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Ebony Fashion Fair & Mount Mary Share Vision, History & Garments

Fashion Fair Founder & Nun Who Launched University’s Fashion Program Cut from the Same Cloth

MILWAUKEE (February 3, 2015) – Mount Mary University’s fashion program and the Ebony Fashion Fair share many of the same qualities and accomplishments. Both were created by women who entered and disrupted the fashion world and both are celebrating 50th anniversaries.

“Since the Ebony Fashion Fair and Mount Mary’s fashion program each have 50 proud years of achievements, Mount Mary is pleased to be a presenting sponsor of Inspiring Beauty:50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair at the Milwaukee Art Museum,” says Mount Mary Executive Vice President for Administrative Services Beth Wnuk.

Eunice Walker Johnson, a wealthy African-American woman from Chicago and owner of the Johnson Publishing Company, publishers of Ebony magazine, was a rarity in the elite, white world of fashion and at times was snubbed by European designers. Sr. Aloyse Hessburg, SSND, was also a newcomer to the fashion scene – a nun from the Midwest, dressed in full habit, attending New York fashion shows and working to establish a fashion program at a small women’s college in Milwaukee. 

But, despite challenges, both women persevered and succeeded. Johnson created the traveling Ebony Fashion Fair to give African-American women across the United States access to high-end fashion, and empower them to embrace their beauty while also promoting philanthropic giving to black charitable organizations. The Fashion Fair successfully toured the country for 50 years, employing an all-black staff and models. Hessburg established a highly regarded fashion program that’s brought international fashion icons to Mount Mary and has produced thousands of students with their own diverse fashion perspective, including industry leaders Donna Ricco, Karen Davidson and Eliza Audley. This March, Mount Mary will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its noted fashion program.

“Eunice and Sr. Aloyse were pioneers who worked to ensure that fashion wasn’t exclusionary,” says School of Arts & Design Dean Barbara Armstrong. “They both took bold actions that helped push the boundaries of diversity, acceptance and female empowerment.”

The connection between the two entities also includes four sold-out Ebony Fashion Fairs that Mount Mary held on its campus from 1996 to 1998 and again in 2001. In 2011 and 2013, Mount Mary Friends of Fashion purchased 34 Ebony Fashion Fair designer garments to add to the University’s approximately 10,000-piece Historic Costume Collection. Thirteen of those pieces are now on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum to complement the garments in the traveling Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair exhibition.

Mount Mary’s Ebony Fashion Fair Collection features distinct and uniquely different garments that showcase the talents and vision of noted American, Australian, British, Dutch, French, Italian and Polish designers. A daywear ensemble in electric blue by Chinese American designer Anna Sui, reflects Art Nouveau and late 1960s/early ‘70’s influence. A beaded and ostrich-feathered evening gown by Tomasz Starzewski, one of Britain’s leading fashion designers who created pieces for Princess Diana and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is also showcased.

Katherine Stephens, a Mount Mary fashion department instructor, interned in London with Starzewski in 2006 and will share insights about Starzewski’s design philosophy and take guests on a “tour” of the inner construction of the gowns at one of the Inspiring Beauty events on April 18 (more information below).

Mount Mary’s Ebony Fashion Fair Collection continues to inspire as current fashion design students have created contemporary garments that reflect the spirit, style and creativity of the Fair. The student garments will be spotlighted during a special Milwaukee Art Museum “Express Walks” events on February 12 and March 26, and during the University’s 50th anniversary celebration of the fashion program on March 21. They will hit the runway during CREO, the University’s annual student designer fashion and art show held in May.

For more information on Mount Mary’s Ebony Fashion Fair garments, the Historic Costume Collection and Inspiring Beauty events, please contact Barbara Armstrong, at (414) 258-4810, ext. 223, armstrob@mtmary.edu, or visit mtmary.edu. More information on Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair can be found at mam.org/inspiring-beauty/.


About Mount Mary’s Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair Events

February 12, March 26, 5:30 p.m., Express Walk: Inspiring Beauty
Walk the Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair exhibition at Milwaukee Art Museum with students of Mount Mary University’s Fashion Department and hear how the Ebony Fashion Fair garments inspired their designs.

February 28, 9 a.m.-3 p.m., Fashion Matters: Designing Culture and Confidence
Middle school students will tour Mount Mary University’s campus and see the Fashion Design department. They’ll hear first-hand about the business of fashion from current Fashion Design students and they’ll learn about tools of trade, including knitting machines, digital design programs and more. Earlier in the day the students will tour Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair and participate in a First Stage Children’s Theater workshop to explore identity, self-confidence and acceptance.

March 21, 6:30-10:00 p.m., The Threads of Fashion – Mount Mary University’s 50th Anniversary Fashion Program Celebration
Join Mount Mary friends, colleagues, alumnae and fashion enthusiasts for a fashion-filled evening at Milwaukee Art Museum that includes an up-close look at the garments in Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair, Ebony Fashion Fair illustrations by renowned illustrator Steven Stipelman, and the opportunity to bid on them and other unique fashion-related items in an auction.
 
April 18, 2 p.m., A Closer Look
Katherine Stephens, a fashion instructor at Mount Mary University, has a unique perspective on the design and construction of haute couture gowns. In 2006, she spent five months interning with noted designer Tomasz Starzewski in London. During this up-close interactive event at Milwaukee Art Museum, Stephens will share her “insider” experience and knowledge about how the gowns in Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair were constructed.