“I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful…”
Zelda Wynn Valdes was a fashion legend who was the first African-American designer to open her own shop on Broadway in New York in 1948. She is most famous for designing the original costumes for the Playboy Bunnies and the Dance Theater of Harlem.
Zelda Valdes was born on June 28, 1905, in Chambersburg,Pennsylvania. She trained as a classical pianist at the Catholic Conservatory of Music. However, in the early 1920s, she began to develop her seamstress skills by studying with her grandmother and working for her uncle’s tailoring shop. Valdes also began working as a stock girl at a high-end boutique and worked her way up to become the boutique’s first African-American sales clerk and tailor. Looking back, Valdes said “It wasn’t a pleasant time, but the idea was to see what I could do.”
Beginning in 1935, she had her own dressmaking business in White Plains, New York. She oversaw ladies alterations and developed her own dressmaking clientele. In 1948, Valdes opened “Zelda Wynn,” her design and dressmaking studio, on Broadway (in what is now Washington Heights on Broadway and West 158th Street). Valdes said that her shop was the first Black-owned business on Broadway.
Zelda was revered for her design talent and best known for her skill in highlighting the female body. Her curve-hugging creations were worn and loved by a host of Hollywood’s biggest starlets during the 1940s and 50s, including Joyce Bryant, Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, Eartha Kitt, Ella Fitzgerald, and Mae West. Her role in glamorizing these women caught the attention of Playboy’s Hugh Hefner and he commissioned Zelda to design the first-ever Playboy Bunny costumes.
In 1970, Zelda was approached by Arthur Mitchell to serve as the head costume designer for his then newly-established performance company, the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She spent 18 years with the dance company and retired at the age of 83.
From dressing Hollywood darlings, Playboy Bunnies, and ballerinas, Zelda’s legacy is long and enduring — a fact that she was certainly proud of. “I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful,” Zelda said during a 1994 interview with The New York Times.
Zelda Wynn Valdes died at the age of 96 in 2001.