Today, style connoisseurs of color can point to Iman, June Ambrose, Tracy Reese, Stephen Burrows, Robin Givhan and even Michelle Obama as evidence of our growing presence in all facets of the fashion industry. But in 1956, when the doors to the fashion world were firmly shut for most black consumers, there was only Ebony Fashion Fair.
Created by Eunice Johnson, the wife of Ebony Magazine founder, John Johnson, Ebony Fashion Fair started a revolution that introduced us to virtually unknown models who would go on to become icons (like Pat Cleveland) and to some of the world’s biggest names in fashion design, making it the largest traveling fashion show of its kind—black or white.
After the death of Eunice in 2010 and the announcement of a “hiatus” from Johnson Publishing Company, many wondered aloud if the brand still held any relevance. Though the battle for diversity in Fashion is far from over, several models, designers, stylists and writers have had an impact in the industry without the help of Ebony Fashion Fair. Many believe that’s due to the fact that Ebony Fashion Fair catered to a niche market, rather than fighting to bring more color into the mainstream. As Bethann Hardison told the Huffington Post, “The Ebony Fashion Fair had really nothing to do with fashion – it was about clothing a community and it was a business,” says Hardison. “Ebony Fashion Fair being temporarily stopped … is not going to change anything.”
Furthermore, it’s arguable whether Ebony Fashion Fair grew, evolved and transformed with the times. In fact, the sad reality is that a new generation of fashion-loving women of color are barely aware of the fair altogether. Those that are aware recognize the historical significance, but aren’t necessarily standing in line to attend themselves. Ebony Fashion Fair is regarded as an event for their mothers, not for them.
At the same time, Ebony Fashion Fair served and still can serve a valiant purpose, granting a rare opportunity for models and designers to present before a powerful yet oft-marginalized audience—an opportunity I believe we can still benefit from today. Beyond the fashions, since its premiere in 1958, the show has raised $55 million for various charities and community organizations around the country.
Even though I hadn’t admittedly picked up an issue of Ebony Magazine until the current April issue, to question the relevance of an international powerhouse such as the Ebony Fashion Fair is a bit presumptuous. No matter how many open doors New York Fashion Week may provide, which aren’t many for people of color, there’s still a joy in exploring art and style with an audience that looks like you.
We spoke exclusively to Ebony Magazine Style Editor, Elaine Welteroth who not only believes the fair is relevant, but is hopeful about its return: “I can’t say dates yet,” she says, “but I can tell you that there’s definite interest in bringing it back and we’re looking at ways to do it bigger and better and have amazing designers that are showing right now.” She adds: “Oscar de la Renta told me personally that we better bring it back and he wants to be the first designer on our roster so there’s definite interest.”
The question is now that Ebony Magazine is revamping to cater to a younger, style-obsessed audience and their mothers, can Ebony Fashion Fair recreate itself to appeal to a younger crowd? What do you think? Would you attend an Ebony Fashion Fair show? Do you view it as relevant or outdated? Do we still need to invest in shows that specifically cater to people of color? Or should we focus on events that slowly integrate us into the mainstream?