Today, if you are a woman of color and you’re searching for makeup that will complement your skin tone, you have plenty of options. Step into any big-box beauty store, like Sephora or Ulta, and you’ll see a dazzling array of foundations from palest bisque to deepest, darkest brown. But it wasn’t always that way.
This is the story of an African American company that was formed to fill a niche market; how that company soared to success and then became complacent about its success. How it eventually disappeared. Then, how it reentered the market just last fall, when what it had once offered was no longer unique.
That company was – and is again – Fashion Fair cosmetics.
Yves Saint Laurent goes to Detroit and Alabama
First, some history: In the beginning there was the Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling fashion show that brought couture collections from places like France and New York to cities all over the U.S. It was part of the Johnson Publishing Corporation, a media empire started in 1948 by Eunice and John H. Johnson. JPC’s flagship publication was the famous Ebony Magazine. (At its height, Ebony had more than 1.2 million monthly subscribers and was viewed as an essential part of many Black households.)
The Ebony Fashion Fair was a way for the Johnsons to raise funds – eventually some $55 million dollars – for Black charities. And it was one of the first vehicles to bring high fashion to the masses. The show traveled with its own stage sets and a music director. Models strutted onto the sage, paced 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 would begin as the lights went down. “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen!”
And for the next two hours, the audience—usually dressed to the nines, in homage to (or in competition with) the models—was entranced by a parade of couture clothes. An elegant walking suit. A beaded gown that shimmered and floated. A wool coat lined in fur. Fur! Smaltz’s lively narration added spice to the experience: “What to wear on Sunday when you won’t be home ’til Monday!” she’d purr, as a model in Bill Blass cast a coy glance at the delighted audience.
But while the models were serenely walking the stage, backstage was chaotic. Because while many of the models were wearing custom clothes, they had to hustle to put together custom colors for their faces. That alchemy involved some pretty intense experimentation: many of the deeper-hued women added darkening agents to foundations or powder—maybe crushed eye shadow or pulverized brow powder—to avoid the ghost-faced look that was too often the result of settling for too-light foundation.
This pastiche of “a little bit of this and a little bit of that” showed that many Black women had a need that major cosmetics weren’t meeting. 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.
Seeing a niche and going for it
And they could, because the Johnsons had money. They owned a double penthouse condominium that overlooked Lakeshore Drive, in one of Chicago’s fanciest neighborhoods. A real Picasso hung on their living room wall. Eunice Johnson was nationally known for being well—and expensively—dressed. Once they decided they were going into the cosmetics business, Mrs. Johnson hired a chemist to create the formulas that would become Fashion Fair cosmetics. Originally, she brought the idea to a few large mainstream companies, like Revlon, but they passed. So Fashion Fair cosmetics became another part of the 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 all shades of colors, from the darkest girls to the lightest and everywhere in between,” Smaltz remembers. “We would practice on our own employees!”
Eventually, Fashion Fair was poised to go out into the world—but where? Eunice Johnson had already decided theirs would not be a drug store brand. She wanted the glamor and cachet of a high-end department store. Audrey Smaltz had a personal contact at Bloomingdale’s who picked up the brand. Other stores followed, including Neiman Marcus, with its legendary beauty department.
At its most profitable, in 2002, Fashion Fair earnings were about $56 million. It was in about 1500 department stores across the U.S., 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 wildly popular fuchsia that quickly became iconic. But after 20 years, Fashion Fair didn’t have the market to itself any longer. Larger, white-owned companies, some started by makeup artists, began offering makeup in a much broader palette.
By the time the 2008 recession slammed into the country, Fashion Fair, which had built much of its marketing into the pages of Ebony, was feeling the pinch. Its dedicated base was getting older. Meanwhile, The internet had become a thing, and online ads had sucked a lot of advertising dollars out of all magazines. There was less money for the Johnsons to funnel to their product, and it showed. Stock on the shelves was getting skimpier.
