Today, if you are a woman of color and are looking for makeup that will complement your skin tone, you have plenty of options. Walk into any big-box beauty store, like Sephora or Ulta, and you’ll see a dazzling array of foundations from the palest bisque to the deepest, darkest brown. But it has not always been so.
It is the story of an African-American company that was created to occupy a niche market; how this company soared to success and then became complacent about its success. How he ended up disappearing. Then how it re-entered the market last fall, when what it once offered was no longer unique.
This company was – and still is – Fashion Fair Cosmetics.
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First, a bit of history: In the beginning, there was the Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling fashion show that brought couture collections from countries like France and New York to cities across the United States. United. It was part of the Johnson Publishing Corporation, a media empire born in 1948 by Eunice and John H. Johnson. JPC’s flagship publication was the famous Ebony Magazine. (At its peak, Ebony had over 1.2 million monthly subscribers and was considered a staple in many black homes.)
The Ebony Fashion Fair was a way for the Johnsons to raise money — eventually some $55 million — for black charities. And it was one of the first vehicles to bring high fashion to the masses. The show traveled with its own sets and a musical director. Models strutted across the sage, punctuated by the tunes of a three-piece jazz combo and introduced by the show’s announcer, a six-foot stunner named Audrey Smaltz.
“Audrey Smaltz is my name and fashion is my game” Smaltz started as soon as the lights went out. “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen!”
And for the next two hours, the audience, usually dressed to the nines as a tribute to (or in competition with) the models, was spellbound by a parade of couture clothing. An elegant walking suit. A beaded dress that shimmered and floated. A wool coat lined with fur. Fur! Smaltz’ lively narration added spice to the experience: “What to wear on Sunday when you won’t be home until Monday!” she purred, while a Bill Blass model gave a shy look to the delighted audience.
But while the models walked serenely on stage, backstage was chaotic. Because even though many models wore custom clothes, they had to scramble to create custom colors for their faces. This alchemy involved some pretty intense experimentation: many darker-hued women added darkening agents to foundations or powder — perhaps crushed eye shadow or sprayed brow powder — to avoid the ghosting look. which too often resulted from settling for too much light foundation.
This pastiche of “a little of this and a little of that” showed that many black women had a need that big cosmetics did not meet. Smaltz says she told John and Eunice Johnson there was a definite market for luxury cosmetics that would appeal to “our people”. So the Johnsons agreed to try to fill it.
See a niche and go there
And they could, because the Johnsons had the money. They owned a double penthouse condominium that overlooked Lakeshore Drive, in one of Chicago’s swankiest neighborhoods. A real Picasso hanging on their living room wall. Eunice Johnson was nationally known for being well and expensively dressed. Once they decided to get into the cosmetics business, Ms. Johnson hired a chemist to create the formulas that would become Fashion Fair cosmetics. She originally took the idea to a few big consumer companies, like Revlon, but they pulled through. Thus, Fashion Fair cosmetics became another part of Johnson Publishing Corporation (JPC).
Eunice Johnson chose pink as the line’s signature color, in part to differentiate it from Estée Lauder’s chosen color, blue. They tested the makeup on women in the JPC offices. “We had every shade of color, from the darkest girls to the lightest and everywhere in between,” Smaltz recalled. “We were training on our own employees! »
Finally, Fashion Fair was about to go out into the world, but where? Eunice Johnson had already decided that theirs would not be a drugstore brand. She wanted the glamor and cachet of an upscale department store. Audrey Smaltz had a personal contact at Bloomingdale’s who took over the brand. Other stores followed, including Neiman Marcus, with its legendary beauty department.
At its most profitable, in 2002, Fashion Fair revenues were around $56 million. It was in approximately 1,500 department stores across the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. Women flocked to the counters to try on shades like Brown Blaze, a deep brown with reddish undertones, and Chocolate Raspberry, a hugely popular fuchsia that quickly became iconic. But after 20 years, Fashion Fair no longer had the market to itself. Larger white-owned companies, some started by makeup artists, have started offering makeup in a much wider palette.
By the time the 2008 recession hit the country, Fashion Fair, which had built much of its marketing into the pages of Ebony, was feeling the pinch. Its dedicated base was aging. Meanwhile, the internet had become a thing and online ads had sucked a lot of advertising dollars out of every magazine. The Johnsons had less money to spend on their product, and it showed. The stock on the shelves was getting thinner and thinner.
