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Close of Ebony Fashion Fair means end of an era

Associated Press | 3/9/2010, 10:04 a.m.

He pointed to Michelle Obama as a prime influence.

“Condoleeza Rice didn’t walk around wearing Jason Wu,” Padilha said, referring to the former Secretary of State. “Nowadays we have a woman of color who is wearing fashion designers.”

This isn’t to say everyone is satisfied that all things are equal on the catwalk. The Gawker-owned Web site Jezebel, for example, counted up the faces at New York Fashion Week last month, and found that, of 122 mainstream shows, barely 16 percent of models weren’t white.

Still, it’s a marked improvement from Johnson’s early days. And black consumers have a renewed interest in high fashion, spurred on, Padilha said, by increasingly stylish celebrities like Zoe Saldana and Kerry Washington, both Fashion Week front-row regulars.

The shift has gradually dimmed Ebony’s influence. It’s been years since the show launched the careers of models like Pat Cleveland.

It echoes a pattern reflected at nearly every level of society: As blacks flock to formerly all-white institutions, it often spells the demise of community mainstays born amid segregation.

But in the fashion world, some say it’s a shift that comes at a high cost.     

“We still have a way to go,” said former model Bethann Hardison, a fashion diversity advocate who has hosted three summits on the topic since 2007.

Many black designers continue to operate largely outside the scope of even Mrs. Obama, who came under fire from the Black Artists Association last January for not including black-designed fashions in her Inaugural wardrobe.

Hardison gives the industry a C+ overall on including people of color, but she quickly notes niche markets like the Fashion Fair have done little to promote diversity in the mainstream.

“The Ebony Fashion Fair had really nothing to do with fashion — it was about clothing a community, and it was a business,” says Hardison. “Ebony Fashion Fair being temporarily stopped ... is not going to change anything.”

Some disagree.

“The day that (Ebony Fashion Fair) is not needed is going to be a great day indeed. Unfortunately, it’s something that is still needed,” says Padilha.

Black stylemakers such as Atlanta salon owner Dwight Eubanks hope to fill the void left as Ebony fades. Eubanks hopes to open a department store featuring black designers with a style that represents their ethnicity.

It still remains up to blacks, he says, to promote their own beauty.

“They don’t design for us,” Eubanks says. “But who’s buying Gucci and Dolce and Gabbana? It’s our community.”

Associated Press