Since 1958, the Ebony Fashion Fair has been more than just the country's premiere African-American runway show. It's been a major fundraiser for nonprofit groups worldwide. But this year, the show won't go on.
In January, organizers abruptly announced that the "world's largest traveling fashion show" would be suspended until further notice. A spokeswoman attributed the cancellation to the Jan. 3 death of Fashion Fair matriarch Eunice Johnson, 93. But there have also been murmurs of financial trouble at Johnson Publishing, the company behind Fashion Fair, Fashion Fair Cosmetics and the iconic black magazines Ebony and Jet.
Locally, Fashion Fair held shows in St. Petersburg and Tampa each winter. This year's events were less than a month away when local organizers received word the tour would be suspended.
"We have been somewhat shocked. It was an annual event that everyone looked forward to for years," said Manitia Moultrie of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority's St. Petersburg chapter. "Everybody knew that they would be buying tickets and attending Ebony every January and wearing their most fabulous outfits." For nearly three decades, the chapter counted on Fashion Fair as its signature fundraiser.
In recent years, Fashion Fair attracted near-capacity crowds at the Mahaffey Theater and St. Petersburg Coliseum, earning the sorority $15,000 to $20,000 for programs, scholarships and charitable giving.
Since January, the ladies have scrambled to come up with a replacement fundraiser. On Friday they'll hold Harlem Nights, a gala. Moultrie said that if Harlem Nights doesn't match the success of Fashion Fair, then the sorority may have to make budget cuts.
In Tampa, Derrick Brooks Charities was also affected by the cancellation. Since 2007, the Buccaneer linebacker's nonprofit had hosted the event at Tampa Theatre. It raised about $12,000 annually for a girls' mentoring program, said executive director Bonita Pulido. The mentoring program is "sitting pretty well" financially, Pulido said, but it may feel the effects of the canceled event.
As for the future of Fashion Fair, spokeswoman Jeanine Collins wrote in an e-mail to tbt*, "We are currently evaluating how best to move forward with … the iconic Ebony Fashion Fair brand. … We look forward to working with each organization on future Ebony Fashion Fair events, if the opportunity presents itself."
But after this year's debacle, do organizations look forward to working with Fashion Fair?
Pulido, of Brooks Charities, said, "There would have to be some strong contract verbage to make sure something like this doesn't happen again."