The history of a Chicago-based cosmetics company made for women of color

Hidden History
Data pix.

CHICAGO — Did you know the Chicago-based company behind Ebony and Jet magazines had its own successful makeup line?

Fashion Fair Cosmetics offered something no other make-up line before it did: Options for women of color. After suffering from serious financial woes, the defunct cosmetics line is now on the verge of a comeback.

WGN spoke with two former Johnson Publishing Company executives who purchased the popular Fashion Fair brand, which already has a built-in fan base, and a whole lot of people waiting to see this comeback.

It was the culmination of elaborate fashion, beauty, and black culture. The Ebony Fashion Fair launched in 1958 — showcasing spectacular designs during its worldwide traveling shows.

“My mother was a real visionary,” Linda Johnson Rice, Chair and CEO of Johnson Publishing Company and an heir to the empire, said.

The fashion show was the baby of Eunice Johnson, part of the power couple that created Johnson Publishing Company — behind both Ebony and Jet magazines. Eunice also served as the company’s Fashion Editor and Secretary-Treasurer.

“She went to Paris. She went to London. She went to Rome. She went to Milan. She would buy these very incredible, expensive clothes from these haute couture designers so it would be Valentino, it would be Dior. Incredible designers,” Johnson Rice said.

The models were women of color who represented every skin tone and it was those models who highlighted a need among black women.

“My mother would see the models mixing and matching cosmetics trying to just get, blend to get the right shade, the right tone, the right texture. She just kept thinking there’s got to be a better way here," she said.

Eunice and John Johnson decided to take money from their successful publishing company to create a cosmetics line that catered to women of color. Fashion Fair Cosmetics launched in 1973, available by mail-order and advertised in the pages of Ebony and Jet.

“We had Diahann Carroll, Nancy Wilson, Leontyne Price. I mean all these wonderful celebrities that talked about fashion fair. And you know were photographed in fashion fair," Johnson Rice said.

John Johnson then went to a popular department store on State Street and negotiated counter space for Fashion Fair.

“He liked to test things at home in Chicago so at that time, the first store we went into was Marshall Fields and it was because he wanted Fashion Fair to be what he called a highline. Very prestigious,” Johnson Rice said, speaking of her father.

The brand continued to grow with offerings in 2,500 department stores across three continents. The makeup in the pink packaging soon became the "go to" cosmetics line for women of color.

At its height in 2002, Fashion Fair raked in $56 million.

“The Fashion Fair customer was so loyal. So loyal," Johnson Rice said.

“Medium to darker skin tones. First of all the colors were unique because there wasn’t anybody servicing them at that point,” Edith Poyer, former product development director for Fashion Fair, said.

Poyer worked with Johnson Publishing Company for nearly 22 years, first starting as a makeup artist.

“They would be flawless. I can’t find a better way to describe it. And that is what the women who came to the counter, and stood in line, waiting sometimes they were 10 deep waiting. We were considered a powerhouse in our day,” Poyer said.

In 2008, once the recession hit, Ebony and Jet started losing money — and so did Fashion Fair.

“The media business became a drain,” Johnson Rice said. “It became a drain on the cosmetics business and so it made it very difficult for both to survive.”

“A lot of the stores that were really good for us got eliminated. And then once our distribution started shrinking, our money started shrinking,” Poyer said.

The competition started to swoop in and mounting financial challenges made it difficult for Fashion Fair to keep up with demand.

The brand began experienced crippling out-of-stock periods.

“The cost of doing business started going up. We weren’t making new product. That’s basically what happened,” Poyer said.

By 2018, Fashion Fair stopped production without warning. Its faithfuls were left scrambling to find what was left, or other options.

In November of 2019, Fashion Fair went up for auction, part of bankruptcy liquidation. Two life-long friends and former Johnson Publishing Company executives toyed with the idea of bidding.

“Wouldn’t it be fantastic to keep it as a black owned company and keep it in Chicago,” Desirée Rogers said.

Desirée Rogers and Cheryl Mayberry McKissack had just purchased Black Opal cosmetics five months earlier.

“We think of Black Opal as kind of a snarky, younger sister of the Fashion Fair queen,” Rogers, CEO of Black Opal, said.

With the help of an Evanston-based investor, the trio won their bid, buying the iconic cosmetics line for $1.85 million.

“We believe that if we can take this iconic brand, refresh it, modernize it, launch it in the proper way. Listen to our community about what they want, we can over deliver there,” Rogers said.

“Oh, it’s going to take some money. We are 100% focused on doing it right,” McKissack, who serves as Black Opal’s President, said.

Both of these women have history with Fashion Fair. After serving as social secretary under President Obama, Rogers went on to become the CEO of JPC in 2010.

The company — already in the mist of deep financial troubles — selling off its landmark building that same year.

“Putting my own funds up to try to help this iconic brand and I’m really comfortable with that,” Rogers said.

In bankruptcy filings, Rogers has claimed more than $2.7 million in loans and back compensation owed to her by JPC.

In 2013, Rogers recruited her friend, McKissack, who ended up overseeing JPC’s digital transition and was later named COO.

“Having worked at Fashion Fair, we feel like we are in really good shape to make certain those formulations please the consumers and that they performed as well, if not better then what they performed, how they performed in the past,” Rogers said.

Rogers and McKissack are aiming for a revival roll-out just in time for the 2020 holiday season. It will likely be a capsule collection sold online. They’re excited that others are excited about seeing the return of fashion fair.

“We want them to feel some of the same things black women felt finally getting a brand that was for them, focused on them. I get stopped on the street by young women as well as older women. I think we got something,” McKissack said.

Rogers and McKissack have based headquarters for both Fashion Fair and Black Opal in the business incubator, 1871, inside Chicago’s Merchandise Mart.

Popular

Latest News

More News