Ebony Fashion Fair exhibit opens Friday in Detroit

Kyla Smith
The Detroit News

The fashion world was left with a void in 2010 when the runways of the Ebony Fashion Fair were shut down for good.

But the magic returns as a new traveling exhibit, “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” makes a stop in Detroit at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

Beginning Friday and running through early 2016, more than 100 original pieces from the runway show will be displayed on stylized mannequins, including accessories and 40 garments from a collection of the 7,000 pieces Eunice W. Johnson acquired over a span of 50 years.

Museum officials said Detroit was chosen to host the exhibit because of the of cutting edge fashions that were cultivated over time in the city, ranging from hairstyles, shoes, cosmetics to garments.

During its run, the Ebony Fashion Fair not only showcased the latest fashions, but doubled as charity fundraiser, helping to raise money for the United Negro College Fund and sickle-cell anemia research.

Created in 1958 by Johnson, whose husband, John H. Johnson founded the Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Co. and created the Ebony and Jet magazines, the Ebony Fashion Fair changed society’s view of African-Americans and fashion.

“We showcased beauty in all shades. Our show helped to define a different type of beauty. At the time, you didn’t see black models on the runway,” said Linda Johnson Rice, CEO of Johnson Publishing and the daughter of the founding Johnsons. “My mother wanted to give girls an opportunity to model that may not have gotten to otherwise.”

The fashion show featured models wearing unique designs from Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Nina Ricci, but Johnson Rice recalled the challenge her mother faced getting designers on board for a predominately black fashion show.

“My mother was met with a lot of resistance at first,” Johnson Rice said. “When a large checkbook follows and the designers realized we weren’t asking for donations, but wanting to purchase the gowns, things become a lot easier after that.”

It is not known if the Ebony Fashion Fair will ever grace a catwalk again, but Johnson Rice did tease at the possibility.

“In an age where you can stream everything, we might plan to have one big show in New York in 2016, but we are still in the planning stages.”

While the Ebony Fashion Fair was known for its theatrical program and glamorous gowns, the runway show represented more than just beautiful models wearing high-end clothing.

“The show was empowering,” Johnson Rice said. “Knowing that we can wear anything and have jobs and be a positive part of society and be proud of who we are, that was the vison my mother had and the legacy that both of my parents left.”


(313) 222-1855


Beauty: 50 Years of

Ebony Fair Fair

Sept. 18 - Jan. 3

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

315 E.Warren, Detroit

The exhibition is free with

museum admission.