Celebrity makeup artist Sam Fine — who’s done makeup for everyone from Aretha Franklin to Michelle Obama to Beyonce — worked at Fashion Fair for a few years. He saw the lipstick written on the wall: “They really started taking their consumer for granted, and there really was nothing new.”
Towards the end, the brand tried to freshen up – those branded pink compacts were out and a sleek new bronze look was in place. But, said Fine, that was not enough. At that time, he says, “she was looking to compete, not lead the way. … And there’s always a problem if you’re a brand that doesn’t embrace change.”
This one thing that didn’t change was a problem: it meant weeding out a whole bunch of younger customers. In a 2018 YouTube tutorial, makeup artist Leslie Farrington admitted that she loves Fashion Fair, “but when you think of Fashion Fair, you think of your mom’s makeup.”
And then there was Sephora. A hugely profitable French company, Sephora opened its first store in the United States in 1998. It encouraged customers to try on makeup before buying it. There was no meter between the buyer and what she wanted to try. And it was profitable enough that high-end brands that once only deigned to be sold in fancy department stores decided they needed to be on Sephora’s shelves too. Fashion Fair was not one of those brands.
The end of one era… the beginning of another?
The company had hung on for as long as it could, but in April 2019 it quietly filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. After founders John H Johnson died in 2005 and Eunice Johnson in 2010, their only daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, reduced and sold many of JPC’s assets. The Michigan Avenue headquarters, which in its early days had 200,000 tourist visits per year, was sold.
In October 2019, a bankruptcy court held an auction. One of the deals on the block: Fashion Fair. Desir̗ée Rogers is a Chicago businesswoman, former CEO of JPC and former social secretary during the early years of the Obama administration. A devoted fashionista, Rogers was betting she could bring Fashion Fair back to prominence. She called her longtime friend and former JPC executive, Cheryl Mayberry McKissack, and told her they had to bid for Fashion Fair. McKissack had spent most of her life in the tech industry, but she had recently purchased drugstore makeup brand Black Opal with Rogers, and the possibility of acquiring a black luxury brand intrigued her. So she told Rogers she was in.
With substantial help from hedge funds, the two raised funds and participated in the silent auction. It wasn’t like the auctions you see in the movies, no frantic paddling; it was anonymous. “It’s all private information,” McKissack says. “They present your bid to the other bidder.” Blind offers and counter-offers are relayed by lawyers. At the end of a very anxious afternoon, Rogers and McKissack learned that their latest bid – for $1.85 million – had won the Fashion Fair moniker. An intangible was the only thing left of the company.
But the two women bet that might be enough. Fashion Fair was part of the rich history of the Johnson Publishing Company. It had been a revered item in many black women’s makeup bags for years. Rogers and McKissack thought that even with all the competition now saturating the market (Bobbi Brown! MAC! Fenty Beauty!), she might once again have a special place in the hearts and on the faces of chic women of color.
In fall 2021, the revamped fashion show debuted, not in department stores, but at Sephora. It all started with foundations (cream powder and stick foundation), powders – pressed and loose – and lipsticks, including the ever-loved Chocolate Raspberry. It is planned to expand to eye makeup and skincare. Some of the differences between the old fashion show and the new are, shall we say, cosmetic: the bronze casings have been replaced with sleek white ones with gold accents. Some are substantial: everything is vegan and fragrance-free, something many customers, especially younger ones, demand. Sam Fine was lured in to become the relaunched company’s global brand ambassador.
Because it is a private enterprise, there is no reliable information on the status of the new Fashion Fair line. Desirée Rogers and Cheryl McKissack hope that Fashion Fair’s latest iteration and its attention to the beauty needs of black women for nearly half a century could make these new white compacts as iconic as the original pinks once were.
“A lot of people say, ‘Well, there’s a lot of products out there,'” McKissack told Beauty Independent, a trade publication, last year. “But there aren’t a lot of products owned by two black women on the prestige market that are about making sure everything we do is truly created for darker skin tones. This brand is by us, for us. .”
This podcast episode was originally edited for Planet Money by Jess Jiang and produced by Molly Messick. The digital piece and updated audio were produced for Code Switch by Leah Donnella and Summer Thomad.