Pennsylvania-born designer Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes simply known as Zelda Wynn was unarguably a go-to designer of the 1940s / 50s who paved way for today’s bold fashion. The foremost American fashion designer and costumer is applauded for disrupting the fashion scene with her enchanting figure-hugging, low-cut sexy designs at a time when modesty was highly valued.
Zelda Wynn, noted as the first notable fashion designer of the Playboy Bunny costumes and stage costumes for the Dance Theater of Harlem served as President of the New York chapter of NAFAD – National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, an organization of Black designers founded by educator Mary McLeod Bethune. Wynn was elected president in 1949.
Although she trained as a classical pianist at the Catholic Conservatory of Music, it was her passion for fashion that enveloped her more. Inspired by her grandmother who was a seamstress, Wynn in the early 1920s at age 18 worked in her uncle’s tailoring shop in White Plains, New York. Around the same time, she took up work as a stock girl at a high-end boutique. Eventually, passion, hard work, and perhaps fate saw her work her way up to selling and making alterations, thereby becoming the shop’s first black sales clerk and tailor.
By 1935, the designer was already establishing herself as one with promise and had established her own dressmaking business in White Plains, New York. Soon enough, her enviable talent began fetching her dressmaking clientele. In 1948, Wynn opened “Zelda Wynn,” her design and dressmaking studio, on Broadway -now Washington Heights -it was the first black-owned business on Broadway.
Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes became one of the most in-demand fashion designers, her stunning creations were worn by a-listers like Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, Gladys Knight, Eartha Kitt, Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald (whom most of her designs were based on imagination as she only saw her once in twelve years, meanwhile the designs always manage to fit like a glove), not forgetting Joyce Bryant aka “the Black Marilyn Monroe.” whom she help create a new sexier image , amongst others.
Upon crossing paths with Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy, in 1958 Wynn designed the first Play Boy Bunny costumes which were unveiled in the Playboy’s Penthouse Magazine; and debuted in the first Play Boy Club in Chicago Illinois in 1960.
After that, she proceeded to design costumes for the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1970. By 1992, Valdes had designed costumes for eighty-two productions and closed her business in 1989, however, she continued to work with the Dance Theatre of Harlem until her death in 2001 at the age of 96.
Zelda Wynn apart from breaking numerous barriers was one to empower, she founded a sewing program in Harlem that taught thousands of children costume designing skills and facilitated fabric donations to the student workshops.
Her great legacy lives on.