be learned in a classroom.
Through Johnson, “I met Pablo Picasso. I met (surrealist painter) Giorgio de Chirico in Rome and went to his atelier at the foot of the Spanish Steps. She bought the most incredible china, settings for 24 people, wholesale. She taught me how to buy wholesale and how to buy the best you could afford – even when you couldn’t afford it. She exposed me, but then I was a good student because I wanted to absorb everything. I went from Chardonnay to Pouilly-Fusse to Moutrachet,” Smaltz told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
“You would never call her by her first name. She was always Mrs.,” Smaltz said, recalling a trip to Europe in which one of the employees at a design house asked Smaltz, “’What is Mrs. Johnson’s first name?’ and I said, ‘Mrs.’ I didn’t call her Eunice until I no longer worked for her and it was okay.”
Another time, Smaltz said, during a trip to Europe, when Johnson was being fitted for a designer dress, “I wrote out a check for $50,000 for her. We would just bring a whole slew of checks.”
“She brought couture to America and never even got the credit for it,” Smaltz said, choking back tears. “I’m realizing I knew Eunice. And not too many people did.”