Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes was an African-American fashion and costume designer. Valdes was born on June 28, 1905, and grew up in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. From the very childhood, she showed intense love for fashion and started her professional career as a little designer in the tailoring shop of her uncle in White Plains, New York. During her services in her uncle’s tailoring shop, Valdes started a new job and began working as a stock girl at the cities high-end boutique. Her work was to sell and make alterations, and while doing this, she became first Black tailor and clerk of the shop. According to Valdes, it was not a pleasant time for her, but all she wanted was great idea and experience.
In 1948, Valdes opened first African-African boutique in Manhattan which was completely owned by her. The boutique was located on Broadway and West 158th Street in Manhattan. She sold her extravagant dresses to super stars like Dorothy Dandridge, Gladys Knight, and Jessye Norman. In the 1950s, Valdes designed the very first infamous Playboy bunny suit that outreached millions around the world. After a few years, she moved her boutique “Chez Zelda” to the 57th street in midtown. Valdes made a big celebrity clientele that included Mae West, Josephine Baker, Dorothy Dandridge, Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt and Marian Anderson. Valdes once said that she catered Ella Fitzgerald once in 12 years and had to design her clothes as per my imagination. She was the one who liked fancy clothes with appliqués and beads. Valdes was expert in creating new looks and did that brilliantly for singer Joyce Bryant who LIFE Magazine named as “The Black Marilyn Monroe.”
Valdes also designed the complete bridal party for the wedding of Nat King Cole and Marie Ellington in 1948. She was one of the founding members of the National Association of Fashion Accessory Designers, an organization intended to promote Black designers. In 1970, Valdes was asked by Arthur Mitchell to design costumes for his new company by the name of the Dance Theater of Harlem. By the year 1992, she designed costumes for about eighty-two productions. She merely closed her business in 1989 but continued her extraordinary work with the Dance Theater Harlem until she died in 2001 at the age of 96. Valdes is a great inspiration for upcoming Black fashion designers who can learn a lot from her experiences.
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