Can Fashion Fair Cosmetics Make a Comeback?

September 17, 2019, 10:05 PM UTC
Courtesy Fashion Fair Cosmetics/HILCO Streambank

Johnson Publishing Co. is putting its iconic Fashion Fair Cosmetics—the first makeup line created for women of color—up for sale.

Relinquishing Fashion Fair, founded in 1973 and once considered the largest black-owned cosmetics company in the world, marks the end of a rich legacy for the Chicago-based Johnson Publishing, once renowned for its African American-focused Ebony and Jet magazines, sold in 2016 before the company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April of this year.

The question is whether the beauty brand, created at a time when makeup companies overlooked women of color and long before cosmetic leaders like Estee Lauder and L’Oreal diversified their makeup palettes, will survive the auction of its assets and resurrect itself.

Gabe Fried, CEO of Hilco Streambank, the advisory firm hired by bankruptcy Trustee Miriam R. Stein to run the sale of Fashion Fair and related property assets, is upbeat about the brand’s outlook.

More than a dozen parties have already expressed interest in the beauty brand, Fried noted. Offers are due on Oct. 24 and the auction will be held on Oct. 28.

“We’ve gotten a lot of interest, interest from beauty brands and from entities that are currently selling other things to women of color as well as from celebrities who believe the combination of their celebrity combined with the goodwill associated with this brand will create a powerful participant in the marketplace,” Fried said. “There are a lot of parties who have been tracking this since Johnson filed for bankruptcy in the spring.”

At its peak in 2003, the brand did $56 million in total sales, mostly comprised of wholesale sales, according to an associate from Hilco. The company last reported wholesale and online sales in March 2018, however details as to the amounts were not available, the associate said.

“After serving tens of millions of women of color, it has developed a very loyal following, attracting a lot of interest with a specific customer base not well addressed with other beauty brands,” Fried said.

Linda Johnson Rice, right, whose mother, Eunice W. Johnson, started Fashion Fair Cosmetics, part of the family’s Johnson Publishing Company. Rice ran both businesses, as did Desirée Rogers, left, previously White House social secretary during former President Barack Obama’s first term.
Hamil Harris/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Fashion Fair was created when Eunice W. Johnson, wife of Johnson Publishing founder John Johnson and founder of the woman-of-color Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling fashion show, noticed models walking the runway were mixing their own foundation to match their skin tone.

Today, women of all ethnicities have more choices than ever as cosmetic brands from Maybelline to MAC feature extensive color-matching makeup palettes. In-demand brands include the buzzy Black Up Cosmetics, billed as a luxury makeup artist brand for ethnic skin tones and women of all color, to Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line.

Fashion Fair’s brand awareness

Even amid greater competition in the beauty landscape, retail analyst Krista Corrigan at the N.Y.-based firm Edited, said Fashion Fair’s potential for a comeback is strong—citing its favorable reputation and high-brand equity.

“The foundation for the prosperity of Fashion Fair already exists,” Corrigan said. “The label has built brand awareness with the consumer and quality products to boot. While other major beauty brands are taking steps to cater to similar markets, they lack the historical significance held by Fashion Fair.”

Corrigan surmised the brand’s longevity adds to its relevance.

“From Viola Davis becoming the new face of L’Oreal to Rihanna’s wildly successful Fenty Beauty line, an emphasis has been put on creating products that work for all skin types,” Corrigan said. “Celebrating diversity amongst women should be in the DNA of every beauty brand and that in itself makes the potential for Fashion Fair’s success even more attractive.”

Fried, whose firm also managed the sale of Johnson Publishing’s photo archives in July, speculated that the photo archives and attention it drew helped create a halo effect for Fashion Fair. In 2016, Johnson sold Ebony and Jet to private equity firm Clear View Group. The new publisher is Ebony Media Operations.

The photo archives, which include rare photos of Martin Luther King, Nat King Cole, Aretha Franklin, and countless black celebrities, sold to the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust and the MacArthur Foundation for $30 million. The estimated value, listed in the bankruptcy, was in excess of $13 million.

Other items in the bankruptcy include a collection of miscellaneous artwork, with an estimated value of $1.2 million and various designer clothing and photographs, invitations, drawings, and other objects from the Ebony Fashion Fair collection, with an estimated value of $686,209. These fashion items were previously displayed in the traveling museum exhibit Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair.

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