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Raiding Eunice Johnson's closet

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On Saturday my mother and I went to Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in the West Loop to ogle at an exhibition of Eunice Johnson’s clothing. Mrs. Johnson was the wife of Ebony/Jet founder John H. Johnson. A force in American fashion, Mrs. Johnson created Ebony Fashion Fair, an annual tour of couture and ready-to-wear fashion catered to black women while raising money for charities. She died earlier this year at age 93. An auction of her fabulous clothes is on Thursday. Mrs. Johnson nurtured the careers of black designers and black models. During segregation she convinced designers such as Valentino to use black models. Yves Saint Laurent famously dressed her. She regularly traveled to Paris. My mother and I had no intentions of bidding on anything for later in the week; we just wanted to get a glimpse of Mrs. Johnson’s fabulous closet over the past five decades. Oh. my. goodness. It felt like being in a museum. The auction room boasted of a glass case full of Hermes purses and scarves. Shelves of Chanel bags. Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera frocks. No, these weren’t typical black-tie circuit dresses; these were Oscar-worthy gowns. Textured fabrics, furs, bold colors and whimsical pieces. I never even made it to the jewelry. The biggest surprise on Saturday was a reject room of Mrs. Johnson’s clothes on sale to the public. By reject I mean $20 St. John knit suits. Nothing cost more than $50 and the colored-dot sale started at $10. Women emerged with bags and bags of clothes. Almost all of the purses sold out before I arrived, and the space was as cramped as T.J. Maxx. My mother bought two unstructured coats that are so over the top, she looks like the mother of a celebrity. I told my good friend Niala about the sale and she went on Sunday afternoon. She just moved from Miami and needs a new wardrobe. Niala found a plaid wool jacket by French designer Emanuel Ungaro in the picked-over room. It’s pink, baby blue, yellow and white. I bought a long, maroon sweater coat made of wool; an Italian boxy cashmere sweater that’s moth-free and Tiffany blue; and an Ungaro leather skirt.

My friend described it as very Alexis Carrington. For good measure I bought my sister a birthday present. Grand total? $75. As I admiringly hung up my new clothing come-ups, I realized that the deals didn’t move me as much as having a little piece of iconography in my closet.
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