I have never been to an Ebony Fashion Fair, so having the opportunity to attend the Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of EBONY Fashion Fair exhibit at The George Washington University Textile Museum was the next best thing. Last year, I spent hundreds of hours researching Eunice Johnson and Ebony Fashion Fair for my sculpture “Esther”. Reading about Ebony Fashion Fair is one thing, but to see these beautiful creations by some of the top fashion designers in the world in person was nothing short of breathtaking! Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Patou, Alexander McQueen, and the list goes on. Many of the haute couture pieces featured were one of a kind designs purchased by Mrs. Johnson for Ebony Fashion Fair. For over fifty years Ebony Fashion Fair was a traveling fashion extravaganza that toured the country bringing high end fashion to African American women everywhere. Fashion Fair was not about selling clothes, but rather was about exposing African American audiences to the world of high fashion. It was intentionally replete with images of beautiful successful, well-heeled African American women and served to elevate in the minds of its viewers what was possible. These theatrical shows were considered the event of the year in communities throughout the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean.
The first part of the evening event included a guided tour of the collection by the curator of the collection, Ms. Camille Brewer. Ms. Brewer did an outstanding job of telling the story of Ebony Fashion’s beginnings and provided much antidotal information about Mrs. Johnson and Johnson Publishing Company.
The second part of the evening was even more interesting as it featured a lecture by Shayla Simpson, Ebony Model and Fashion Fair commentator. Ms. Simpson gave poignant insight into the world of fashion and the pivotal part that Ebony played. Starting initially as a model, then commentator, Ms. Simpson eventually became a buyer under Mrs. Johnson’s tutelage. Listening to Ms. Simpson speak was utterly fascinating. She eloquently weaved a story that pulled you in and kept you there! She talked about her buying trips to Paris with Mrs. Johnson. Initially, being a rookie, her job was to cover the lesser known shows and report back to Mrs. Johnson what she should buy. After approximately two years of making recommendations and Mrs. Johnson never purchasing a thing she picked out, she was utterly bewildered. Finally, she asked about it and was told that this was a part of her being groomed for the big shows. Subsequently, she went on to attend all the major shows in Paris, Milan, London, and New York and was a major buyer for Ebony Fashion Fair.
This experience provided me with an even greater appreciation of not only Ebony Fashion Fair, but of the Fashion Industry as a whole.