Haute couture creations dot the halls of the Milwaukee Art Museum like delicate flowers in an intricate bouquet. Diana Ross croons "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough" over the speakers, and filmography from iconic fashion designers is projected on the majestic walls.
It’s a venerable symphony of style.
And it’s all thanks to a temporary exhibit that showcases 50 years of fashion – and the inspired vision of one determined woman.
"Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair" opens Thursday and tells a story of vision, innovation and power, brought to life through some of the most famous fashion designers of all time. From Oscar de la Renta, Givenchy, Valentino and Dior to Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint-Laurent and Emanuel Ungaro, it’s a rare glimpse at fashion history.
Organized by the Chicago History Museum, in cooperation with Johnson Publishing Company, "Inspiring Beauty" provides a multi-sensory retrospective on the 50-year history of the Ebony Fashion Fair, which redefined the concepts of beauty, style and empowerment for African-Americans. African-American models like Pat Cleveland, Judy Pace and Terri Springer graced the fair’s regal runways, while the careers of black designers – including Lenora Levon, Quinton de’ Alexander and L’Amour – were nurtured by the fashion spectacular.
To celebrate Milwaukee’s local connection to the fair, the exhibition includes 13 designer garments from Mount Mary University’s signature Ebony Fashion Fair collection, part of the its 10,000 piece Historic Costume Collection housed at Mount Mary. The selections feature garments by Koos Van Den Akker, Vivienne Westwood, Thierry Mugler and Anna Sui, among others.
More than 100 objects – including ensembles and accessories, as well as archival photographs and video – help re-create the one-of-a-kind experience and explore the history of the traveling fashion show and its director and producer, Eunice Walker Johnson. A Dior coat circa 1964 – in immaculate condition – is the oldest piece in the stunning collection.
"I don’t think, during this era, most people knew the magnitude the Ebony Fashion Fair would have on the African-American community, except the visionary herself, Eunice W. Johnson," says Florida Perry Smith, CEO of Premier Consulting LLC and an image and fashion expert. Smith was co-chair of the Milwaukee Ebony Fashion Fair, which was hosted by The Links Incorporated, Cream City (WI) Chapter, for more than a decade. "Her vision was the pinnacle to fashion and beauty for our culture."
The Ebony Fashion Fair is a celebrated annual tour of nearly 200 cities that showcased haute couture and ready-to-wear fashion for a mostly African-American audience for more than 50 years. Many of the shows were held on Sunday afternoons, with women of all generations – many adorned in flowery hats, fine jewelry and proper dresses – rushing out of church services to get to the fair.
"When I was a little girl, my mother would take her students and me to the Ebony Fashion Fair show," Smith said. "We would put on our Sunday best. I was in awe of the beautiful fashions on and off the stage. The attendees were almost all African-American, and they came ‘dressed to impress.’ The models were so beautiful, and their skin was glowing. That was the amazing part of the show: The models had the same color skin as me. They were relatable."
The founder of Ebony and Jet magazines, Johnson was one of the first entrepreneurs to market cosmetics made particularly for black women. Within three years, the growing popularity of Fashion Fair Cosmetics, which she founded, prompted Revlon to introduce the Polished Ambers line, Avon to start Shades of Beauty and Max Factor to produce Beautiful Bronzes for African-American consumers.
"Her vision created opportunities for exposure and a glimpse of couture fashion not presented in the African-American communities," Smith said. "With her expertise, Ebony Magazine featured the African American community in a positive light, making the magazine relatable not only to African-Americans but contributing to changing the landscape for how the world viewed us."
"Inspiring Beauty" is presented in three sections that explore the three major themes of the exhibition. The first, Vision, tells the story of Eunice Johnson’s role as the creative force behind the Ebony Fashion Fair. It features costumes that reflect power, affluence and influence — expressing some of the traveling show’s recurring aesthetic ideas.
Described by Camille Morgan, organizing guest curator for the exhibition, as "a fashion civil rights activist," Johnson worked with both famous and up-and-coming fashion designers. "It gave African-American designers who didn’t have a voice a chance to show their designs on a national platform," Morgan said.
The second section, Innovation, examines the boldness and experimentation of Johnson Publishing Company. Garments in this section reflect the full breadth of fashion fantasy that the traveling shows brought audiences, while the film highlights the historic significance of Johnson company publications.
The final section, Power, features the most elaborate, luxurious and dramatic ensembles in "Inspiring Beauty." Costumes by couturiers Valentino, Bob Mackie, Henry Jackson and Alexander McQueen reflect the glamour and showmanship that created the dynamic visual experience that audiences expected at the Ebony Fashion Fair.
"Eunice W. Johnson evoked class, fashion and beauty; her brilliance created what we see today as milestones in the fashion industry," Smith said. "Although we have a long road ahead, her vision still inspires."
Ain’t no mountain high enough, indeed.
Opening Day Exhibition Talk with Guest Curator Camille Morgan
Thursday, Feb. 5
Free with museum admission
Gallery Talk with Guest Curator Camille Morgan
Tuesday, Feb. 10
Free with museum admission
Express Walk: Inspiring Beauty
Walk the exhibition with students of Mount Mary University’s Fashion Department, and hear how the Ebony Fashion Fair garments inspired their designs.
Thursday, Feb. 12
Free with museum admission.
Milwaukee Ebony Fashion Fair Reunion
Relive the glamour of the fashion extravaganzas of the Ebony Fashion Fair. Come dressed to strut the runway. Includes hors d’oeuvres, buffet dinner and cash bar.
Saturday, Feb. 21
Tickets are $25 per person (by Feb 13)/$40 at the door. Call Janet Gourley at (414) 224-3803, or purchase tickets at mam.org.
Film: "Story Weather"
Sunday, Feb. 22
Free with museum admission
Sunday, March 1
Free with Museum admission
Panel Discussion: What Color Is Nude? The Racial Future of Fashion
In what ways does identity influence style and consumerism? Hear from Camille Morgan, guest curator of the exhibition; D. Denenge Akpem, artist, writer, and educator; Joy Bivins, curator of Inspiring Beauty at Chicago History Museum, and Karla Evans-Davis, marketing director of Fashion Fair Cosmetics, as they discuss race, radicals and revolutions in fashion. Come early to sample product from Nubian Skin, Khemistry Kosmetiks and Fashion Fair Cosmetics.
Sunday, March 8
Free with museum admission
Fashionista, stylist, writer and TV personality, Jordan Dechambre, owner of Jordan Dechambre Style, lives for fashion and writing. Her unique resume encompasses everything from a former life as a magazine fashion editor to the current host of Bon-Ton Department Stores’ nationwide New & Now fashion shows.
Jordan is a brand ambassador for many of the nation’s leading retailers and the official Fashion Expert for the “Real Milwaukee” morning show. She is also a sought-after fashion show producer and stylist, and recently co-chaired a runway reunion of all the designers from season 15 of “Project Runway.”
In addition to her fashion career, Jordan is a public relations and social media consultant and an avid writer. She has written for Ladies’ Home Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, M: Milwaukee’s Lifestyle Magazine, Wisconsin Bride, among others, and won several Milwaukee Press Club awards.
Learn more about Jordan at jordandechambrestyle.com or on Instagram and Facebook @