The Ebony Fashion Fair: Then, Now, and Going Forward
Fashion and runway shows are always about the new-and-now. And usually, the moment that a
person or a brand puts forth the newest trend, it almost seems as though it becomes old news
just as fast as it was new news. Many in fashion do not consider where what they do comes
from, and many have no idea that they are being influenced by years-old traditions. The Ebony
Fashion Fair changed the game of fashion and runway, and also provided a legacy for
generations of fashion to come, yet it is not nearly recognized enough.
Established in 1958 by the Johnson Publishing Company, The Ebony Fashion Fair was,
specifically, closely monitored by Eunice Walker Johnson and her evident and keen sense for
fashion. It all began when Jessie Dent, notably, the wife of the president of Dillard University,
approached the Johnsons with the intention of garnering models for an upcoming charity
fashion event. Because the Johnsons did not want to send their professional models from
EBONY Magazine for a charity event, they alternatively agreed to provide the clothing for the
models, with a subscription to EBONY Magazine included with each ticket purchased for the
event. The whole operation was a proper success, and alas, The Ebony Fashion Fair
established its name.
There was more gained through the creation of The Ebony Fashion Fair than just a nice charity
event; it provided a showcasing event where Black people could be celebrated and appreciated,
especially in the world of fashion, where that was not the case most of the time. The Fair
travelled to 30 cities per year throughout its 51-year existence, which not only made the
visualization and existence of Black women in fashion accessible to many all over the country,
but also it quite literally proved that high fashion is for everyone, as these models walked in
some of the best: Yves St. Laurent, Christian Lacroix, Emanuel Ungaro, Oscar de la Renta,
Valentino and Givenchy, to name a few.
As the years went on and as The Ebony Fashion Fair grew and gained more notoriety, its roots
remained the same: each ticket still included a subscription to Ebony, and some of the proceeds
were donated to charity; the initial intention of the show itself. What grew, through, was the
Fair’s impact: over its existence, the Fair raised $60 million for Black nonprofit organizations,
scholarships, schools and hospitals; a cause that has always been prominent and necessary,
but simultaneously seems like it was ahead of its time.
The Ebony Fashion Fair’s existence itself was miraculous; it brought the worlds of fashion,
activism, and culture and melded them together in a visually and mentally stunning
environment. As the world of in-person fashion is rapidly changing; that is, and as runway
shows are simply not runway anymore, it is time for shows to take a page out of the notebook of
the Ebony Fashion Fair. Not to say that fashion and runway shows should quite literally copy
the format of the Ebony Fashion Fair, but rather, realize that fashion shows can be much more
than simply a physical display of pieces on models. These shows can be, and already have
been, so much more. The Ebony Fashion Fair provided activism, diversity, and new and
exciting elements and locations to fashion. The history of this show and what it instilled in
fashion is often forgotten or not even known, and yet, there are elements of it everywhere in
fashion today. Without intentionally knowing at the time, the Ebony Fashion Fair created a
multi-dimensional element in runway that has been perpetuated, and accentuated recently.
As the public learns more about, and at the very least, becomes aware of the Ebony Fashion
Fair, it will also become more aware of where several influences in fashion have come from,
and why its existence was so important. As fashion and runway progresses every day, brands
can and should draw from prominent historical fashion endeavors like the Ebony Fashion Fair in
order to realize why multi-faceted fashion events are important, and how their elements can be
useful in creating a popular and aware fashion event.