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Julie Latsko pays homage to Chicago’s first lady of fashion, Eunice W. Johnson

Julie Latsko

Julie Latsko

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Updated: March 13, 2013 7:25PM

It’s often said that high fashion is only as good as the people who wear it. This is especially true for those who wear it well. Chicago is blessed to have had the fashion influence, style and elegance of a woman who always wore it well: Eunice W. Johnson, co-founder of Fashion Fair Cosmetics and Johnson Publishing Co., which publishes Ebony and Jet magazines.

You often hear Johnson referred to as a pioneering businesswoman, and as a woman who broke racial barriers when she launched one of the first cosmetic lines for women of color. However, those who were fortunate enough to see her about town, in her Michigan Avenue office or in the front row of Paris fashion shows before her death in 2010, also knew her as a fashion icon. Johnson often wore the most sought-after gowns and sported fashions seen only on movie stars and international doyennes. Regardless of the label, she wore everything with flair and style that was uniquely hers.

In 1958, Johnson Publishing started Ebony Fashion Fair, the world’s largest traveling fashion show. As producer and director of the fair, Eunice Johnson brought her much-admired fashion sense to women of color, a part of society that was largely ignored by most fashion houses at that time. In 1963, the Ebony Fashion Fair shows grew to include haute couture from the likes of Oscar de la Renta, Christian Dior, Valentino and Stephen Burrows, to name a few. These important names in fashion dramatically upped the glamour quotient for all women, especially those living in Chicago who had not been exposed to such design excellence.

This wonderful fashion ambassador for Chicago is now getting her rightful due with a 7,000-square-foot exhibit at the Chicago History Museum, opening Saturday, March 16. The exhibit, “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” is an apt tribute that includes some 67 pieces, each carefully chosen for its style and historical importance. It is one of the largest special exhibits in the museum’s history.

The cultural importance of Eunice Johnson and the Ebony Fashion Fair — and what both meant to the evolution of fashion for African-American women — cannot be overstated. I’m thrilled that Chicago is paying tribute to her trailblazing style and honoring her for redefining the way women of color look at fashion and themselves.

Julie Latsko donated her fee for this column to The Costume Council of the Chicago History Museum. On Friday, March 15, from 6 p.m. — midnight, the council is hosting The Costume Ball, where guests will get an exclusive first look at the new exhibit. Call Randy Adamsick at (312) 799-2110 to purchase tickets ($1,000 for party and after-party; $150 for after-party only).

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