A Woman to Know: Zelda Wynn Valdes

I have a God-given talent for making people beautiful. — Zelda Wynn Valdes

I have a God-given talent for making people beautiful. — Zelda Wynn Valdes

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1920, at the age of 15, Zelda got her first real job. She’d had other jobs before, first helping her grandmother with sewing work and then apprenticing with her uncle, a well-regarded tailor. But this job felt different. Zelda, who loved style and art and glamour, started work as a stock girl at a high-end boutique in White Plains, New York. From there, she climbed the ranks, eventually becoming the shop’s first black sales clerk, then its first black tailor.

She started designing her own works of art on the side, first altering dresses for high-end clientele and then creating custom looks for black celebrities like Dorothy Dandridge and Gladys Knight. She designed curve-hugging, sequined dresses for Joyce Bryant and Ella Fitzgerald and colorful, whimsical costumes for the Harlem Theater.

In 1948, at the age of 43, Zelda finally opened her own shop — the first-ever black-owned business on Broadway. There, she started charging more than $1,000 per couture gown. The celebrity clientele brought more and more customers to her shop, eventually bringing it to the attention of Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner.

In 1958, Hefner asked Zelda to design the first-ever Playboy Bunny outfits. She labored on the job for two years, experimenting with silk or satin; cotton tail or bunny ears, or both; bow tie or no bow tie. In 1960, her new designs hit the runway, another Zelda look solidified as legend.

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