Celebrity makeup artist Sam Fine – who’s made up everyone from Aretha Franklin to Michelle Obama to Beyonce – worked at Fashion Fair for a couple of years. He saw the lipstick writing on the wall: “They really started to take their consumer for granted, and there was really no newness.”
Toward the end, the brand tried to refresh itself—those trademarked pink compacts were out and a sleek new look, bronze, was in. But, says Fine, it wasn’t enough. By then, he says, “it was looking to compete, not lead the way. … And there’s always a problem if you’re a brand that doesn’t embrace change.”
That not-changing thing was a problem: It meant eliminating a whole group of younger customers. In a 2018 tutorial on YouTube, 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 tremendously profitable French company, Sephora opened its first U.S. store in 1998. It encouraged customers to try on makeup before they bought it. There was no counter between the buyer and whatever she wanted to try. And it was profitable enough that high-end brands that once would deign to be sold only 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 as long as it could, but in April 2019, it quietly declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy. After the deaths of founders John H Johnson in 2005 and Eunice Johnson in 2010, their only daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, downsized and sold many of JPC’s assets. The Michigan Avenue headquarters that in its early days boasted 200,000 tourist visits a year was sold.
In October 2019, a bankruptcy court held an auction. One of the offerings on the block: Fashion Fair. Desir̗ée Rogers is a Chicago businesswoman, former JPC CEO and former Social Secretary during the early years of the Obama administration. A devoted fashionista, Rogers was betting she could make Fashion Fair relevant again. She called her longtime friend and former JPC executive Cheryl Mayberry McKissack, and told her they needed to make a bid for Fashion Fair. McKissack had spent most of her life in the tech industry, but she’d recently purchased the drugstore makeup brand Black Opal with Rogers, and the chance to acquire a Black luxury brand intrigued her. So she told Rogers she was in.
With substantial hedge fund help, the two raised money and became part of the silent auction. It wasn’t like the auctions you see in the movies, no frenzied paddle raising; this was anonymous. “It’s all private information,” McKissack says. “They take your bid to whoever the other bidder is.” The blind bids and counter-bids are relayed via lawyers. At the end of a very anxious afternoon, Rogers and McKissack learned their last bid – for $1.85 million – won the Fashion Fair name. An intangible was the only thing left of the company.
But the two women were betting it could be enough. Fashion Fair was part of the storied history of the Johnson Publishing Company. It had been a revered element in many Black women’s makeup bags for years. Rogers and McKissack believed that even with all the competition that’s now saturating the market (Bobbi Brown! MAC! Fenty Beauty!) it could once again have a special place in the hearts and on the faces of chic women of color.
In the fall of 2021, the redesigned Fashion Fair made its debut—not in department stores, but at Sephora. It began with foundations (crème-to-powder, and stick foundation), powders—pressed and loose – and lipsticks, including the always-beloved Chocolate Raspberry. There are plans to expand to eye makeup and skin treatments. Some of the differences between the old Fashion Fair and the new are, well, cosmetic: The bronze compacts have been replaced by sleek white ones with gold accents. Some are substantive: Everything is vegan and scent-free, which many customers—especially younger ones—demand. Sam Fine was lured back to become the revived company’s Global Brand Ambassador.
Because it’s privately held, there is no reliable information on how the new Fashion Fair line is doing. Desirée Rogers and Cheryl McKissack are hoping that Fashion Fair’s latest iteration and its attention to the beauty needs of Black women for nearly a half century might make those new white compacts as iconic as the original pink ones once were.
“A lot of people say, ‘Well, there are a lot of products out there,'” McKissack told Beauty Independent, a trade publication, last year. “But there aren’t a lot of products with ownership by two Black women in the prestige marketplace that are focused on making sure that everything we do is really 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 Emma Peaslee and Molly Messick. The digital piece and updated audio was produced for Code Switch by Leah Donnella and Summer Thomad.