She is the creator of the original Playboy Bunny costume
Zelda Wynn Valdes was born June 18, 1905, in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.Zelda Valdes grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina.She trained as a classical pianist at the Catholic Conservatory of Music. In the early 1920s, Valdes started to work in the tailoring shop of her uncle in White Plains, New York. Around the same time, Valdes began working as a stock girl at a high-end boutique. She eventually worked her way up to selling and making alterations, becoming the shop’s first black sales clerk and tailor.
Beginning in 1935, she had her own dressmaking business in White Plains, New York. Eventually she worked her way up to becoming a seamstress and she became known for her technical precision. She eventually oversaw ladies alterations, and developed her own dressmaking clientele.
In the 1960s, Valdes directed the Fashion and Design Workshop of the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited and Associated Community Teams (HARYOU-ACT). Valdes taught costume designing skills and facilitated fabric donations to the student workshops.
She was one of the founders of the National Association of Fashion Accessory Designers, an industry group intended to promote black design professionals. This group was established with the sponsorship of the National Council of Negro Women.
Valdes died Sept. 26, 2001. She was 96.
In 1948, Valdes opened “Zelda Wynn,” her design and dressmaking studio, on Broadway (in what is now Washington Heights on Broadway and West 158th Street).This made her the first black woman to own a shop on Broadway. She only worked with the finest garments — silks and satins, transforming those textiles into curve-hugging gowns.
Valdes designed gowns for stars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Dorothy Dandridge and even Marlene Dietrich.Valdes also created a new sexier image for singer Joyce Bryant who LIFE Magazine dubbed “the Black Marilyn Monroe.In the 1950s, she moved “Chez Zelda” to 151 57th Street in Midtown.She had a staff of nine dressmakers and charged almost $1,000 per couture gown. But perhaps what she is most known for is her involvement in creating the iconic Playboy costume allegedly commissioned by Hugh Hefner himself.
Hefner commissioned Zelda to design bunny costumes for the Playboy Playmates, an idea suggested by Victor Lownes. She created the original Playboy Bunny costume, which was presented at the opening of the first Playboy Club in Chicago, IL on February 29, 1960. It was also the first commercial uniform to be registered by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
In 1970, Arthur Mitchell asked Valdes to design costumes for his new company, the Dance Theatre of Harlem.By 1992, Valdes would design costumes for eighty-two productions. She closed her business in 1989 but continued to work with the Dance Theatre of Harlem.