To Meet a New Generation, Legacy Black-Owned Businesses Get a Reboot
When the cosmetics brand Fashion Fair’s top-selling lipstick, Chocolate Raspberry, disappeared from makeup counters, many Black women despaired. The vibrant magenta shade popped against brown skin tones, and it had been a mainstay on vanities and in bathroom cabinets for decades until the company fell into bankruptcy in 2018.
But on an evening in June, that pigment, along with several other cosmetics, was reintroduced at the Century Association in Manhattan, where a group of well-heeled women had gathered to celebrate the relaunch of the iconic brand.
The two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, who was in attendance, said she had felt connected to her mother and grandmother, her first fashion inspirations, when she wore the makeup on the red carpet at this year’s Tony Awards.
“Fashion Fair loomed large in my household when I was growing up,” she said in an email. “It represented Black beauty, it represented sophistication, and it was the first makeup that I ever tried on in the mirror.”
Fashion Fair is among a number of influential Black-owned corporations that have recently been resurrected. Though they thrived in the 20th century, targeting and serving Black consumers when other brands refused to, many of these companies sputtered out after struggling to stay competitive and bring their businesses into the next era. Now, some Black businesswomen — rather than start new brands from scratch — have taken an interest in continuing the legacies of those businesses and restarted them. In other cases, Black entrepreneurs have founded companies inspired by well-known white-owned businesses that wrongfully used Black people’s images to sell their merchandise.
The old brands have gotten a few updates. Many of the new owners, to reboot companies like Fashion Fair and Madam by Madam C.J. Walker, the Black hair care empire, have changed aspects of the packaging, marketing and production of their goods. But they intend to honor the companies’ original missions, which heavily emphasized building wealth in Black communities.
Desirée Rogers, a former chief executive of Johnson Publishing, which oversaw the leading Black magazines Ebony and Jet, and Cheryl Mayberry-McKissack, the company’s former chief operating officer and president of digital, purchased Fashion Fair in 2019 when Johnson had to sell off the brand after declaring bankruptcy. Fashion Fair had name recognition, but restarting the brand for a new generation of women — not all of whom had grown up watching their mothers and grandmothers use the products — in the middle of a pandemic, with supply chain disruptions, was challenging.
There was also the crash course from contemporary consumers, who not only expected the same complementary colors for Black women they remembered but also cared about product ingredients and the company’s investment in the Black community. And whereas once the brand made its name with magazine advertisements, stylish in-store saleswomen and a traveling show, customers might now come across the brand on social media.
Eunice Johnson started the company in 1973 to serve the makeup needs of Black women at a time when white-owned cosmetics companies that catered to African Americans focused on skin lightening and routinely failed to match the range of Black women’s skin tones. Ms. Rogers and Ms. Mayberry-McKissack said they wanted to continue serving those customers, in addition to spotlighting and supporting other members of their community. They mentor Black businesswomen in the beauty industry and join other Black-owned brands in campaigns. Black women make up 80 percent of their employees.
According to a McKinsey study, Black-founded and Black-owned brands made up 2.5 percent of revenue in the beauty industry in 2021, while Black consumers were responsible for 11.1 percent, or $6.6 billion, of beauty spending.
“Cheryl and I are trying to make a difference in the wealth gap,” Ms. Rogers said. “And beauty is certainly an area where we’re way underrepresented for the amount of expenditures that we have in that industry.”
Black businesses have long been a staple, as well as a source of pride, in African American neighborhoods. Jim Crow laws severely limited employment opportunities for Black people, and African Americans were often barred from patronizing white businesses. Black entrepreneurship emerged out of necessity — as a way not only to make a living but to shop safely as a Black person. In the early 1900s, what the historian Juliet E.K. Walker termed the “Golden Age of Black Business,” Black-owned businesses boomed, cropping up in record numbers across the country.
It was in this era that Madam C.J. Walker started her famous hair care brand. The company made her one of the country’s first Black female millionaires, but its operations slowed in 1981.
