Image via theroot.com
Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes was a woman of many firsts: She opened the first Black-owned business on Broadway in New York City in 1948 and was the original designer of the Playboy Bunny suit. With so many firsts tied to her name, you would think we would all know who she was and what she contributed to the fashion world. But, unfortunately, many people have never heard of her. That ends today. Let’s take a look at the life of Miss Zelda Wynn Valdes.
(image via harlem world magazine)
Zelda Valdes was born Zelda Barbour on June 28, 1905, in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. As a child, she observed her grandmother working as a seamstress, carefully watching every tuck, stitch, and pleat. The first time Valdes made her own garment was for her grandmother. In an interview with The New York Times in 1994, she recalls offering to do so and being told there was no way she would be able to because her grandma said she was “too big and too tall.” As fate would have it, Valdes created a dress that fit her grandmother perfectly.
After her family moved to White Plains, New York, in the early 1920s, Valdes began working at her uncle’s tailoring shop. During the 1930s, she started working as a stock girl in a high-end boutique, eventually becoming its first Black clerk and tailor. In 1948, Valdes opened Chez Valdes, the first-ever Black-owned store on Broadway in Manhattan. It was here where Valdes sold her signature low-cut, body-hugging gowns that accentuated every last curve. These sensually classy pieces soon gained popularity among stars such as Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, and Mae West, among many others. Perhaps one of Valdes’ most famous designs was the gown she created for Maria Ellington for her wedding to Nat King Cole in 1948.
(image via the garter toss)
Valdes’ designs showed off women’s curves in the classiest, most fashionable way a designer could, which is probably what caught the attention of Hugh Hefner. In 1958, he commissioned Valdes to design the now famous Playboy Bunny costumes. The uniform made its formal debut in Chicago on February 29, 1960.
In the 1970s, Valdes was approached by Arthur Mitchell, the first Black principal dancer to perform in the New York City Ballet, to see if she would be interested in designing costumes for the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She worked there until she passed away in 2001 at the age of 96.
(image via ebony)
Valdes saw a lot of discrimination throughout her years working in a predominantly white field yet made it her mission to inspire and pave the way for future Black designers. She led the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, a coalition promoting Black designers. While Valdes remains overlooked in fashion history, we are hopeful that future generations will recognize this incredible designer who, against all odds, forged her own path, as well as the paths of many others who followed in her footsteps.