Woman's History Month: The designer behind the iconic Playboy Bunny costume

Woman's History Month: The designer behind the iconic Playboy Bunny costume
Zelda Wynn Valdez is credited with creating iconic Playboy Bunny costume.

Zelda Wynn Valdes was an influential African American fashion designer perhaps best known for helping to create the iconic Playboy Bunny costume. She grew up in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania where she began her professional career working in her uncle’s White Plains, New York tailoring shop.  Around the same time, Valdes began working as a stock girl at a high-end boutique where she eventually worked her way up to selling and making alterations. She recalled this as being hard work but something that “taught her what she needed to know.”

Valdes opened her Chez Zelda boutique on Broadway and West 158th Street in 1948 before relocating to Midtown. The move proved to be a good one as Valdes eventually designed red-carpet gowns and costumes for stars like Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and Mae West among others.

Later in her career, she designed for R&B legend Gladys Knight and opera singer Jessye Norman. Valdez is also credited with designing a new, sexier image for singer Joyce Bryant who Life Magazine dubbed the “Black Marilyn Monroe.”

A year after opening her store, Valdes was named president of the New York chapter of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers. As a result of her role with NAFAD, Valdes caught the eye of Playboy’s Hugh Hefner. He commissioned her to design the Playboy Bunny costume after the magazine’s promotions director, Victor Lownes, came up with the idea. First unveiled publicly in an early episode of Playboy’s Penthouse, it made its formal debut at the opening of the first Playboy Club in Chicago on the evening of February 29, 1960.

In 1970, Valdes started working with Arthur Mitchell, the founder of the Dance Theater of Harlem. She worked for the dance company for 18 years, retiring in 1988. She died at the age of 96 in 2001.

She was one of the founders of the National Association of Fashion Accessory Designers, an industry group intended to promote black design professionals.

New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology showcases her work in a “Black Fashion Designers” exhibition, now through May 16, 2017.

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