People are still learning about the passing of Eunice W. Johnson, the co-founder of Johnson Publishing Company, creator of the Ebony Fashion Fair traveling fashion show and founder of Fashion Fair Cosmetics. Messages continue to pop up on Facebook a week after the 93-year-old’s death. Her name is a top Google search. Robust obituaries and commentaries have made the rounds of television and some of the largest newspapers in the country, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times.
Today in New York City there was a different kind of event honoring Mrs. Johnson’s life. It was an event in the making for the past eight months, and its timing was curious and impeccable. As you might imagine, when the team designing this event learned that Mrs. Johnson had passed, there were plenty of questions about whether or how it would go on. What was to be a tribute honoring her life ended up remaining just that. It wasn’t a funeral or memorial, it was a celebration befitting the legend who was Eunice Walker Johnson.
Working with Linda Johnson Rice, Mrs. Johnson’s daughter, who went through Ebony Fashion Fair archives to find some of the most stunning gowns from the show’s 52-year history, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City celebrated the life and legacy of Mrs. Johnson. Coordinated by the Met’s Costume Institute and the Multicultural Audience Development Initiative (MADI), with many hours of legwork done by the Institute’s Harold Koda, Harold Holzer and MADI’s Donna Williams and their teams, this was an event to remember.
About 200 stellar guests dressed in their finest spent the afternoon in the legendary Egyptian Temple of Dendur, arguably the most magnificent space in the Met. It was a sunny day, so the light shone through the glass-paneled room making the Temple look even more regal. Gowns from b. Michael, Bob Mackie, Patrick Kelly and others worn on brown-skinned mannequins positioned in front of the Temple illustrated the breadth of history in that legendary room.
Historic it was. Eunice Walker Johnson lived in grand style and, by all accounts, did not take no for an answer. As Linda Johnson Rice spoke extemporaneously, thanking the Met for acknowledging her mother in such a fine manner and pointing out that her mother inspired people to “feel good about yourself.” Further, she said that her mother saw many doors that were not open to her as she sought to bring European couture fashion to America, but she did not let that stand in her way. If a door was about to close, “she stuck one hand-made Dalco shoe in the door and pushed it right open!” Rice proclaimed.
Teri Agins, veteran fashion writer for the Wall Street Journal, added, “Mrs. Johnson did not just bring couture to Black America, she brought it to America. She came before Elsa Klensch, before fashion was accessible.” Indeed, Harold Koda emphasized the trailblazing context in which Eunice Johnson emerged on the fashion scene. He explained that her efforts to buy couture gowns from Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, Emmanuel Ungaro and others and then bring them to America to be part of the Ebony Fashion Fair traveling show was nothing short of historic. This was before the Internet, before the public ever got a glimpse of the one-of-a-kind frocks that are common content for cable TV shows now. Eunice Johnson was bringing it back when nobody else had even thought of it yet. Plus, when she brought the clothes she also figured out how to raise money for charities across the country that benefit Black people, to the tune of some $55 million.
Oddly, this is the first time that the fashion community has formally honored her—a true embarrassment which Harold Koda pointed out in his remarks.
Let it be known that the fashion world (mixed in with the best of New York and Chicago high society) made up for its tardiness by bringing together a diverse group of people to honor and continue her legacy. The Who’s Who was impressive:
President Bill Clinton wowed everyone with memories of Mr. and Mrs. Johnson from back in his days as governor of Arkansas. Remembering Mrs. Johnson from over the years, including when he escorted her to her husband’s funeral five years ago, he described her as a trailblazer, a visionary and a fine, beautiful woman.
Vogue Editor in Chief Anna Wintour came, mingled, sat and stayed through the entire luncheon. (Really!)
Vogue Editor at Large Andre Leon Talley, who worked for Ebony back in the early days of his career, was on the host committee and worked tirelessly behind-the-scenes to ensure that the right folks were there and that Mrs. Johnson’s impact on fashion would be properly presented.
Whoopi Goldberg said she didn’t know why she would be invited to a fashion event, but Talley assured her she would be welcome and she sure was glad to be there! When asked, she did acknowledge that she and Mrs. Johnson share a particular trait—never giving up and always being true to herself, no matter what.
Desiree Rogers, White House Social Secretary and best friend of Linda Johnson Rice, read a letter sent by President Obama to honor Mrs. Johnson.
Others in attendance: Oprah’s BFF Gayle King, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, EFF model Pat Cleveland, fashion designers b. Michael, Isabel Toledo and her artist husband Ruben Toledo (all three on the host committee) former EFF commentator Audrey Smaltz, actresses LaTanya Richardson and Lynn Whitfield, Studio Museum in Harlem head Thelma Golden, former Met curator and current curator of Museum of Art and Design, Lowery Sims, Vanity Fair’s Amy Fine Collins, Essence Editor in Chief Angela Burt Murray, Kathryn Chenault, filmmaker Crystal McCrary Anthony, former supermodel Veronica Webb, National Cares Mentoring Movement’s Susan L. Taylor, eBay style director Constance C.R. White, Wall Street Journal fashion veteran Teri Agins, Michelle Obama designer fave Thakoon, writer and socialite Susan Fales Hill, Ashford & Simpson, Black Enterprise’s Caroline Clarke Graves, Carib News’ fashion veteran Walter Greene, Amsterdam News’ fashion veteran Renee Minus White, and the list goes on.