By Margena A. Christian (courtesy of EbonyJet.com)
Mrs. Eunice Johnson, producer and director of the Ebony Fashion Fair and secretary-treasurer of Johnson Publishing Company, died of renal failure at her home in Chicago. She was 93.
New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art will honor her work on January 11 as a philanthropist and fashion icon. The tribute, planned some time ago, was several months in the making.
“Mrs. Johnson elevated the image of Black women being fashion conscious, fashion forward and affluent,” said Kenneth Owen, assistant producer of Ebony Fashion Fair, who was handpicked by the fashion pioneer 26 years ago to work alongside her.
Born on April 4, 1916 in Selma, Ala., Mrs. Johnson came from a prestigious family. Her sophistication and fashion sense wasn’t bought. She was born with it. Mrs. Johnson’s father, Dr. Nathaniel D. Walker, was a doctor who practiced medicine for five decades, while her mother, Ethel McAlpine Walker, taught education and art at Selma University. The institution was founded by Dr. William H. McAlpine, her maternal grandfather, who also founded the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. and was close friends with Booker T. Washington.
Education was important in the Johnson household. She graduated from Talladega College with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in art. A master’s degree was later earned in social work from Loyola University in Chicago.
Mrs. Johnson was working as a social worker when she quit her job to support her husband John’s vision of starting a magazine that focused on Black life. When he was having trouble trying to find a name for a new magazine in 1945, he asked her for guidance since she had a degree in art. She chose Ebony because it means “fine black African wood.” The magazine would go on to define generations.
To those on the outside looking in, Mrs. Johnson appeared to be living in the shadow of her late husband John H. Johnson, founder of the Johnson Publishing Company, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines. Those who really knew Eunice Walker Johnson understood that she was the wind beneath his wings. She stood by her husband in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, in good times and in bad until his death in 2005.
Mrs. Johnson dined with kings and queens, presidents and musical royalty, yet she remained down to earth. To hear her speak revealed a story. When she opened her mouth, her heavy, southern drawl would make people look twice.
“She was a shy woman. She wasn’t somebody you could approach and talk to right away,” said Audrey Smaltz, the Ebony Fashion Fair commentator from 1970 to 1977. “She was an astute fashion person who had more than just fashion in her background. She was an interior designer. She was a lover of art. She had the greatest art collection you could imagine. Because of Eunice Johnson, I met Pablo Picasso and Giorgio de Curico. She introduced me to luxury, art and culture way beyond what I went to school for. I graduated with an art degree. She took me to a Ph.D.”
Always impeccably dressed and wearing designer fashions herself, everything came back to fashion and education.
What started out as a charity benefit in 1958, turned into the birth of the Ebony Fashion Fair. As the show got underway, the models ran into problems with make-up, unable to find shades to match their skin. The solution? Fashion Fair Cosmetics.
At the inception of the Ebony Fashion Fair, Mrs. Johnson would travel to Europe with her husband to buy clothes. They would “beg, persuade, and threaten to get the right to buy clothes,” Mr. Johnson once said. The resistance came, he recalled, because certain designers thought that White women wouldn’t value their designs if they were worn by Black women.
A few of the leading designers finally agreed to sell fashions to the Johnsons for the show. Among the first Blacks to buy from French haute couture fashion houses, they started out spending half a million dollars annually.
“She was eventually known in fashion circles as the largest buyer of European haute couture,” said Owen. “As time progressed she would spend a million dollars each year on 200 complete ensembles featured in the hour and a half presentation.”
Mrs. Johnson bought creations from designers that others were afraid to take a chance on because they were unknown and just starting out. Valentino, Roberto Cavalli, Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent were among the names.
“They were young and in their 20s, just starting out,” said Owen. “They were looking for people to buy their high-end couture. That started her personal relationship with them because she was there before they made a name for themselves.”
Often criticized for not having more Black fashion designers, the Ebony Fashion Fair did showcase throughout the years the creations of Stephen Burrows, Patrick Kelly, Willi Smith and B. Michael. In later years it featured L’Amour, Quinton de Alexander, Kevan Hall, Fusha, Anthony Hankins, and even the Steve Harvey Collection.
Hands on until the end when her eyesight began to fail her, Mrs. Johnson made certain to see a complete run-through of each fashion show with the models before it hit the road. One year when she wasn’t excited about the show’s new direction using rap music, she made the models scrap everything and start all over.
Committed to community service, Mrs. Johnson received many honors from the United Negro College Fund, The Boys & Girls Club of Chicago, Alabama A & M, Loyola University and many others. In 1988, Mrs. Johnson returned to her alma mater, Talladega, to receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. She also had an honorary degree from Shaw University.
Fiercely independent, Mrs. Johnson could be seen driving around Chicago in her two-tone Rolls Royce. She let nothing stop her. Like Frank Sinatra, she did things her way. And she did it with style.
To date, more than 4,000 shows have been performed in the United States, the Caribbean, London, England, and Kingston, Jamaica. Ebony Fashion Fair has raised more than $55 million for various scholarship groups.
Margena A. Christian is the former Features Editor for Jet. She wrote the history for the Ebony Fashion Fair, which is featured on the company website, and penned Jet stories for the Ebony Fashion show for 14 years. Currently Christian is Senior Writer for Ebony.
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