Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes (1901–2001)

Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes
© Ebony, Fair use image

Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes was an African American fashion and costume designer. Valdes was the first black designer to open her own shop, which was the first black-owned business on Broadway in New York City, New York in 1948. Her designs have been worn by famous entertainers such as Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, Marian Anderson, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Mae West, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt, and Sarah Vaughan, among others.

Zelda Valdes was born on June 28, 1905, in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. She studied her grandmother’s work as a seamstress and also worked in her uncle’s tailoring shop. Valdes began working as a stock girl at a high-end boutique around 1920 and worked her way up to become the boutique’s first black sales clerk and tailor.

In 1948 at the age of forty-seven, Valdes opened the first African American owned boutique in Manhattan on Broadway and West 158th Street with her sister, Mary Barbour, who worked as her assistant. She called her store, Chez Zelda. Valdes’s boutique soon attracted numerous celebrities and society women. She would later move Chez Zelda to midtown Manhattan, setting up shop on 57th Street. In 1949 Valdes was elected president of the New York Chapter of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers (NAFAD), an organization of black designers that was founded by educator and political activist Mary McLeod Bethune.

Valdes’s celebrity clients included Josephine Baker, Mae West, Ella Fitzgerald, Dorothy Dandridge, Eartha Kitt, and Marian Anderson. Valdes’s fashion designs were responsible for creating a new sexier image for singer Joyce Bryant who was a huge star in the African American community in the early 1950s and whom Life Magazine later described as the “the Black Marilyn Monroe.” In 1958 Playboy Magazine founder Hugh Hefner hired Valdes to design the first Playboy Bunny costumes. Hefner commissioned Valdes to do this work on the recommendation of the magazine’s promotion director, Victor Lownes. Originally, the Valdes design had the ears taller and the ensemble lacked the trademark bow tie, collar, and cuffs. First unveiled publicly in an early episode of Playboy’s Penthouse Magazine, the bunny costume made its formal debut at the opening of the first Playboy Club in Chicago, Illinois on the evening of February 29, 1960.

In 1970 Arthur Mitchell asked Valdes to design costumes for his new company, the Dance Theater of Harlem. Valdes would continue to work with the Dance Theater of Harlem until her death on September 26, 2001, at age ninety-six.