Black Fashion Magnate Eunice Johnson Dead At 93

Ebony Fashion Fair Producer and Director Eunice W. Johnson died this past weekend. She was 93. Johnson, the widow of Johnson Publishing Company founder John H. Johnson, gave Ebony magazine its name. She was also the driving force behind the creation of the Fashion Fair makeup line, one of the first makeup lines for women of color. Host Michel Martin speaks with Washington Post Fashion Editor Robin Givhan for more on Johnson's legacy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Finally, we want to tell you about the passing of a key figure both in journalism and fashion. Eunice W. Johnson, widow of Johnson Publishing Company founder John H. Johnson, died this past weekend. She was 93. Eunice Johnson was a close business partner of her late husband. She gave one of his signature publications, Ebony magazine, its name. She was also producer and director of the Ebony Fashion Fair, that's an event that started in the 1950s as a fundraiser and became a must attend annual event for many black women, a showcase for black models, and a link to the world of high fashion.

Robin Givhan, fashion editor for the Washington Post is with us to tell us more.

Welcome, Robin. Thank you for joining us and Happy New Year to you.

Ms. ROBIN GIVHAN (Fashion editor, Washington Post): Thank you. Same to you.

MARTIN: What was so special about the Ebony Fashion Fair? Do you have any idea what gave her the idea?

Ms. GIVHAN: You know, it was never really clear what specifically made her stay in fashion, but I do know that Ebony Fashion Fair grew out of a request that she create some kind of fundraising event for one of the historically black universities and it soon became something that was a yearly tradition and a traveling fashion show.

MARTIN: I believe it was a fundraising for Dillard University. And what was it like to attend an Ebony Fashion Fair event? I think some people have this idea of a fashion show as being, I don't know, glamorous to be sure, but kind of all about the clothes. An Ebony Fashion Fair event was not just about the clothes.

Ms. GIVHAN: It was about the clothes but it was also about the audience as well, and it was an opportunity for people in the audience, sort of, to go over the top if they wanted to. It was really an opportunity for them to define themselves in the way that they believed that they could be when I think in some ways society didn't see them beyond a very specific stereotype. The audience I think took great pride in putting on as much of a dazzling show as what was on the stage.

MARTIN: Did it launch the careers of any of the African-American models who later became well-known?

Ms. GIVHAN: One of the models who did start there was Pat Cleveland, who went on to have an enormous career internationally. But it also helped to launch the careers of actors, newscasters, you know, working in New York, for instance. So it really did serve as a place where people who would eventually kind of take on these public personas could kind of get their stage waxed to a great degree.

MARTIN: What do you think Mrs. Johnson's legacy will be? How will we remember her?

Ms. GIVHAN: Well, I mean I think she'll be remembered as someone who let the fashion industry know that the African-American community is incredibly viable as an audience, that it has a lot of creative spirit, and I think that she'll also be remembered for someone who reminded African-American to take great confidence and pride in themselves. And I think that's no less of a legacy than the fact that she told, you know, these Parisian designers that yeah, you should pay attention to my people.

MARTIN: Robin Givhan is the fashion editor for the Washington Post. She joined us by phone from her office to talk about the legacy of Eunice W. Johnson, the widow of John H. Johnson, founder of Johnson Publishing. Mrs. Johnson died this past weekend. She was 93.

Robin, thank you.

Ms. GIVHAN: My pleasure.

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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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