Zelda Wynn Valdes was a designer to the stars. Living through the 19th century, Zelda overcame racial and gender boundaries through fashion. With humble beginnings as a stockroom clerk in a upscale boutique, Zelda worked her way to becoming a seamstress. Gaining a reputation and following, Zelda was able to open her own boutique on Broadway in New York City in 1948. She became the first black business owner on Broadway. How inspirational is that?
Born in 1905, Zelda was very creative. She was a classical pianist who first designed clothes for her family. She grew up watching her grandmother be a seamstress. Some time around 1920, Zelda took a position stocking in the back of an upscale boutique in White Plains, NY. But she knew she wanted more and worked her way up to tailoring at this boutique. She made exquisite wedding gowns to fitted dresses that were highlights in fashion shows. Zelda built up her own clientele. She realized there was a need and opened her own boutique on Broadway and 158th Street in 1948. She was able to offer her black clientele a lavish shopping experience without the racial inequality many felt while shopping elsewhere at the time.
Chez Zelda serviced many famous clients including Josephine Baker, Eartha Kitt, Dorothy Dandridge, Gladys Knight, Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee, Ella Fitzgerald, Marian Anderson, Mae West and Joyce Bryant, among others. Sometime in the 1950s, Zelda Wynn Valdes moved her boutique to 57th Street in Midtown, Manhattan, having a staff of nine. Her location was key to her success, as she charged up to $1000 for one of her exclusive dresses.
Some of Zelda Wynn Valdes accomplishments include designing some of the first playboy bunny costume pieces in 1960. She also became a teacher and taught students costume design. As well, Zelda designed costumes for the Dance Theatre of Harlem starting in 1970 including developing tights to match the dancer’s skin tones. She worked with the Dance Theatre of Harlem until she died in 2001.
In honor of black history month, today I pay tribute to Zelda Wynn Valdes on being a trailblazer in the fashion industry and opening doors for others such as myself! As a black woman owned fashion boutique owner, I thank you for your contribution to the fashion world and making dreams for women like me come true.