Desiree Rogers on Revamping Fashion Fair

A weekly audio magazine exploring culture, style, sex, politics, and more. Photo-Illustration: by The Cut;

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

When Desiree Rogers wanted to bring back Fashion Fair, she asked herself how she could reboot an iconic beauty brand that had been a household name since the 1970s and pioneered the market for modern Black beauty brands. “I took a step back, and I said, ‘It’s not 1973,’” she says, noting the year the original Fashion Fair was launched, “‘but it is 2021. What would Mrs. Johnson do? How would she think about this?’ She was such a trailblazer, such a trendsetter. What does Fashion Fair look like in 2021? It’s not about copying. It’s about reclaiming that position that we once had in 1973, being that trailblazer, being a little bit different. And so what does that look like for Fashion Fair?”

Aside from being the co-owner of Fashion Fair, as well as President Barack Obama’s former White House social secretary, Rogers is the CEO of Black Opal, a makeup and skin-care line created by and for Black women. As she continues to re-create the iconic Fashion Fair brand, Rogers doesn’t want to lose the fun elements that made it what it was in the first place — like the bright colors and bold lips she hopes to bring back. In a conversation with the Cut editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner, Rogers discusses all of this, plus what the conversations around Michelle Obama’s 2009 Vogue cover were like and her advice for young Black women who want to get into beauty.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Lindsay Peoples Wagner: Hi, Desiree, thank you so much for joining us.

Desiree Rogers: I am so delighted to join you today. Can’t wait to talk.

Lindsay:  I’m very excited about this. I used to go to the Ebony Fashion Fair shows growing up, so we have a lot to discuss.

Desiree: Wow. That is an amazing historic experience for all of us.

Lindsay: I wish I would have been a little older. I was very young, but I was totally a brat and made my mom get a limo and like the whole thing.

Desiree: You see there. You knew about glamour and fashion early on. Of course you needed a limo. Why not? You had a great mom that did all that for you.

Lindsay: I do. She’s wonderful. So tell people about it. I mean, I grew up knowing so much about Black Opal and Fashion Fair. Where did the ideas, the name, all of that come from for Black Opal?

Desiree: We have a team, and we sit around and we think through the names. We have a lot of fun thinking about names that are representative of our community and that are part of pop culture. So for example, we have a new eye palette called Fairy Glam Mother. And so that is just a twist, a Black twist, on mother, and everyone has their godmother in our communities. So we just like to have fun with it, and we never want people to feel like it’s a number. It’s not “You’re number 200” but “No, what’s the name of my shade?” So for that, that’s an important part of the overall brands and how we think about them.

Lindsay: Was there a key moment for you when you felt like Black beauty was becoming something that everyone was talking about and a conversation that you felt like you needed to be part of and wanted to be part of in a larger way?

Desiree: I guess it goes in segments. It goes in decades. For me as a Black woman, I never doubted my beauty or the beauty of all my Black sisters. I didn’t need permission to really think about this top of mind. I’m a Black woman every day of the week. So I’m thinking about whatever my beauty regimen is going to be. It could have been just lip gloss and mascara. It could be more intense than that, but it’s always top of mind. I’m excited about this new revelation for some people that suddenly Black is incredible. Well, we always knew that, so welcome over to our side. So I’m pleased with that, but it wasn’t a revelation for me. I love Black. So I’m delighted that I just happen to be sitting at a point in time where this has become, for some, more relevant, more rejoiced in, more like “Let’s have more Black girls instead of just one or two.”

Lindsay: As a person who has been in it for a while, how did you feel when everyone got on the woke train and wanted to start to talk about Black beauty and wanted to start to have all these conversations that, I think, were presented in a bit of a surface-level way? As someone who’s been part of this for a very long time, how did that feel to you?

Desiree: I think there are a couple of things. I would be remiss to not say that’s encouraging. I’m not over the moon, but it’s encouraging. I think what is important is that we don’t lose sight of what that means in terms of growing our businesses and making certain that we have products that we want and need in the marketplace for us. I’m thrilled that there are so many independent companies that are owned and founded by women that look like us. Let’s make certain that they’re supported and that they can grow in significant ways and not be a flash in the pan. And so it’s great to have all this PR associated with it and feel like, Wow, look at all these brands. That’s the first part, but where’s the support? How do we ensure that they’re successful? And a lot of that takes cash and money. And maybe that takes doing business a little bit differently than how we would do business if we were part of multinational conglomerates. I think we have to think about things a little bit differently in terms of ensuring, ten years from now, all of us that are out here are still out here and have been able to grow these businesses and really create some real wealth for our communities overall. The proof is in the pudding.

Lindsay: Did you feel like in conversations around bringing Fashion Fair back that investors or people involved in the industry were really open to it and excited? I grew up with Fashion Fair and had such familiarity and love with it. But I think that the experience of obviously growing up with such an iconic brand as a younger Black woman felt like, I miss this. I’m very excited. But was that the overall reaction in the boardrooms?

