Fashion legend Zelda Wynn Valdes (1905 – 2001) was the first black designer and costumer to open her own shop, which was the first black-owned business on Broadway in 1948. Her designs have been worn by famous entertainers such as Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker,Joyce Bryant, Marian Anderson, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Mae West, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt and Sarah Vaughan, among many others.
Zelda Wynn was born in 1905, she got her start in fashion creating outfits for her dolls as a child in Chambersburg, Pa., and began cutting out patterns from newspaper. She studied her grandmother’s work as a seamstress & also worked in her uncle’s tailoring shop. She offered to create a dress for her grandmother, who said she couldn’t because she was too tall & too big. Zelda did it anyway, and her grandmother loved it so much that she was buried in it.
Zelda had a gift in making women look beautiful with her designs that hugged the body and a woman’s shape . She once told a New York Times reporter that she had a God given talent on making women look good.
She landed her first job at a fancy clothier, and expressed that it was not easy for her at time she recalled in the same article. Some of the clients doubted her abilities as a young black woman, but Zelda was determined to show them what she could do. Over time, many had seen what she could do and wanted her to do the same for them.
In 1948, Ms. Wynn would open her own boutique in Manhattan in what is now Washington Heights on Broadway and West 158th Street.with her sister, Mary Barbour, who worked as her assistant and supervised the staff of the store that attracted many celebrities and fashionable women .She would later move ‘Chez Zelda’ midtown to 57th street
In 1949, the Pennsylvania-born designer who would later be known simply as Zelda Wynn, was president of the New York chapter of NAFAD, the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, an organization of Black designers that was founded by none other than educator Mary McLeod Bethune.
In the early 1950s, singer Joyce Bryant, was a huge star in the Black community who also had enough mainstream success to do a photo spread in LIFE magazine and was called “the Black Marilyn Monroe” with constant mentions in Walter Winchell’s gossip column. Despite her undeniable soprano and four octave range, she was best known for her sexy image, which was jumpstarted by Ms. Wynn.
In 1953, Our World, a premiere magazine for African-Americans at the time, noted that “Zelda’s gowns changed torch singer, Joyce Bryant’s career. When Zelda met Joyce, she was wearing bouffant, ‘sweet’ dresses and was singing ‘sweet’ songs which, as the designer noted she preferred because she was religious. However, Ms. Wynn convinced the singer that she was hiding her curves wasn’t doing her any favors. Once Ms. Bryant adapted the skin-tight, low-cut gowns by Zelda Wynn Valdes, her career exploded.
Hugh Hefner, hired Zelda to design the first Playboy Bunny costumes in the 1950s. Zelda also played an integral role in the formation of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, which has inspired many to continue with the vision and carry on the legacy of pursuing exciting careers in the fashion industry.
Singer/actress Dorothy Dandridge
Legendary singer Ella Fitzgerald in the 1940’s wearing on of Zelda’s designs. Zelda spoke of designing for Ella in one of her last interviews with the NY Times, saying:
I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful,” she said in a 1994 interview and, she was being modest. Consider the story that she always told about Ella Fitzgerald: “Edna Robinson (Sugar Ray Robinson’s wife) recommended me to Ms. Fitzgerald when she was going to sing at the Apollo Theater in New York,” said Ms. Wynn. “I was able to measure her once, but thereafter she was so busy that she didn’t have the time. She would order – always in a rush – and I would study photos of her and guess her increasing size. She always said they fit and she’d order more, always three at a time. I never had more than three to four days to finish the gowns. I am pleased to say that I never missed a delivery.”
Sex symbol Mae West Zelda was one of Mae’s favorite designers because she knew how to accentuate the curves.
Zelda was 65 years old when Arthur Mitchell, creator of the first ballet company, asked her to design the outfits for the
Dance Theatre of Harlem. She designed the costumes and supervised the wardrobe department for the dance group all the way up to her nineties. She closed her business at 83 and retired in 2000.
Zelda Wynn Valdes died at the age on Sept 26 2001 at the age of 96 years old.