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Prime Time Sisters lead celebration of Ebony Fashion Fair

Updated: December 19, 2013 6:12AM

The Prime Time Sisters were in the house. I met them at the Chicago History Museum on a visit to its special exhibition, “Inspiring Beauty: 50 years of Ebony Fashion Fair.”

The 17 African-American ladies are connecting in their golden years at the Mather Senior Center in Chatham. They call themselves the Prime Time Sisters Circle and gathered at the Lincoln Park museum to check out the Fashion Fair exhibit. They remind me that history should be a living thing.

The sprawling exhibit celebrates Ebony Fashion Fair, the African-American extravaganza that traveled the nation from 1958 to 2009, raising millions for charity. The annual show was spearheaded by the late Eunice W. Johnson, who, with husband John H. Johnson, co-founded the Johnson Publishing Co. and its flagship Ebony magazine, the bible of black success.

Prime Timer June Nicholas attended Fashion Fair in the Chicago area for about 20 years, she told me. It was “fascinating,” she beamed, to sit in the audience with John and Eunice Johnson. “Here you would see these icons. You would be there with them.”

Johnson Publishing and the museum collaborated to select 67 ensembles from the thousands that toured over the show’s run.

Fashion Fair emerged at a time when blacks were forced into separate washrooms, lunch counters, and inferior schools, especially in the South.

It was black, all the way. Eunice Johnson tapped black models, black designers, black stylists to present the highest of high fashions to, and for, black audiences.

The startup was rough. In the 1960s, Johnson wasn’t welcome as a buyer at the European fashion houses, where she sought to purchase the latest fine couture.

“She has to fight for entry, initially,” recalled her daughter in an exhibit video. “They didn’t know who Eunice Johnson was,” said Linda Johnson Rice, the current chairman of Johnson Publishing.

The couture houses thought Johnson was a Negro looking for a handout. But Johnson showed them the money, purchasing top-flight designers such as Oscar de la Renta, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and acclaimed black artisans like Stephen Burrows.

She built a showcase. The museum exhibit is an explosion of feathers, fringe, sequins, chiffon and silk, the boldest of reds, the royalest of blues.

Her mother favored the “outrageous,” Rice said. She matched a screaming yellow Dior dress with the darkest skinned model she could find. Her message: Black people will stand up, be counted, and gorgeous.

“She really took this work seriously in terms of offering the best in international fashion to her audiences, showcasing African-American talent, and using the show as a philanthropic platform,” Joy Bivins reflected in an email. “It could have been just a lovely fashion show, but Mrs. Johnson took things to a higher level,” said Bivins, who curated the museum show.

Fashion Fair ceased in 2009, during the recession. Eunice Johnson died in 2010 at 93. The museum show closes on Jan. 4, then goes on the road.

On Thursday, Rice will appear at the museum at 7 p.m. I have been commissioned to interview her about the legacy of Fashion Fair. Let’s hope the Prime Time Sisters join us. There is more living history to tell.


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