HOUSTON – Leaders of iconic beauty and fashion took enthusiasts on a walk down memory lane as Macy’s celebrated Black History month during an event at the Houston Galleria on Saturday. Legendary supermodel Beverly Johnson and fashion expert Constance C. White headlined an “In Conversation” discussion, saluting 10 decades of culture-defining African-American style.
From the jazz era of the 20’s, to the 60’s soul movement, the 70’s disco explosion leading up to the “hip-hop-you-don’t-stop” era of the 90’s and beyond, African-American style has left an undeniable impression on the fashion industry throughout history.
And who better to lead the discussion?
Johnson is not only the first African-American supermodel, but she made history becoming the first black woman to grace the covers of American Vogue (1974) and French Elle. The “first lady” of style and beauty is also a savvy business mogul with a successful hair extension line, was profiled in a reality show/ docu-series on the OWN Network and is a celebrated actress with proven comedic chops. Those of the younger generation know her best as “Ms. Trinidad,” the sexy seductress who rekindled the third-grade teacher fantasies of comedian Martin Lawrence on his 90’s sitcom.
White is a well-respected fashion expert whose background is a virtual “wish list” for those coveting careers in fashion and Corporate America. The style guru is an award-winning journalist who has made significant contributions across print, broadcast and online media. Her storied editorial career has exemplified excellence at the highest levels as a steward for many of the world’s most trusted brands, including The New York Times, Elle, Essence and eBay.
Hosted by Houston fashion editor Joy Sewing, Johnson and White talked candidly about African-American influence on style and how celebrities play a major role in redefining it in today’s times.
So what is black style?
“It’s our soul, it’s how we put ourselves together, it’s an expression of our success, it’s an expression of who we are and it’s something that enriches our lives,” White said.
Johnson’s influence of style began when she was just a little girl. From her father, who was a steel laborer, to her grandmother, a maid at the Hilton Hotel, style was a family affair.
“I go back to the time of a 9-year-old looking at my mom put on her makeup and her green velvet dress with the little brown mink trim and my dad in a tuxedo and he was yelling at my mom to hurry up,” Johnson said. “And I was looking just at how beautiful they looked and it reminds me of a time when my grandmother who lived with us would come downstairs on a Saturday morning all dressed up in a hat and gabardine gray suit on, white gloves and a little princess handbag.”
In earlier days, blacks were very regal about their style and made a showing almost every time they stepped out. It was what was “proper.” Little girls wore slips under their dresses, hair was always perfectly parted and pants were pressed, creased and not worn without a belt. “Church shoes” were a must-have for every child, but some say that is a thing of the past.
White says the changing trends can almost be single-handedly blamed for the end of shoe lines like Buster Browns, which have been replaced by sneakers. Sneakers have become so popular that some stars even wear them on red carpets with tuxedos.
In addition to chatting about trending fashions, the panelists also sounded off on controversial behavior, from models wearing “black face” in editorial shoots to celebrities not speaking out against instances of what some consider to be racism. The way to combat those types of behaviors, Johnson said, is to have more blacks in power positions.
“We need to not only be models, editors, designers; we need to be in every aspect of the business so that we are there in the room when these decisions are being made. Obviously, they weren’t thinking right on that day because that was just really unacceptable and totally politically incorrect,” Johnson said about the black face issue.
They both agreed with the critism that black celebrities today do not stand up for their race like others did decades ago. Instead of them continuing to represent department stores that have ostracized, targeted and/or profiled black shoppers, people like Harry Belafonte would have led a movement to boycott those businesses and let them know we were a race (and consumer) to be respected. (There would be no influential rappers like Jay Z continuing to maintain a brand relationship with Barney’s.)
Your affiliation is a major part of your brand, and proper branding is key for anyone seeking success in today’s entrepreneurial world. Johnson spoke about her experiences moving from different careers and how instrumental social media can be in propelling yourself forward. Knowledge and preparedness is also power.
“I mean look at Justin Bieber, he was discovered on the Internet. You really do have power. And as far as the branding goes, you are always starting at ground zero and it is never easy. If it was easy we’d all be doing it,” she said. “You have to go out and get all of the pieces to the puzzle; the business aspect of it and the marketing aspect of it.”
So on to the tough, but fun question.
Johnson and White were asked which superstar had the best sense of style; Beyonce or Rihanna?
“Beyonce and Rihanna definitely have an influence on style for sure. Beyonce obviously loves fashion, she comes from those genes, that culture with her mom; she’s into it. And I think that women are more inclined to say ‘OK, you go Beyonce, that is working for you.’ But whereas with Rihanna, it’s more like ‘How did she put that together? I’m going to do that,’” White said, adding that the hair and different looks Rihanna wears make her more of an influence.
Johnson loved their differences – and even sang a little “Single Ladies” for the audience.
“I think Rihanna is very exciting because you don’t know what she is going to come out with, you don’t know how the hair is going to be and that’s really exciting,’ she said. “And Beyonce’, I just love her. You know you just can’t take that away from her. She’s got curves and I just love both of the ladies.”
Macy’s planned similar events and panels throughout the country in honor of Black History Month.