In an era of breathless biopics, we spotlight the underground fashion figures long-overdue a mid-budget streamer, from Connie Girl to Zelda Wynn Valdes
ZELDA WYNN VALDES
Strapless corsets, bunny ears, bow ties, and fluffy cottontails have been immortalised in popular culture as a symbol of American seduction. But the designer behind Playboy’s infamous costume – Zelda Wynn Valdes – is rarely given the roses she so deserves. Born in Pennsylvania in 1905, Valdes first began creating clothing for her family of seven, before upping sticks and moving to New York in the 1930s. There, she worked as a stock girl at an upscale boutique, where she eventually became the first Black tailor. Then, in 1948, Valdes opened her own shop – Chez Zelda – making her the first Black person to ever own a boutique in Manhattan’s Broadway.
Designing low-cut, body-hugging gowns for the likes of Eartha Kitt, Ella Fitzgerald, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West, Zelda defined the sensual, Old Hollywood look – one which would be picked-up by Hugh Heffner. In an era when women designers were often reduced to seamstresses, and Paris’s salons attracted international renown, that Valdes was able to break through the glass ceiling was nothing short of remarkable. Later in life, she led the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, a coalition that was founded with the sole purpose of promoting Black designers, paving the way for so many future generations.
Arguably the most eagle-eyed fashion talent scout of her time, Blow spotted McQueen at the Central Saint Martins MA graduate show in 1992, and was so impressed that she bought his entire collection for £5,000. She went on to support the designer in any way that she could, and of course he was extremely successful. She and McQueen became friends, though tensions between the two grew when his label was bought by the Gucci Group (now Kering) in 2001. Speaking to Cathy Horyn in 2007, her friend Daphne Guinness said, “She was upset that Alexander McQueen didn't take her along when he sold his brand to Gucci. Once the deals started happening, she fell by the wayside. Everybody else got contracts, and she got a free dress." Like McQueen, Blow’s life ended abruptly – and tragically – when she died by suicide in 2007. To this day, the duo remain among the most prolific and intriguing collaborators in fashion history.
Famed for monstrously flamboyant looks and controversial performance art, Leigh Bowery originally came from a sleepy Melbourne suburb called Sunshine, before moving to London in 1980 where, after a short-lived stint working at Burger King, he made his name on the underground club circuit. Between nights at Heaven, Asylum, and his own lurid venture Taboo, Bowery began to radicalise his appearance, dressing his hulking 6’1 frame in gimp masks, towering platforms, and ratty pubic wigs. He’d carve holes in his cheeks for safety-pin piercings, gaffer tape his flesh into impossibly feminine silhouettes, and drip his bald head in hot glue.
By day, Bowery designed costumes for Culture Club, Michael Clark’s dance company, and dabbled in art direction for Massive Attack, later becoming Lucian Freud’s muse and the subject of the late painter’s nude series. In 1994, Bowery passed away from AIDS-related complications, just as combination therapies were beginning to prolong the lives of those living with HIV. A biopic should really get made if only to see a dramatised version of when, during a performance at an AIDS benefit in the early 90s, Bowery turned his back to the audience, bent over, and let rip, spraying the content of his bowels over an unwitting front row.
Born in New York in 1944, Dapper Dan grew up in a three-bedroom house with eight other family members. After a short stint in gambling (and academia), Dan began selling shoplifted clothing out of the boot of his car, before opening Dapper Dan's Boutique in 1982, which served as a honeypot for the Harlem hip hop scene. There, he designed clothes from scratch, cut-and-pasting garments together from monogram-heavy designer bags for the likes of Mike Tyson, Salt-N-Pepa, and LL Cool J. However, legal troubles obviously ensued and he was forced to shut down his store in 1992, burdened with counterfeiting raids and litigation battles.
Two decades later, and Dapper Dan’s career was revived when the Museum of the City of New York Fashion showcased his samples in an exhibition called Black Styles Now. Then, when fashion found itself in thrall to streetwear, he began to see his pieces – fur-lined jackets with balloon sleeves – recreated on the Gucci catwalk, which, after an apology, led to a major collaboration between the designer and Alessandro Michele. Things had finally come full-circle, and Dapper Dan had reached mainstream success some forty years after he first opened the trunk of his car.
A consort, a rapper and performer, a restaurateur, Lamy’s dip-dyed and rock-strewn fingers have a midas touch – if that touch turned items to scorched concrete, that is. In her youth, she worked as a defence lawyer and studied under the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, before reinventing herself as a cabaret dancer and moving to New York in 1979. Alongside her husband, the experimental filmmaker Richard Newton, she became an emblematic figure on the city’s nightlife scene, and in time, she set up her own fashion line, employing a young Rick Owens – the designer would later became her business partner, her companion, and husband. To call her a muse, though, is perhaps unfair. Never a passive inspiration, Lamy’s work has spanned container ships at the Venice Biennale and verses on A$AP Rocky tracks. At 78 years old, she is now a mother, grandmother, and considered a cornerstone of the art world, ruling over her dominion with a raspy growl and a dark mysticism of her own creation.
The glamazonian Connie Fleming – AKA Connie Girl – was one of the first ever trans supermodels. Born in Jamaica, Fleming moved with her mother to Brooklyn when she was just five years old, though she says she doesn’t remember much of her childhood on account of how difficult it was navigating the world as a young trans woman in the 80s. By the time she had reached her late teens, Fleming was performing as one of the Boy Bar Beauties in New York’s infamous Boy Bar, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Keith Haring – but she always had bigger ambitions. By the time the 90s rolled round, she began modelling for Steven Meisel, which is where she first caught the attention of Thierry Mugler.
From there, she spent five seasons in Paris, walking for visionaries like Mugler and Vivienne Westwood, while starring in George Michael’s “Too Funky” music video alongside Linda Evangelista and Julie Newmar. A few years later, she returned to New York, where she became one of the city’s toughest bouncers, guarding Shayne Oliver’s runways and cult nightclubs with an iron-clad reputation. These days she’s still as multifaceted as she has ever been, dipping into fashion and art production, modelling, illustration, make-up, wardrobe, and performing. Working behind the scenes, she is now passing the mantle onto future generations of fashionistas, employed as a runway coach for some of the biggest models working today, prepping their walks for brands like Prada and Versace.