Jean-Louis Scherrer (France) Haute couture, fall/winter 2000-01 Courtesy Johnson Publishing Company, LLC, All rights reserved.

For more than 50 years, Ebony Fashion Fair crisscrossed the country, bringing a high-energy, high-fashion performance to black audiences in venues big and small. On Saturday, a traveling exhibition that celebrates the history-making journey, “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” makes its final stop at the NC Museum of Art in Raleigh.

The exhibit showcases haute-couture outfits from some of fashion’s most celebrated designers, including  Stephen Burrows, Pierre Cardin, Christian Dior, Henry N. Jackson, Givenchy, Christian Lacroix, Yves Saint Laurent, Bob Mackie, Alexander McQueen, b. Michael, and Vivienne Westwood.

The stunning outfits, organized into six themed platforms, are nearly overshadowed by the fully styled mannequins, complete with wigs, jewelry, hats and shoes  — almost as if they were waiting in the wings for their cue.

Besides the fabulous garments on display, the historical and cultural significance of the Ebony Fashion Fair makes for a great backstory, said Jennifer Dasal, NC Museum of Art (NCMA) associate curator of contemporary art.

“Ebony Fashion Fair was truly significant because of what it did for the African-American community,” said artist Precious Lovell, a designer-in-residence at NCMA and an adjunct professor at N.C. State.

“When you went to a fashion show,  you saw yourself reflected back from that stage. You saw people that looked like you — every size, every shape, every color, and that was very important at that time in history, and it’s still important today considering the current political climate.”

Purple-dyed fox coat by Dimitrios and a Todd Oldham evening dress. (Photo by Mordecia D. Strickland)

And, Lovell stresses, it was a charitable event that raised over $55 million for African-American charities, colleges and organizations from 1958, when the first show was created as a fundraiser for a hospital in New Orleans, to the final show in 2009.

Fashion Fair creator Eunice Johnson, who with her husband founded Ebony magazine in the 1940s, “really harnessed the power of fashion as being critical to your cultural identity — to who you are as a person,” said Linda Doughtery, NCMA chief curator of contemporary art.  “(She knew) that fashion not only equals beauty and style, it can also equal empowerment and transformation.”

Revolution on the runway

In an era when black women weren’t allowed to even try on clothes in most department stores, Johnson embarked on a venture that would revolutionize the fashion world. Her vision and drive to bring haute couture to the African-American community created an industry of black models, designers, makeup artists, show producers, hairstylists and even a cosmetic company, Fashion Fair Cosmetics in 1973.

In the early years, Eunice Johnson had to beg, persuade and threaten to get European designers to sell her their outfits. The exhibition includes behind-the-scenes photos and memorabilia, including Johnson’s hand-written notes. (Photo courtesy of N.C. Museum of Art)

In search of black models, Johnson held open auditions in cities across the country. Kimberly Lane, who lives in Concord and works as a legal contractor in Charlotte, was selected to model on the Ebony Fashion Fair tour from 1987-1988.

Lane was attending college in Atlanta when she got the call to audition. Unbeknownst to her,  Lane’s mother had submitted her picture to Johnson Publishing Company. As a tall, skinny, dark-skinned girl, as she describes herself, Lane had always struggled to find the beauty that her mother told her she possessed.

After a second callback, Lane was selected along with eight other women and twin brothers. “They chose women from every hue — light-skinned, dark-skinned and everything in between,” she said, including a white woman and an Indian woman.

For Lane, who went on to model in Norway, Oslo, and Milan, the NCMA exhibit recalls a “period of time I’ll never forget,” she said. “It had a huge impact on my life as a woman, as a person, as a professional and as a mother for my daughter.

“(Eunice Johnson) made a place for us to walk the runway, to be in the magazine advertisements, to be Cover Girls, to be in the centerfold of Jet or on the cover of Ebony”  — and especially important to Lane — to be an example for other dark-skinned girls.

