black history month

Zelda Wynn Valdes-The Bunny Designer

WHO: Zelda Wynn Valdes (or Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes ), fashion and costume designer
THE MAJOR MOMENT: Zelda was revered for her design talent and best known for her skill in highlighting the female body. Her curve-hugging creations were worn and loved by a host of Hollywood's biggest starletsduring the 1940s and 50s, including Joyce Bryant, Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and Mae West. The Pennsylvania-native's key role in glamorizing these women caught the attention of Playboy's Hugh Hefner and he commissioned Zelda to design the first-ever Playboy Bunny costumes. And history has proven, the low-cut, skin-tight, sexy outfits are an iconic symbol of seduction and allure, forever ingrained in pop culture.
THE COSTUME:zelda barbour wynn valdes
FAB FACT: In 1948, Zelda opened her own boutique, "Chez Zelda," on Broadway in New York City, making her the first African-American to own a store on the coveted street. She was also the New York chapter president of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designer (NAFAD), a coalition of black designers that was founded by Mary McLeod Bethune.

FAST FORWARD: In 1970, Zelda was approached by Arthur Mitchell to serve as the head costume designer for his then newly-established performance company, the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She spent 18 years with the dance company and retired at the age of 83. From dressing Hollywood darlings, Playboy Bunnies and ballerinas, Zelda's legacy is long and enduring -- a fact that she was certainly proud of. "I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful," Zelda said during a 1994 interview with The New York Times. Zelda Wynn Valdes died at the age of 96 in 2001.
Write up via the www. Huffington

Andre' Leon Talley- The Editor of Fashion

Long known to readers of Vogue magazine's American edition, André Leon Talley is one of the fashion industry's most influential stylesetters. Famous among fashionistas for his flamboyant, often custom-made outfits that accentuate his six-feet, seveninch frame, as well as by his booming baritone, Talley is undoubtedly the most prominent African American in the high-stakes world of designer fashion, a world which revolves around the semi-annual runway shows in New York, Paris, London, and Milan. The supremely confidant editor-at-large at Vogue has never been hesitant to chastise designers for not using enough women of color on the runway, and has also championed a number of young African-American designers over the course of his long career.

Born in the late 1940s, Talley was the grandson of a sharecropper. His father drove a taxi for a living, and he was raised by his grandmother, Bennie Frances Davis, whom he later wrote about extensively in his 2003 memoir, A.L.T. A domestic servant in the Durham, North Carolina, area, Davis was a tremendous influence on her grandson's life. Though she worked five days a week cleaning someone else's house, theirs was immaculate, too, despite their hardships. "We always had clothes to wear and food on the table," he wrote, "but we lived on limited means. Our roof leaked buckets of water when the snow melted, and if the pipes froze, my grandmother heated water on the wood-burning stove so I could take a 'bird bath' before school." His grandmother's life, he wrote, revolved around her family and her faith. "She worked hard at her job and kept a clean, welcoming home, so that those in her care … could all serve God. What this meant at a practical level was that every surface in our home glowed—not only through the application of soap, paste wax, or ammonia, but also through the underlying working of love. What it also meant was that my childhood was, by anyone's standards, a rich one."

Raised in Humble Yet Luxurious Home

Talley's grandmother took care of him and her own mother, who was called China. Both women were hard workers and did the household laundry the old-fashioned way—by hand. He recalled watching China set about on this task when he was very little, and before she grew too old to do it. His great-grandmother, he wrote in A.L.T., "boiled our laundry in a big black iron cauldron in the yard. She would set up everything under our peach trees, for shade. She would build a good fire from wood she had chopped herself." The sheets were then wrung out by hand, and hung to dry on a clothesline that was even wiped clean before the laundry went near it. Later, inside, they were ironed. "Our house was full of such simple luxuries," Talley explained in his memoir. "Until I left home, I never used a towel that hadn't been ironed—and had no idea how much I would miss them when I was out in the world."
Talley grew up in a the pre-civil rights era South, when the lives of blacks from all classes, but especially of the poorest, were restricted. Such constraints were met with silence but also a measure of pride and dignity. Talley sat down for lengthy interview with his friend, Italian designer Miuccia Prada, for the November issue ofInterview in 2003, and recalled that "for a long time my grandmother would not allow white people to come into our house. That was her rule. The only white man who ever came into the house was the coroner." Talley attended all-black schools in Durham, and remembered his junior high school French teacher as another profound influence on his life and later career.
Talley gravitated toward fashion in his teens, and was a devoted reader of Vogue, which he first found in the local library. "Vogue was my hobby, and no one in my family ever had a copy of the magazine in the house until I did," he told Prada in Interview. "The big experience was on Sundays after church. I'd wash the dishes, walk to the white part of town … to the newsstand that was open on Sundays. That was my big joy." Another writer once asked Talley where he seemed to have gotten his unerring sense of style, and he credited Vogue as well as his grandmother and her world, especially Sunday services. "You couldn't open your mouth unless you were told to speak, so you just sat there and you just had to observe," he told the Houston Chronicle's Clifford Pugh. "You saw beautiful images of women, beautiful church hats and gloves. These were not people of great means and wealth, but they had the most wonderful style—especially on Sundays."

