Today we know Zendaya as a style icon, CFDA Fashion award recipient, and red carpet veteran. But before she was any of those things, she was a young girl on Disney Channel. Not many people could bridge that gap, but Zendaya has done it so seamlessly that you may forget who she was before.
Born in 1996 in Oakland, California, Zendaya’s early life revolved around theater. She spent her childhood performing with theater companies and attended the Oakland School for the Arts. Between acting, dancing, and occasionally modeling, the arts were always calling to Zendaya. Her breakout role came when she was only 14 years old as one of the main characters, Rocky, in the Disney Channel show Shake It Up. Following the success of Shake It Up, Zendaya went on to be involved in other movies and TV shows with Disney.
Source: Teen Vogue
During her early career, Zendaya’s red carpet style was sweet and fun, but it was not groundbreaking. As a young person in the entertainment industry, she had not yet developed a personal style. This is partially because of the lack of respect that child actors were given by the fashion industry. Zendaya’s stylist and friend Law Roach reflected on meeting her around this time saying, “She was a Disney girl, and not a lot of Disney girls were respected. Nobody wanted to dress the Disney girl, so I came up with this plan of attack for her… I spent a lot of time to build this blueprint for how I thought I could garner her acceptance in fashion.” Little did they know at the time, this was the beginning of Zendaya’s extremely successful soiree with fashion.
One of Zendaya’s first fashion breakthrough moments took place early on in her partnership with Law Roach. Despite much of the fashion industry not seeing potential in her, Roach did. He detailed going to the Emanuel Ungaro showroom to ask for a specific dress for Zendaya for the 2014 Grammys. At the time, he was told that she was not right for this dress. After going back and forth with the woman in the showroom and refusing to take no for an answer, they gave the dress to Zendaya for the night. This red carpet was one of her first major style moments, and even earned her positive attention on Fashion Police and a personal thank you from Ungaro’s creative director.
In 2015, she began to lean more toward edgier and mature styles. But it was her Oscars look in particular that caught everyone’s attention. The white, off-shoulder Vivienne Westwood gown landed Zendaya on Vogue’s best dressed list, but her hairstyle sparked an onslaught of racist comments. During Fashion Police, Giuliana Rancic publicly “joked” that Zendaya’s hair, which she wore in locs for the Oscars, looked as if it would smell like “patchouli oil and weed.” This caused Zendaya to react on Instagram, calling the comments “outrageously offensive.” When she landed the cover of Complex magazine the same year, she spoke out about how the comment was a learning experience for everybody. She wanted her legacy to be one of respect and grace, and that is exactly what it has been.
This Oscars look, despite being cast in a shadow of negativity over these comments, was able to become a moment of positivity. It even went on to inspire a Barbie modeled after Zendaya.
2015 was also the year that Zendaya attended her very first Met Gala. She embodied the theme of “China: Through the Looking Glass” in an ensemble designed by Fausto Puglisi, and she attended alongside the designer. The Red Carpet Fashion Awards called the look “a lesson in how to dress for the Met Gala.”
In 2016, at only 19 years old, Zendaya broke into the beauty industry when she was announced as the face of CoverGirl. This is an honor that followed in the footsteps of some legendary CoverGirls that came before her, including Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift. She stated that she wanted to use this opportunity as a way to “empower girls and women to embrace their individuality.”
One of Zendaya’s biggest Met Gala moments, and fashion moments in general, took place in 2018. For the gala, which followed the theme “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” she chose to embody Joan of Arc. Not only was it the perfect biblical reference for a Catholic-inspired event, but the Versace suit of armor and red bob were called “the perfect balance between hard-edge and high-glam” by Vogue.
The same year, Zendaya stepped out at the GQ Men of the Year Awards in a purple and gold Ralph & Russo gown. This look has repeatedly been named one of her best red carpet looks of her career thus far.
In 2019, Zendaya starred as the lead of Euphoria, a show that would go on to see great success and earn her an Emmy of her own the following year. As a presenter for that year’s Emmys, and her first time attending the award show, she wore an emerald green corset dress that would live on as one of her biggest style moments. The custom Vera Wang gown landed her on nearly every best dressed list, and it served as proof that she was worth all the hype she was beginning to receive in fashion.
At the Met Gala that year, themed “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” Zendaya became a real-life Cinderella alongside Law Roach. The Tommy Hilfiger gown was lit up on the carpet by Roach’s magic wand. Not only was it one of the biggest looks of the night, but the innovative ensemble would have people talking for years to come.
With such a powerful career and style presence behind her, it was no surprise when CFDA honored Zendaya with the Fashion Icon award in 2021. Some of the biggest names in fashion who received the award previously included Beyoncé, Prince, Lady Gaga, Naomi Campbell, and Rihanna. She accepted the award in a red Vera Wang ensemble, looking as fashionable as you would expect an awarded Fashion Icon to look.
And Zendaya’s legacy as a style icon did not end there. In the past two years alone, she has walked various red carpets in some of the biggest looks of all time. While she did not start off her career in the fashion industry, it is safe to say she can now add it to her ongoing list of accomplishments. At only 26 years old, the singer/actor/dancer has taken fashion by storm time and time again.