Tuesday, January 05, 2010

7419: Eunice W. Johnson (1916-2010).

From The Chicago Sun-Times…

Eunice Johnson, Ebony Fashion Fair founder, dead at 93
Magazine publisher’s wife aided charities with annual shows

By Maureen O’Donnell

A true Southern lady, Eunice W. Johnson never raised her voice—but the world’s top couturiers showered her with attention.

Mrs. Johnson was a key figure in the success of the publishing company founded by her late husband, John H. Johnson. She came up with the name “Ebony” for his flagship magazine, which linked people of color across the nation—and carried news the mainstream media didn’t print. In Ebony’s early days, she folded letters and sealed envelopes to subscribers.

Once Johnson Publishing made her husband a rich man, the impeccably dressed Mrs. Johnson spent millions each year in Paris and Milan on clothing for the touring fashion extravaganza she helped found, Ebony Fashion Fair.

Over half a century, 4,000 Fashion Fair shows have been held around the globe. They have raised more than $50 million for charities, black colleges and the United Negro College Fund, said Michael Lomax, CEO of the college fund.

Mrs. Johnson died Sunday at her Chicago home. She was 93.

She was a direct link to couture greats. “She told me Coco Chanel actually fitted a suit on her,” said Lisa Lenoir, former Sun-Times fashion and society editor.

She knew Givenchy, Ungaro, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent—and they appreciated their VIP client from Chicago who paid in cash.

“When Mrs. Johnson came, they received her, just as they would with the editor of Vogue,” said the magazine’s editor-at-large, Andre Leon Talley.

Her strength was remarkable, said White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers, a friend of her daughter, Linda Johnson Rice. “Here’s a black woman in the ‘50s, taking her children to [fine restaurants], or going to the shows overseas,” she said.

“One of the lessons I learned from her is confidence.”

The Ebony Fashion Fair showcased black designers including Stephen Burrows and James Daugherty. It used strutting, sashaying mannequins of every shade. Early Fashion Fair stars included actors Diahann Carroll, Judy Pace and Richard Roundtree.

When her models struggled to find makeup, she helped create Fashion Fair Cosmetics.

She brought civil rights to the runway, telling designers they needed models of color. When they said they couldn’t find them, she brought them Pat Cleveland, considered the first black supermodel, said Lydia Davis Eady, a former Johnson Publishing executive.

Her hairstylist, Leigh Jones, said he refused her tips. “As a young boy growing up at 69th and Prairie, I would never have seen Givenchy or House of Dior or Yves Saint Laurent” without Ebony Fashion Fair. When Mrs. Johnson tried to give him a gratuity, he would tell her, “Eunice, you can’t give me anything, because you’ve given me a life.”

Designer Reginald Thomas said relatives didn’t think he could make a career in fashion—until Mrs. Johnson told them he’d be a success.

She never lost her Southern touch. She often walked down Michigan Avenue, and when publicist Dori Wilson expressed surprise at seeing her, she said, “Girl, I need my exercise—my Rolls is following me.”

She was born in 1916 near Selma, Ala., to a doctor father and a teacher mother. She received a bachelor’s degree at Talladega College and a master’s at Loyola University.

She also is survived by a granddaughter.

Services will be private. A planned tribute to Mrs. Johnson at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art will go on as scheduled next Monday.

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