Fashion Fair models were not your typical models, said Lane. “You made those clothes speak and scream at everybody; you made the clothes tell their own story.”  Your makeup had to “pop to the balcony.”

The shows were two-hour entertainment extravaganzas that introduced drama, music, sassy and sometimes saucy commentary to the traditionally staid fashion show. The models didn’t just walk the runway, they “worked” the runaway, Doughtery said she’s been told by former models.

“These girls are coming down the runway with an attitude like a Mack Truck,” recalls designer Rufus Barkley in one of the exhibit videos.

Ebony Fashion Fair ended its historic run in 2009; Eunice Johnson died of renal failure in 2010 at the age of 93.

Experience the runway

The first-ever Fashion Fair exhibition was developed in 2013 by the Chicago History Museum in conjunction with Johnson Publishing. But NCMA has added a few flourishes of its own with several interactive features.

• In the Designer Studio, Lovell and designer-in-residence colleague Katherine Diuguid (pronounced “do good”) will create haute couture. Exhibit-goers can watch them at work and learn about the design process and garment construction.

Lovell’s piece, which she describes as “improvisational,” is inspired by the spirit of Ebony Fashion Fair, which was about so much more than clothing, she said. She plans to use cotton-striped chair webbing to create a Kente cloth-based garment, which will explore the kinds of things African Americans encountered during Jim Crow, juxtaposed with Black is Beautiful and Black Power references.

• Videos are interspersed throughout, with two vertical screens along the back wall where you can watch Ebony Fashion Fair models light up the runway, and an iPad Corner with about a half-dozen videos provides the opportunity to hear from some of the people involved in the shows — designers, commentators, models — and attendees.

• Step into the Virtual Fitting Room to “try on” up to six outfits from the exhibition. And to see where it started — on the fashion pages of Ebony magazine — take a seat in the exhibition reading area and browse through several hard copies of the venerable magazine.

Henry Jackson ball gown (Photo courtesy of N.C. Museum of Art)

About the Exhibit:

Developed by the Chicago History Museum in cooperation with Johnson Publishing Company, Inspiring Beauty offers an unprecedented multisensory experience to visitors who have never attended an Ebony Fashion Fair, as well as reconnects those who experienced it first-hand.

What: “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of the Ebony Fashion Fair”
When: Oct. 28-Jan. 21, 2018
Where: N.C. Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh. Parking is free.
Cost: $9-$15 for non-members; free for members (first visit), college students from 5 to 9 p.m. Fridays, and children ages 6 and younger

Special events:

The exhibition runs through Jan. 21, 2018, and the museum will host several related events through its run, including an opening night fashion show. A sampling of events includes “Family Fun Saturdays,” where you can  create your own patterned fabric; a college night featuring student work, contemporary dance, and a DJ line-up;  a Girls in Gowns night where you can dress to impress; and a “Body Positivity” event with Jessamyn Stanley, focusing on Eunice Johnson’s progressive inclusion of all body sizes in the Ebony Fashion Fair and the idea of self-image today. Full list of events.

Can’t make it to Raleigh? Enjoy the exhibit with videos on YouTube, follow #NCMAebony on social media and check out the NCMA blog and website for features and other updates.

Just in time for Christmas: For the fashionista in your life, the Exhibition Store, which is only open during exhibition hours, has dozens of fashion books and other items.

I can’t always count on my memory, but when I saw this Bob Mackle ensemble in the exhibit, I was transported to a night back in the early 1980’s when I attended an Ebony Fashion Fair show at the Riverview Supper Club in Minneapolis. The show itself, or rather the joy and pride I felt seeing versions of myself on that stage, was unforgettable. But I’ve always had this one specific memory:  A walnut-brown beauty, with ample junk in her trunk and ruby red lips at least as large as mine, brought the crowd to its feet when she stalked that runway and executed a twirl that Real Housewife of Atlanta’s Kenya Moore would die for.

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