Earned Ivy League Degree

On the pages of Vogue and in other fashion-centric publications, Talley's imposing frame has often been photographed in colorful, well-made clothes, some of them custom items. He claims to have dressed somewhat eccentrically even in high school, though he did try to fit in. "When you're a teenager from a small town and you are different, you are victimized by people's criticism and the way they look at you," he told Prada in the Interview article. "That was a problem in high school, so I tried to conform a bit; but mostly I just stayed to myself." That changed when he left home for the first time and moved to Providence, Rhode Island, to attend Brown University. He had won a scholarship to the Ivy League school, and planned on a career as French teacher, just like his junior high role model. He also befriended a raft of creative types from the nearby Rhode Island School of Design, one of the most prestigious art schools in the United States.

Read more at Leon Talley

Helen Williams- Supermodel of all Supermodels

THERE WERE OTHERS before her, but none that crossed over into the mainstream. In 1950s America Helen Williams became the first black female model to do just that. Born in East Riverton, New Jersey in 1937, she was obsessed with clothes from an early age, and began sewing her own garments at the age of seven. As a teenager she studied dance, drama and art before getting a job as a stylist at a New York photography studio. While there she was spotted on separate occasions by Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr, who happened to be in the studio doing press shots. Struck by her beauty, they urged her to take up fashion modelling. She was 17.

With her trademark bouffant wig, sculpted eyebrows and long, giraffe-like neck, Williams worked exclusively for African American magazines such as Ebony and Jet. These early years were tough, as not only did beauty’s apartheid system exclude all non-white models from mainstream fashion, but within the African American modelling scene itself, the girls were required to be light-skinned, just like the African American chorus girls of the 1920s. “I was too dark to be accepted,” Williams recalled.

But that was America. The French, by contrast, held a very different view of black beauty, and by 1960 Williams had moved to Paris. “Over there I was ‘La Belle Americaine,’” she said proudly. She modeled in the famous ateliers of designers Christian Dior and Jean Dessès. By the end of her tenure she was making a staggering $7,500 a year working part-time, and she’d received three marriage proposals from French admirers, one of whom kissed her feet and murmured, “I worship the ground you walk on, mademoiselle.”

After Paris, Williams returned to America, where things had not changed at all for dark-skinned African American models. While searching for a new agent in New York City, she once waited two hours in the reception of one agency, only to be told that they had “one black model already, thanks.” But Williams never-say-die attitude meant that she would not take no for an answer. “I was pushy and positive,” she said. Undeterred at being rejected, the young beauty took her case to the press. Influential white journalists Dorothy Kilgallen and Earl Wilson took up her cause, drawing attention to beauty’s continuing exclusion of black models. This opened things up for Williams, who was then booked for a flurry of ads for brands such as Budweiser, Loom Togs and Modess, which crossed over for the first time into the mainstream press, in titles such as The New York Times, Life and Redbook. By 1961 her hourly rate had shot up to $100 an hour. Fashion’s lily-white membrane had finally been breached.

It was a pivotal moment in black beauty history, as Williams’s success broke the tradition for only using light-skinned models. “Elitists in our group would laugh at somebody if they were totally black,” said model-turned-agent Ophelia DeVore. “And when she [Williams] came along she was very self-conscious because she was dark. She gave people who were black the opportunity to know that if they applied themselves they could reach certain goals.” Williams was the first beauty to break the four hundred year chain that had branded dark skin as ugly. The same dark skin that was rendered second-class during slavery, that the minstrels once ridiculed, and that had relegated Hollywood’s actors to roles as servants and clowns, was suddenly beautiful.