The Will to Adorn

Design Studios

Learning the Business

Many African Americans in the business of fashion or beauty can point to an older family member who was a seamstress, barber, hairstylist, or even drycleaner. The first sewing teacher of master couturiere Zelda Wynn Valdes (190-2001) was her mother, a purist in her attention to fine sewing. After working with her brothers in a tailoring shop, Ms. Wynn became the owner of the first African American business on Broadway in New York City, where she designed iconic gowns for Joyce Bryant, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Dorothy Dandridge, and other celebrities. As head of the fashion design program at a Harlem youth summer arts program, she shared her mother’s disciplined training with a new generation and went on to join the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s design team.

The occupational traditions of dress and the body arts are passed on from those who are more experienced to those who are learning the ropes. The knowledge and skills that are transferred include not just techniques, skills, and tools of the trade, but also how to interact with clients, find source materials, get a better rate, and keep customers coming back.

Click to enlarge and view captions