“What’s old is new,” said Desiree Rogers, CEO of Johnson Publishing at an auction the company staged last weekend as a way to look to its past as it works to achieve a fresh and modern look.

“So many times we don’t spend the time to know about our history, to learn about our history, and one of the things we’re hoping is that we can bring that history forward,” Rogers said.

From 1958 up until the time of her death in 2010, Eunice Johnson was the driving force behind the annual Ebony Fashion Fair.

“She revolutionized the fashion world. Back when this show had started couldn’t even imagine an African-American going to Europe and getting these high-end fashions,” said Enrique Ramirez, who works with media and marketing for Johnson Publishing.

Johnson’s collection consisted of various couture items she purchased from various places and shows around world.

The company auctioned off more than 700 pieces and included gowns, fur coats, shoes and accessories from Johnson’s 10,000-piece collection. They also sold more than 6,000 pieces in the auction’s tag sale.

“It takes an incredible amount of man hours to put something like that together,” said auction house employee Ethel Zitnik about the event. The event took Leslie Hindman Auctioneers almost a year to put on.

“We had interns all summer working on it,” said Hindman, who was amazed at the number of women who came out to the auction and the tag sale. She was able to make a lot of new customers courtesy of the event and was pleased to learn about everyone’s personal connection to the show.

One was Karen Ruby, a 45-year-old north suburban resident. 

“I come to the auction because all my life I have come to the Ebony Fashion Show,” she said. “My grandmother was on the board for the fashion show and for the United Negro College Fund. She was a Jewish lady from the North Side.”

Ruby purchased various items that she liked from shows she attended over the years.

The auction is about bringing fashion from the runway to the general public, Ramirez said. Eunice Johnson’s daughter, Linda Johnson-Rice, the company’s chairman, “definitely wants women of color and people of all places to have access to her mother’s collection and have a piece of Johnson Publishing history.”

Unlike Ruby, auction bidder Olga Poliwka had no strong personal attachment to the shows in the past. She said she attended the event merely because she wanted to purchase well-made clothing that would last.

“I wanted to see something that was an original, because the stores are very plain and boutiques are very expensive,” Poliwka said. She knew at the auction she would be able to purchase items that fit her size 12 figure. The fashion fair was one of the few shows that showcased clothing for women of all sizes.

Rogers says that the company plans to have the 3,000 items not auctioned off be a part of museum display as well as featured items when the Ebony Fashion Fair returns next year.

A portion of the proceeds will be going to John H. Johnson College Prep High School, 6350 S. Stewart Ave. At the time of the auction there was no set amount of what was raised or what would be donated.

“One of the things Eunice Johnson believed is everyone should be a part of fashion,” Rogers said.