Desiree: We weren’t looking for permission from the industry. We were looking for advice, counsel, and best thoughts from people that had supported Fashion Fair for so many years and then people that might support Fashion Fair in coming years. And then how you balance the requirements and the thoughts and wishes of both of those groups because in some respects it’s very different. We literally put up on the board, “This is what people are saying that have experienced the brand, used the brand, love the brand, know the brand, it’s part of their everyday ritual. And some people that maybe know a little or people that don’t know anything. Is there a way to take all of that and relaunch this brand that is so iconic, so American, and happened to be developed by a Black couple? How do we take all of that and launch into the marketplace?” I took a step back, and I said, “What? It’s not 1973,” which is the original year that Fashion Fair was launched, “but it is 2021. What would Mrs. Johnson do? How would she think about this?” She was such a trailblazer, such a trendsetter. What does Fashion Fair look like in 2021? You have to take the noise out of your head. This one’s doing that, this one’s doing this. It’s not about copying. It’s about reclaiming that position that we once had in 1973, being that trailblazer, being a little bit different. And so what does that look like for Fashion Fair? All of the products are vegan.

Lindsay: That’s amazing. What would you say is the most common, whether it be an issue or thing that you hear Black women say that they want Black Opal or Fashion Fair to solve or to be of guidance for?

Desiree: Let’s start with skin care. I mean, what are our issues? We want to fade spots. Another is, because we’re a darker skin tone, you can see the sloughing off of the skin, better known as ashiness, in the Black community. You want to make certain that skin is being sloughed off and that your skin looks as bright as possible — not light, but bright — that you have that glow. You have that glow right now. I don’t know if it’s the lighting or good skin care, but you don’t look dull.

Lindsay: It’s the skin care, it is not the lighting in here.

Desiree: Your skin does not look dull. So we want to make certain that people don’t look dull. And then the third is pores. People complain, “My pores look big, and I’d like to have those pores look smaller so that I have a smoother, more level complexion.” And so that’s skin care in a nutshell. Then the real issue we know is “I cannot find my shade match in a foundation or a powder.” I want that perfect foundation that’s perfect for me. I don’t want to look like I have a mask on.

Lindsay: I love it. There’s so much history with Fashion Fair and Jet and Ebony in Chicago. I’m actually from Milwaukee, so not very far.

Desiree: Not far.

Lindsay: What would you want people to understand about that history of Black beauty, especially being in Chicago? There’s so much rich history about just the Johnson Publishing Company overall. I’m just interested to hear what you would want to share with people who don’t have as much knowledge around it.

Desiree: So listen, I’m from Louisiana, and that’s a whole different look and feel of how girls pull themselves together. It’s a very different look. So when I moved to Chicago, I was taken aback because I was like, Wow, look at these haircuts, look at these looks. The lashes, the eye makeup, the bronzers, the blushes. I just saw a whole other look, especially in the workplace. Chicago women were pulled together head to toe, and I think that certainly was part of Johnson’s legacy in the city of Chicago. You did not step out without your Fashion Fair and your makeup pulled together. You would be shamed. I think, and know, that Fashion Fair was born out of the fashion, glamour, and beauty of Black women. That’s what it stood for. None of this “My lips are too big. I can’t wear red or plum or purple or orange.” I mean, just amazing shades. Nothing was off-limits. That’s how I think about the Fashion Fair that was. They had nail polish, they had lashes, they had everything, they had body lotions. They had everything done in a way that was embracing our community. So this whole idea of being fearless in your beauty and going for it, they went for it. That’s part of the legacy and part of what we are slowly but surely working through, one step at a time.

Lindsay: You’ve had such an amazing career. What was that transition like, going from working in the White House for the Obamas to now switching gears and doing, I think, a lot of similar things for Black people in a general sense but a very different title, and working in beauty and all of that?

Desiree: I think working in the Obama White House gave me the courage to say I was enough. I had studied enough. I had worked in enough large companies to feel like I had enough knowledge and experience to be able to walk into my community and work in businesses that were geared towards my community. I permitted myself to feel like I wasn’t going to fail my community, that I was okay. I was good enough. And that I was going to take a chance on myself in businesses that supported people like me. That was a huge step coming out of the White House. I didn’t have that confidence before that experience at the White House. I just didn’t. I was like, I got to study more. I need to know more. I don’t know enough. If I fail, my mom will be really sad. My family, they’ll all know, because I’m in my community now. So I came out much more empowered to make the move.

I was lucky enough to secure a position at Johnson Publishing, first as a consultant and later as the CEO, working with them in terms of their media assets, their archive, and cosmetics. And that’s where I fell in love with the opportunity to work on cosmetics for people that looked like me. Also, it’s a security blanket. Having been a bit insecure myself, I know I feel a little bit better if I think I look pretty good. Not if someone else thinks I look pretty good but if I think I look pretty good, and I know what that gives anybody. People may not admit it, but if you think you look pretty good, I just think you’re a little bit smarter that day. My mother used to say, “Why are you wearing that? You keep pulling at it, and if you can’t own it when you walk out the door, don’t wear that. That’s a distraction to you, and you’re not going to be at your best.” And she’s right. Having the confidence we need as Black women to get out there every day is not easy. Doors are opening, I’m happy about that, but once we get in that door, it’s still not easy. Any little edge I can get, if it’s my Nuditude lipstick, I’m happy to have that edge that makes me feel comfortable to be able to do a presentation that I have to do and to get people to support the two brands and the communities that I represent. I’m like, Girl, you look good in that Nuditude, they got to listen.

