Mirror, Mirror: Her Ebony show lifted barrier to haute couture

There was a time when most African American women didn't know who Yves St. Laurent was, let alone believe they could ever own a crisp YSL pantsuit.

But that was before Eunice W. Johnson.

Johnson, who died a little more than a year ago, spent more than 50 years introducing all things fashionable, fabulous, and fly to brown-skinned belles, first with her husband, John, by founding Ebony and Jet magazines, and then through her runway show, the Ebony Fashion Fair.

Billed as the world's largest traveling fashion show - in its heyday the extravaganza stopped in 170 cities - the show featured more than 200 over-the-top, colorful and avant-garde looks worn by black models at a time when African Americans were still banned from basic privileges like trying on department-store clothes. Over its lifetime, the Ebony Fashion Fair raised $55 million for African American charities.

Now 25 of the 6,000 pieces of the collection that Johnson amassed will be on display through Monday at Macy's Center City as a tribute to the black community's first true couture czarina.

"Mrs. Johnson was a pioneer," said Macy's spokeswoman and native Philadelphian Deanna Williams. "The Ebony Fair brought haute couture to tens of thousands of women over several generations who would not have ordinarily had a chance to see it."

The retrospective, called "For the Love of Color," will travel to 10 cities, including Houston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and San Francisco, and feature designers from Valentino to Versace, from Bob Mackie to Marc Bouwer. Highlights from the Philadelphia show, which can be seen in the store's display windows and in Macy's Grand Court, include a glittering Reem Acra, a red Carolina Herrera, and a Geoffrey Beene mini.