Raleigh Now Spotlight: Inspiring Beauty

Inspiring Beauty
Ebony Fashion Fair at NCMA

by Liza Roberts
photographs courtesy Johnson Publishing

Fashion icon, Vogue editor, and Durham native Andre Leon Talley will be in town Oct. 28 – 29 to celebrate the opening of the North Carolina Museum of Art’s Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair, a spectacular exhibit of couture fashion from 1958 – 2009.

The show, comprised of 41 ensembles by designers including Yves Saint Laurent, Bob Mackie, Alexander McQueen, and Christian Lacroix, is a tribute to Ebony Fashion Fair, an influential series of annual charity fashion shows created by Eunice Johnson, cofounder of Johnson Publishing Company. The shows, which grew out of the pages of the company’s own Ebony magazine, brought glamour and high fashion to diverse audiences across the United States and around the world, and often featured Johnson’s own couture collection.

“The historical component of this show is so meaningful,” says Marjorie Hodges, director of external relations at the museum. “It is a celebration of fashion as a true art form, a celebration of African-American culture, and a celebration of Eunice Johnson, a dynamic, elegant woman who combined philanthropy and fashion.”

Johnson was “a tour de force,” says Talley, who served as fashion editor for Ebony early in his career, and knew Johnson personally. “She was a woman of great style and authority … she crashed the glass ceiling. She was the first African-American to embrace the quality of high fashion through her support of European haute couture and American fashion” at a time “when multi-cultural diversity didn’t exist in fashion.”

Talley accompanied Johnson on trips to Europe and New York, witnessing first-hand “how a visionary who believed in aspirational fashion could enhance the black communities, and raise funds for local charities,” he says. The millions of dollars she raised with the shows supported education, health care, and civil rights.

The shows themselves also launched the careers of a number of African-American models, dozens of whom, it turns out, live in North Carolina. The museum has invited them all to attend the show’s ticketed opening party on Oct. 28, which will feature a runway show of juried designs by students from N.C. State, Appalachian State, N.C. A&T, and UNC-Greensboro. Talley will be on hand for the event, which will also include a dance party. The following evening (Oct. 29), Talley will sit down for a conversation in the museum’s SECU Auditorium with fashion expert Audrey Smaltz, a longtime assistant to Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta, and other top designers, and a former Ebony Fashion Fair commentator.

The exhibit itself is also designed as an experience, with a virtual fitting room that will allow visitors to “try on” some of the show’s glamorous ensembles. Several dinners, lectures, receptions, films, workshops, and gallery tours are also scheduled.