Women's Activism NYC

Zelda Wynn Valdes

1905 - 2001

Date Added:

Zelda Wynn Valdes was the oldest child of seven children. She began her career during the Jim Crow segregation but Valdes broke the racial barrier into the world of haute couture custom design. When she was 18 years old her family moved to White Plains, N.Y. where she started working at her uncle's tailoring business and eventually got a job at a posh boutique. For a while she was tucked away at the back but eventually started to shine through and became a seamstress and quickly gained a reputation for her artistic eye and technical precision. She then opened up her own boutique and found her own style a mixture of effortless glamour and the luxury of the boutique's clients. Her garments were the highlight of fashion shows but, Valdes also organized various black social clubs and fund-raisers in the region. The fashion shows however, helped her find a loyal clientele of black women in New York City where she opened her boutique, Zelda Wynn. There she would usually design for socialities like Edna Mae Robinson, Eartha Kitt, Ruby Dee, Mae West and many others. Valdes also played an important part in the formation of the National Association of Fashion and Accessories Designers in 1949 to help elevate black female designers while helping them network, address discrimination in the workplace, and promote racial diversity in the fashion industry. In 1950 she moved to Midtown where she opened Chez Zelda, her clients were now paying $1,000 or more to have Zelda Wynn couture gown. She later on developed a business relationship with Hugh Hefner who was looking for an outfit for his waitresses and some say it was Valdes who created the iconic Playboy outfit. She later started teaching fashion design classes to Harlem youth and co-founded the Harlem Youth Orchestra with Lester Wilson in the mid 1960s. In 1970 she started designing costumes and touring with the Dance Theater of Harlem, which she did for two decades, One of her innovations was to dye the dancers tights to match their skin color which led to different skin tones in pointed shoes for colored dancers. She passed away, September 26, 2001 at 96 years old and died as a couturier. AN ICON. Years later Valdes would tell the New York Times: " I have a God-given talent for making people beautiful."

click here

Share This Story

We'd Love Your Feedback

Share your thoughts on this story with us. Your comments will not be made public.


WomensActivism.NYC is a project of the NYC Department of Records and Information Services