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Ebony Fashion Fair Exhibit Comes to the Twin Cities


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Looks from Atmosfere & D.NOLO at the "Inspiring Beauty" preview party and fashion show

A.J. Olmscheid

For nearly 50 years, Ebony Fashion Fair traveled the world, showcasing the season's fashions from top European designers from a distinctly black American perspective. It was the brainchild of Eunice Johnson—co-founder of Johnson Publishing Group, publishers of Jet and Ebony magazines—and gave black America a voice in the world of international fashion. Instead of a traditional, more conservative runway presentation, Ebony Fashion Fair brought more attitude, more personality, and more energy to the runway. Backed by a soulful soundtrack of disco, R&B, and hip-hop, a roster of black models worked the runway in avant-garde looks by the world’s top fashion designers, hand-selected and re-styled by Johnson herself. The fashion fair last hit the Twin Cities in 2008 during the tour’s final year, and Johnson passed away in 2010.

Now, Johnson’s legacy has received a long-deserved tribute in the form of Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair, a touring fashion exhibit that arrived at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul this past weekend. Developed by the Chicago History Museum in cooperation with Johnson Publishing Company, the exhibit offers a retrospective of the shows, with more than 40 garments spanning the show’s history from names such as Yves St. Laurent, Oscar de la Renta, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Lacroix, and Patrick Kelly on display alongside archival photographs and videos.

The opening of the show kicked off with a preview party and series of sold-out fashion shows on Thursday night featuring designs by independent fashion designers and local boutiques, emceed by local style and culture icon Robyne Robinson. It began with a disco-tastic video clip from the show’s heyday in the 1970s, with black models working the runway in avant-garde looks with attitude to spare.

The first third of the show started out much slower than the energetic video. Instead of over-the-top fashions fit for a runway, it presented looks more suited to the streets or the beach, from local boutiques Atmosfere and D.NOLO.

Thankfully, the show eventually moved into some capital-F fashion, with bold, colorful fashions by designers that took inspiration from African styles. Rhode Island–based designer Sharon Cox-Cole, a Trinidad and Tobago native, stole the show with looks that did not shy away from bold color, pattern, and silhouettes, offering a modern, graphic twist on traditional African fashions.

Look by Sharon Cox-Cole

A.J. Olmscheid

As the show progressed, it raised several questions about fashion and race, and about the line between creative freedom and cultural appropriation. While I initially liked Minneapolis-based fashion line Enna Le'Uqar’s streetwear-meets-African looks—one of which reimagined Josephine Baker’s famous banana skirt with a sculptural hoodie in an African textile—I was surprised to learn the designer behind the line, Raquel Redmond, was actually white. It turns out that two of the show's six designers were white. (The show's producer, Richard Moody, is black.)

So I asked Aleah Vinick, program specialist at the Minnesota Historical Society (which produced the show), whether this was a conscious choice or not. "Eunice Johnson worked with American and European designers who represented a variety of backgrounds, races, and different levels of fame," she tells me. "For the one segment created especially for this show, [fashion show producer] Richard [Moody] was excited about the opportunity to work with bright colors and wanted to highlight a local store that specializes in African print fabrics, Shalom Fashions. Just as Eunice Johnson would pick a theme for each year of the Fashion Fair, Richard felt that African print fabric was a trend worth highlighting, so we asked each designer to use the fabrics in their pieces, but they didn't take inspiration from African styles per se. Some of the designers actually are African and I think their cultural heritage was reflected in the looks they created."

Fair enough. But since the show was based on the Ebony Fashion Fair, I had expected to see exclusively black models. For example, local designer Samantha Rei (who is of mixed race) married her retro-infused aesthetic with the inspiration of Josephine Baker, but the looks were worn by a pair of white models.

The original Fashion Fair shows were all about celebrating black beauty, with entirely black models, so why include white models into the mix, especially in light of the statistics about the lack of black models in mainstream fashion? According to a recent article by WBUR, Boston's NRP news station, New York Fashion Week is dominated by white models—between 2008 and 2014, the percentage of African-American models was less than 3 percent.

Vinick responded by saying, "I think they represented a lot of different skin tones, which was true to Eunice Johnson's vision. She worked with very light-skinned, very dark-skinned models, and every tone in between."

This show isn't the only one where the question of cultural appropriation has arisen within the fashion industry, most recently at the Met Gala fashion fete, held in conjunction with the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's China: Through the Looking Glass fashion exhibit. White celebrities' choices—Sarah Jessica Parker's vaguely "Chinese" headpiece, Karolina Kurkova's Tommy Hilfiger–designed kimono, and Emma Roberts' bun-and-chopsticks—were met with charges of cultural insensitivity. Clearly it's a hot-button discussion topic: What choices honor another culture's styles and what choices are disrespectful? 

With that being said, the Ebony Fashion Fair is a hard act to follow—which is why I can’t recommend the exhibit Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair highly enough. It’s on view through August 16 at the Minnesota History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul, mnhs.org.

Look by Eli Nyamal Dol

A.J. Olmscheid

Look by Sharon Cox-Cole

A.J. Olmscheid

Look by Sharon Cox-Cole

A.J. Olmscheid

Glass bra by Danielle Marie Kieffer, with pink tassel earring by Patricia Punykova

A.J. Olmscheid

Look by Samantha Rei

A.J. Olmscheid

Look by Samantha Rei

A.J. Olmscheid

Look by Christiana Kippels

A.J. Olmscheid

Look by Enna Le'Uqar

A.J. Olmscheid

Look by Enna Le'Uqar

A.J. Olmscheid

Vintage jacket

A.J. Olmscheid

Vintage look

A.J. Olmscheid

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