‘Miles of Style’ Honors Eunice Johnson, Woman Behind Ebony Magazine and Fashion Fairs
Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle; book courtesy of Lee & Low Books
When Lisa Donaldson Brathwaite’s stylish great-grandmother signed her up to model in a local fashion show, the 5-year-old was scared, but knew exactly where to turn for inspiration: her family’s Ebony magazines.
Inspired by the pages of striking Black models and trendy clothing amid stories of African American celebrities, entrepreneurs and politicians, Brathwaite ’93 recalled, “I hammed it up on the runway, giving the poses I’d seen in the magazine, and the crowd went wild. It gave me a sense of confidence that’s carried me through life.”
Decades later, she celebrates the trailblazing woman behind the iconic magazine and nationwide tour of fashion shows in a children’s book published Tuesday, “Miles of Style: Eunice W. Johnson and the Ebony Fashion Fair.”
“This is a fun, proud, joyous kind of history,” said Brathwaite. “Fashion is just as relevant today as it was yesterday, and it’s great for kids to know to go after their dreams, be bold and express themselves.”
The book, filled with vivid illustrations by Lynn Gaines, explores Johnson’s early life in Alabama and her first forays into sewing and fashion, then follows her journey into launching Ebony in 1945 with her husband, John, and a little over a decade later, a traveling fashion show featuring high-end designers and models. The shows raised money for college scholarships, community programs and civic organizations. They also led to Johnson’s creation of a cosmetics line, designed to match the skin tones of her models, which spurred companies like Avon and Revlon to follow suit.
Brathwaite researched extensively, interviewing Johnson’s childhood friend and hometown associates, as well as former employees and models; Johnson died in 2010 at age 93.
“Mrs. Johnson—which everyone called her—had a vision. She wanted to reflect the beauty and excellence of Blackness,” said Brathwaite. “When some fashion houses were leery of letting a Black woman in, or society said people of my complexion, for example, couldn’t wear yellow, she would say, ‘Yes, you can.’”
The book has been almost a decade in the making. During Black History Month in 2015, Brathwaite, who moved to Atlanta after college, met up in a school library with a young girl who she was mentoring. But Kellie wasn’t interested in any of the books designated for the month, calling them “boring.”
That gave Brathwaite an idea. Just a few weeks earlier, she’d seen a museum exhibit on the Ebony Fashion Fair, and it seemed like the perfect topic for Kellie, a budding fashionista.
Though Brathwaite had worked in nonprofit fundraising for most of her career (she got her start at UMD’s Annual Fund), she had always enjoyed writing, so she started a manuscript. She then learned of an annual contest hosted by Lee and Low, a children’s book publisher with a multicultural focus, and she sent off her submission. In December, she got the call that she had won and that her work would be published. But between doing additional interviews and the COVID pandemic, the release date kept getting pushed back.
Now, the book is finally out and already getting positive buzz. Kirkus Reviews called it “charming and straightforward … a compelling tale of an intriguing subject who left an indelible mark on fashion and culture.”
Brathwaite says it’s “surreal” to see it in print, and can’t wait to hear reactions from the community.
“I hope the book can kick off intergenerational conversations, between those who remember attending the Ebony Fashion Fair or having the magazine on their coffee tables, and now young readers in their families, sharing their stories and the nostalgia," she said.
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