Lindsay: I’m curious if you ever had any conversations around beauty with Michelle Obama? What you were noticing around conversations in the way that people talked about beauty while you were there, because, from an outside point of view, we see how people would talk about the beauty of Black women or talk about the beauty of Michelle Obama or how Black women are supposed to look, all of that. What was that experience like, and how did you feel? Because I also feel like the way that people talk about Black women in the public eye can be very condescending, and it can feel like we are upheld to unrealistic expectations and a lot of really unfair things.

Desiree: I don’t want to dig up too many old stories and create anything that’s too crazy, but here’s what I would say. I was there early on in the administration, and Washington can be a really tough place for anybody. Washington has certain rules around what a First Lady should wear. What shouldn’t she wear? What’s appropriate? What’s not appropriate? Not taking into account anything about a person’s style or who they are, and that’s difficult. There were many discussions about what could be worn, what couldn’t be worn, etc. You can read back some of the old profiles. The biggest discussion we had was whether or not she should be on the cover of Vogue. Some people said, “No, the country was in the middle of a downturn. How could she be on the cover of Vogue?” Some of us around the table were like, “How can she not be on the cover of Vogue? Do you not understand what this represents for little Black girls all across America to see someone that looks like them on the cover of Vogue? We can’t take that away.” It may seem like because she’s had so many experiences and accomplishments now, we’re talking ten-plus years later, but at the time, we were like, “This is more than just a cover. Stop it.”

Lindsay: Yeah, it was way more.

Desiree: Fighting for that, it was tough at the time, and sometimes you would doubt yourself, and then you’re like, “Oh my God, maybe that’s not right. But you know what? I think we can see, ten-plus years later, she did okay. Look at all the people that have been inspired, both Black and white. Sometimes when you’re in the battle, it’s difficult, and it takes years to get out to that other side and really see what was happening at that point and what was the right move to make.

Lindsay: Speaking of magazines, what do you think is the role of Ebony and Jet? You know, some historical Black magazines that have been around forever. How do you see their role in the larger magazine scale now? I think the media has just vastly changed in the past ten years, but where do you see that going in the future?

Desiree: Well, they’re under new management now. There’s history to these publications, and you see them bringing things back. I forget what it’s called, it’s something “dish” — “Weekly Dish” or “In the Dish” or, I mean, “Date With a Dish” — they were making up an actual meal, but that was all about creating this great African American meal, I’ll call it, if there’s such a thing. But also that old-fashioned, very ’50s way of saying, “I’ve got a date with a dish,” meaning like a really cute girl. I think bringing that back, “Date With a Dish,” is just so cool. And that’s why I say what’s old is new. Bringing back these eye shadows, you’re going to be like, Wow. The colors worked back in the ’70s, and they’ll work today. So that cycling, that taking that history in and freshening it up. I think that what’s old can be new as long as you refresh. You have to refresh, and you have to be reasonable in terms of assessing what the competition is and ensuring that you are willing to expend the capital for the work to create something different from the competition and something that consumers want. If the consumers don’t want it, it’s not going to work. And so I can sit here, saying, “Fashion Fair is amazing, and it’s great.” And if you don’t think it’s great and you don’t buy it, it doesn’t matter.

The good news is I think we’re at a point in time where younger generations are saying, “I want to understand my history. I want to maintain that history. I want to be a part of making certain that that history gets to the next generation,” and they’re taking real ownership of their history in a way that they haven’t before. And maybe that’s because of Ancestry.com. Maybe it’s because of feeling like the world is on tilt. What can I hold on to? At least I have my history. Families are so different now. You don’t necessarily have all your cousins and aunties and grandmothers all around you, so you’re gravitating towards, No one’s here with me as I venture into New York City on my own. Let me at least have my history. Let me at least go to places where maybe other people are coming to New York from all cities and they have a similar upbringing that I have, that we all used. In New Orleans, it’s Heinz ketchup or Crest toothpaste or Tide soap. There’s something that gives us that unity to say, I got you, I understand you. Your mama’s like my mama. I get it. They’re not here now, but I got that history. I think there’s something to be said for younger generations wanting to hold on to their history. I watch my young daughter, and she is much more into her history than I was at that age because she didn’t grow up around it. It was right down the street from me. My grandmother was around the corner. So it’s just a different way of thinking about things that I think for these historic brands, like Ebony and Jet, there is an opportunity as long as you weave that history into what people want today.

Lindsay: So take a young Black person that’s wanting to get into beauty now, what would you tell them?

Desiree: Send me your résumé, honey.

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