In 2013, the Sundial Brands founder Richelieu Dennis bought the Madam C.J. Walker trademark. After Unilever purchased Sundial in 2017, Madam teamed up with Walmart to resurrect the line, which was originally intended to help Black people with scalp hygiene at a time when many struggled with losing hair to illness and poor living conditions.
“People are always asking me, ‘Do you have the original formula?’” said A’Lelia Bundles, an unofficial Madam consultant and Ms. Walker’s great-great-granddaughter and official biographer. “I actually do have the original formula, but what Madam Walker did in 1906 was revolutionary for 1906. We want to be revolutionary for now.”
To highlight her point, Ms. Bundles posted a photo on Instagram of Ms. Walker with her signature Wonderful Hair Grower and driving her 1912 Waverley Electric. “She’d be driving a Tesla now!” Ms. Bundles said with a laugh. Another example of an update, she said, was removing petroleum, which is derived from crude oil, from the brand’s hair and scalp treatments.
But the new iteration of the company hasn’t strayed far from Ms. Walker’s mission. Cara Sabin, the chief executive of Sundial, said Ms. Walker’s goal was not only to be a success but also to help other Black women be self-sufficient by training them as stylists and sales representatives. Ms. Walker was selling hair care products, “but she realized over time that what women needed was education and financial independence,” Ms. Bundles said.
In 2018, Richelieu Dennis, who helped found Sundial and owns the Black women’s magazine Essence, purchased Villa Lewaro, Ms. Walker’s former estate in Irvington, N.Y., with the goal of using the property as an incubator for Black businesswomen. The in-person programming is still on hold because of the pandemic, but Mr. Dennis continues to contribute to the New Voices Fund he started in 2020, pledging $100 million to women of color entrepreneurs.
“It’s what they call community commerce, which is giving right back to the community because you are benefiting from the community,” Ms. Bundles said. “That’s very similar to Madam Walker’s own ideas of giving back in that you are profiting because the community is supporting you and therefore you need to put something back into it.”
Others have tried to redress historic wrongs carried out by white-owned companies that profited from using Black domestics in their logos and as figureheads. Percy Miller, the rapper and businessman known as Master P, developed his Uncle P’s line of pancake mixes and rice in response to this trend.
“As a kid, my grandmother always told me, ‘Get these products because they’re owned by us,’” Mr. Miller recalled. But “I got older and started realizing that Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben were models, and none of the proceeds from these brands went back to helping the community and their families; it was just pure mockery.”
Historically, if a white-owned company wanted to emphasize the quality of its food or service, it frequently used a Black person’s image to do so, playing on racist stereotypes about African Americans being valuable only as cooks, housekeepers and farmers.
Uncle Ben’s rice and Aunt Jemima breakfast foods were prime examples of this tactic. Because of their rice-growing and pancake expertise, the real-life Frank Brown and Nancy Green were hired to be the faces of the products, but their skill was not acknowledged or financially rewarded. (In 2020, Quaker Oats announced that it would drop the Aunt Jemima name and change its packaging, and Uncle Ben’s rebranded as Ben’s Originals.)
“These are family brands that they’ve been building and passing that down from generation to generation, and we never got any part of that,” Mr. Miller said, adding, “I wanted to change that narrative.” ”
Mr. Miller sources his rice from Ghana to employ farmers there. A portion of his profits funds programs for low-income children and the elderly in New Orleans and St. Louis. And he uses his own image — a photo of himself in sunglasses — to sell the products.
“We definitely can build generational wealth,” he said. “And once we get into the game, who knows if one of these companies will hit and turn into a multibillion-dollar business?”
Ms. Rogers of Fashion Fair believes that reviving long-running Black-owned businesses is as important as starting new ones. It would have been “shameful” for her and Ms. Mayberry-McKissack not to try to bring back the makeup brand, she said. Ebony was also revived last year.
“One of the things that is so important is the maintenance of our culture, especially in America,” Ms. Rogers said. “We have to get a little bit better at preserving those traditions and those incredible brands that have served us so well.”