No one ever called Mr. John H. Johnson’s wife by her first name. People would ask me, “What’s Mrs. Johnson’s first name?” And I would always respond, “MRS.!”
When I first met Mrs. Johnson, I was a diamond in the rough; I was just coming out of a divorce, and I needed a job. Fast. Mrs. Johnson took me on, and throughout most of the ‘70s, I worked as her personal assistant and later, as her fashion show commentator. I was a young girl from Harlem with a fashion dream fulfilled.
Together, we traveled the world first-class to Paris, London, Rome, Venice, the French Riviera, staying at the best hotels: the Lido on Venice’s Grand Canal, the Plaza Athenee in Paris.
But while the locales were glamorous, the work was anything but. Working without a car or driver, I hailed taxis and directed the transfers, from the airport to the hotel, to designer salons to fashion presentations and back, hauling bags the whole time. Before I could have half the day to myself on Saturdays, I had to run Mrs. Johnson’s errands. I kept a journal during those times, just to keep up. A typical “day off” in Rome consisted of five or more stops:
Lancetti (pick up Mrs. Johnson’s dress)
Valentino (buying for the show)
Blanche (pick up an order)
Dalco (pick up again)
Valentino Homo (pick up)
Valentino Boutique (blue skirt)
Gherardini (to look)
Fendi (Mimi’s blouse)
My Coutique (jeans)
All before 1:00 p.m.! One day I dropped Mrs. Johnson’s camera. I never had to carry her bags again after that.
Back then, Mrs. Johnson loved to go to the couture shows. I suggested going to Prêt-à-Porter presentations, also known as the ready-to-wear shows. Through her work with Ebony Fashion Fair, she helped make today’s designers household names: Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Missoni, Roberto Cavalli, Laura Biagiotti, Issey Miyake, Kenzo, André Courréges, Stephen Burrows and Pauline Trigère….
But gaining access to the European fashion houses wasn’t easy. We were welcomed by Emmanuel Ungaro, Givenchy, YSL, Mr. Lenoir of Chloe, Gherardini, and Fendi, but Ebony was denied entrance to some shows. We told Women’s Wear Daily that we were turned away from Valentino. After that, we were always welcomed to his show. Most designers thought that we were coming to their showrooms to purchase one or two outfits. They quickly realized that we were buying clothes for the entire Fashion Fair traveling show.
Through Mrs. Johnson, I got to meet the world’s great artists: She bought a tapestry from Pablo Picasso and a painting by Giorgio de Chirico. De Chirico’s studio was at the foot of the Spanish steps in Rome. Do I remember! In 1974, I was one of her first guests at her home in Palm Springs—her house was just down the road from Bob Hope.
I’ll never forget her. We hung out together, laughed a lot, had lots of fun and worked very hard to have the best of the best for the Ebony Fashion Fair.
Audrey Smaltz, a former model and Ebony Fashion show commentator, is the founder of The Ground Crew, a fashion show production company launched in 1987. Her clients include Donna Karan, Michael Kors and Oscar de la Renta.