Black women focus on style


The sequins seemed extra shiny, the fur ultra luxe. The colors were vibrant. The shoes were fierce. The makeup was perfect and the hairdos were works of art.

And that was just in the audience.

The 48th annual Ebony Fashion Fair swept through Baltimore yesterday, bringing with it the creations of some of the world's most talented designers.

Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Missoni, Roberto Cavalli, Christian Lacroix, Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy.

The names read like the roster of any one of the famous runway shows in New York, Paris and Milan.

The difference at the Ebony Fashion Fair is that the producers, the models, and the audience members, for the most part, all are African-American.

"This is the world's largest traveling fashion show," says Staci R. Collins, spokeswoman for the which makes a stop in nearly 200 cities, including London and Kingston, Jamaica, every year. "We're showcasing, basically, the best of the best in the world of fashion."

Eunice W. Johnson, wife of publisher John H. Johnson of Ebony and Jet magazine fame who died this year, produces the fashion show as a way to bring the season's hottest high fashion looks to the stylish women in African-American communities all over the globe.

Adorned women with matching shoes and purses and smart little hats come to find out what they ought to be wearing to the next family wedding, cabaret, black-tie gala - or just down the street to chat it up with friends.

"We love to get dressed up. We love to look good," says Jada Collins, the event's statuesque spokesmodel and commentator. "We love to be in fashion, up-to-date and in the swing of things."

The show also has a charitable bent. To date, Ebony Fashion Fair has raised more than $52 million for various scholarship groups, Collins says.

With a $1 million budget, Johnson travels to designers' showrooms around the world, looking for clothes that will catch the eye of today's stylish black woman, Collins says.

"And usually, that's very flamboyant and a very in-your-face kind of style," Collins says.

In fact, some of the fashions highlighted at shows in past years had been widely criticized for being too over-the-top. Fashion forward, yes. Wearable? Not so much.

This year, however, the glamorous gowns, fur-trimmed capes, tailored suits and elegant hats and handbags seemed to fit well with today's middle-class, upwardly mobile African-American woman. She's appropriate, but never conservative. Colorful, but not gaudy.

"I have seen it very extreme because I come every year," says Barbara Bonaparte, of Baltimore, who is in her 60s. "But now they seem very in tune with what people might actually select in a boutique."

The toned-down look even is appealing to a younger crowd - who often steered clear of the Fashion Fair for its tendency to cater more to the Aunt Esther/Sister Bessie Mae, white-gloved deaconess-turned-fashionista crowd.

But yesterday's show - thumping with the instrumental versions of popular hip-hop and R&B songs, and glittering with the trendiest of high-tech theater effects - brought out the likes of such young women as Deidra Anderson and Kim Jones, both 23.

"I think there's some stuff now for our age," says Jones, an accounting student at Morgan State University, where the show was held at the campus' Murphy Fine Arts Center. "We might not do it the same way, but we'll take the idea and do it differently."

Anderson and Jones were enjoying taking in the fashions of the women in the audience. With sequined blouses and fur-trimmed capes, stiletto ankle boots and striking ensembles matched from head to expertly designed polished toes, the women who came to yesterday's Fashion Fair seemed not even to need the show's what's-hot-now primer.

They were already, as the show's title suggests, "Fit to be Fabulous."

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