Catching Up With Linda Johnson Rice

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Wearing multiple hats, Linda Johnson Rice oversees Ebony and Jet magazines and Fashion Fair Cosmetics as chairman of Johnson Publishing Company. Positive and upbeat is how she describes herself, and it’s this cheerful attitude that helps Ms. Rice get through the daily ups and downs in the media, beauty and fashion business.

Within the last two years, Johnson Publishing hired CEO Desiree Rogers and COO Cheryl McKissack. Ms. Rice says, “Desiree and Cheryl knew my parents. They get the legacy and understand the vision my parents had.” With the empire created by Eunice and John H. Johnson – 68 years of Ebony, 62 years of Jet, 50 years of Ebony Fashion Fair, 40 years of Fashion Fair Cosmetics – Ms. Rice’s parents are icons for the African-American community. They’re a tough act to follow, and she knows it.

To that end, new ideas were crafted with the Ebony Fashion Fair show that ran from 1959-2009. In its heyday, Ebony Fashion Fair traveled to 170 cities in six months, and Eunice Johnson did all of this with a small team. Currently, an exhibition of 67 pieces from the Ebony Fashion Fair show are on display at the Chicago History Museum through January 4, 2014, before it tours multiple cities. And there’s more…much more.

Over 400 pieces from the Ebony Fashion Fair are archived in a security- and temperature-controlled off-site facility. Ms. Rice describes the archive as the “best of the best.” And in March, several hundred items were selected from the collection to be auctioned off at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, bringing in over $300,000.

In describing the current exhibition at the Chicago History Museum, Ms. Rice says, “We chose a great range from the collection so you can understand my mother’s vision and what she was looking for – theatrical, one-of-a kind pieces. The mannequins look like they come to life. They reflect how the models looked – fair skin, dark skin, light hair, dark hair, broader features, narrow features, light eyes, dark eyes. African-Americans come in a ‘rainbow’ of hues.”

Walking down memory lane, Ms. Rice has fond memories of working with her mother on the Ebony Fashion Fair show. “There was absolutely nothing like it – always a huge extravaganza. Today’s extravagant fashion shows are the same thing my mother did 25-30 years ago. Her vision was to bring the best of high fashion to the audiences in Los Angeles or small towns in Mississippi – the same exact fantastic show. The shows were all held for a different charity in different cities, raising over $55 million throughout the years. But the really exciting part is being able to see what her vision was in showing the fashion to African-American audiences. You may not be able to buy Pierre Cardin or YSL couture, but she showed it to the audience so they could carry it into their own wardrobe. They could sew and put the same look together.”

During the early years of Eunice Johnson’s career, she was the only African-American female at the European fashion shows. “My mother was hardworking, determined and an absolute perfectionist. She knew exactly what she wanted. She had a fantastic eye,” shares Ms. Rice. “It was lonely being the only black woman in Paris, Florence, Rome – not a friendly crowd. However, the crowd did respect her opinion and pocketbook. That’s what got her through. And her sense of self; she knew what she wanted and didn’t compromise.”

Adding to the company’s portfolio, Fashion Fair Cosmetics is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, which features the brand’s retro pink shades in four Capsule Collections to represent each decade it has been in business. Ms. Rice’s favorite splurge with Fashion Fair Cosmetics is the lipsticks – she loves the wide range of colors.

Then there are Ebony and Jet magazines. The Ebony photograph archive consists of over 5 million photos chronicling the African-American community since 1945, and prints are available online at www.ebony.com. In addition, the Ebony/Jet Showcase aired on TV for seven years, featuring every major African-American and covering community events; these interviews are available for purchase on iTunes, with more to follow.

Looking ahead, what’s the main focus for Johnson Publishing Company for the next five years? Ms. Rice shares, “We are the curators of the African-American experience – past, present and future. That’s what we are, as we curate what we have here; it really resonates into Ebony, Jet and Fashion Fair Cosmetics as brands. Creating sort of a lifestyle.”

Author’s Note: Linda Johnson Rice’s father, John H. Johnson, was featured on a Forever Stamp in January 2012. When Ms. Johnson receives a letter and it has her father’s postage stamp on it, she always opens it first.

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Cindy_Burns

About Cindy Burns

Currently writing for TCW's 'Woman About Town' column, Cindy Burns covers Chicago's social scene, events, fashion, and interviews women and men who are making a difference in the world. With an M.A. in American History from DePaul University, Ms. Burns is an author, freelance writer, avid reader and researcher. Ms. Burns has spent over 20 years serving on charitable boards and organizations, and currently serves as a member of the Women's Board of the Joffrey Ballet and the Women's Auxiliary Board of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicago. She is also an Honorary Member of the Children's Service Board of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital. When Ms. Burns isn't running around Chicago covering current events, you can find her biking, on the tennis courts, or hiking in a mountainous region of her choice.