Fashioned for Fame: Opening the Closets of a Style Pioneer

Sometimes, fashion can be revolutionary.

Eunice W. Johnson, a publisher and business pioneer, brought high fashion to African-American women right around the time they were fighting for their civil rights. Johnson, who died in January at 93, helped her husband build the Johnson Publishing Company, parent company to Ebony and Jet magazines and to Fashion Fair Cosmetics. In fashion history, Johnson is credited as the first black woman to cross the Atlantic and buy couture in volume-selling young designers like Yves Saint Laurent on the idea that there was an African-American market they had yet to tap. In 1956, to raise money for a charity, she created the Ebony Fashion Fair, which grew so big it eventually traveled to 180 cities. Simply put by Bill Clinton at a recent Metropolitan Museum of Art luncheon in Johnson’s honor, “She found a way to use women’s fashion to do good.”

And the woman could shop. On Sept. 16, about 800 gowns, dresses, pants, jackets, coats and blouses from her personal collection will go on auction at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago (New Yorkers can bid online or by phone). Just like Johnson, the clothes are bold and flamboyant; they’re from designers such as Thierry Mugler, Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro and Claude Montana. Said auctioneer Ms. Hindman, “She was known for her vivid style marked by textures, metallics and avant-garde silhouettes. She was not afraid to wear chic, out-there clothes.” The collection is chronologically comprehensive, spanning about 1970 to the present, said Abigail Rutherford, Hindman’s director of vintage couture and accessories. “It seems to tell Johnson’s story and show who she was as a business woman and a trend-setter,” she said. 

For a sales meeting, perhaps, she had a double-breasted Valentino faux leopard pony hair coat (estimate $700 to $900). One wonders what meeting called for a Thierry Mugler aquamarine blue leather skinny-legged pantsuit (a steal: estimate $200 to $400). Lot No. 725, a Jean-Louis Scherrer black wool crepe dress belted in gold at the waist and neck ($300-$500), is “a great example of couture,” said Ms. Rutherford. Some of Johnson’s other clothes were not quite right for auction but perfect for a tag-sale format. They’ll be hanging on racks at the auction house and priced to take home, at $50 or less, starting in mid-September. The tag sale format stays true to Johnson herself, who wanted fashion to reach all women.