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Zendaya's fashion evolution, from Disney Channel star to red carpet queen

Published 10th November 2021
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Zendaya's fashion evolution, from Disney Channel star to red carpet queen
Written by Megan C. Hills, CNN
Zendaya has secured her place among fashion's elite, thanks to a string of eye-catching red carpet appearances and partnerships with brands like Valentino and Bulgari.
With outfits from the recent "Dune" promotional tour going viral on social media, the former Disney star has proven herself a sartorial force to be reckoned with -- and in doing so has caught the attention of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA).
This Wednesday, she will become the youngest ever recipient of the organization's prestigious Fashion Icon award. Describing her as the red carpet's "reigning monarch," the CFDA announced the news ahead of its annual award ceremony, saying that, "without exception," Zendaya "makes a style statement as soon as she steps out of her car."
Joining the ranks of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez, who have all received the honor in recent years, the 25-year-old "Euphoria" star has come a long way since her "Shake It Up" days. From a saccharine teenage wardrobe to a boundary-pushing trove of designer gowns, she transformed herself into one of Hollywood's most stylish women.

Shaking it up

Zendaya's big break came when she landed the role of Rocky Blue in the Disney series "Shake It Up" -- and her wardrobe was everything you would expect from a Disney girl. Her adorable outfits included loud prints (often of the leopard or floral variety) and a penchant for layering and graphic tees. As the star recalled in an interview with InStyle last month, one of her earliest red carpet outfits wasn't by a prestigious fashion house -- but rather was "a bunch of stuff that I had from Target."
As she moved into her teenage years, she took steps towards becoming the fashion-forward woman she is today. Sleek blazers and on-trend luxury items, like Valentino's rockstud shoes, appeared in her wardrobe. Her outfits also took on more of an edge as she matured, with statement bucket heels and a preference for darker color palettes. However, she still had time for the occasional tulle princess dress -- albeit one paired with a leather biker vest and hot pink heels.
As a teen, Zendaya's wardrobe began taking on more of an edge -- like incorporating a biker vest into this outfit for a 2012 charity event.
As a teen, Zendaya's wardrobe began taking on more of an edge -- like incorporating a biker vest into this outfit for a 2012 charity event. Credit: Allen Berezovsky/WireImage/Getty Images
A pivotal turning point in Zendaya's career came when she crossed paths with emerging stylist and self-described "image architect" Law Roach. Their meeting led to one of Hollywood's most fruitful celebrity-stylist relationships. As Roach explained in an interview with personal styling website The Zoe Report, he had grand plans for her from the start -- with a "blueprint" mapping out her rise to stardom.
"She was a Disney girl, and not a lot of Disney girls were respected," he is quoted as saying. "Nobody wanted to dress the Disney girl, so I came up with this plan of attack for her."
"I would only put her in clothes that other people had worn because I knew at that time, (magazine features on) people who had worn all the weekly styles were really popular," he added, a gamble which "worked out" as she received increased media attention and designers began taking notice.

Leaving Disneyland

The actor scored her first invitation to fashion's biggest and most exclusive night, the Met Gala, in 2015 -- her first of many. She began experimenting with grander, artistic pieces, such as her Fausto Puglisi Met Gala gown, and sleeker form-fitting outfits.
While her aesthetic once fell firmly into the girl-next-door camp, she started bringing elements of streetwear into her wardrobe. She also began paying stylish tributes to Black icons of the past, including Diana Ross and Aaliyah -- something she continues to this day -- and mastering the art of viral fashion moments.
Zendaya often channels the spirit of her movies through her outfits -- as seen with the Moschino butterfly dress she wore to a 2017 premiere of "The Greatest Showman."
Zendaya often channels the spirit of her movies through her outfits -- as seen with the Moschino butterfly dress she wore to a 2017 premiere of "The Greatest Showman." Credit: Don Arnold/WireImage/Getty Images
One of the earliest social media successes came at the 2017 Met Gala, where she stepped out in a voluminous parrot-print Dolce & Gabbana dress. As she trailed up the stairs of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute, the grandiose ballgown landed her on "best dressed" lists and signaled a major shift in her style.
Other statement-making hits that year included a flamboyant Moschino butterfly gown that perfectly captured the spirit of "The Greatest Showman" at one of the movie's screenings, and the red and black sequined dress she wore to the premiere of "Spider-Man: Homecoming," a reference to the superhero's iconic costume.
It was around this time that Zendaya began wearing more couture, working with lesser-known designers and turning to sculptural pieces, such as the chocolate bell-shaped August Getty dress she wore to the 2018 MTV Movie & TV Awards and the horse-silhouette cut out Vivetta gown she sported at the 2017 Fashion Awards. And despite transforming into Cinderella in a light-up Tommy Hilfiger gown for the 2019 Met Gala (accompanied by Roach dressed, appropriately, as her fairy godmother) it was clear her Disney days were behind her.

Fashion authority

By 2019, Zendaya had cemented her status as one of the most anticipated red-carpet arrivals. Her off-carpet appearances followed suit. Whether she was being interviewed on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" in a tangerine Carolina Herrera mini dress, or donning a gray Berluti suit at a Harper's Bazaar party, she used every public appearance as a chance to make a statement. (Michael B. Jordan, who wore the same suit as her at a different event, commented on Instagram she had "hands down no contest" pulled off the look better than him.)
Around this time, she began incorporating elements of menswear into her outfits, as seen during a 2019 Armani fashion show, where she put her own spin on a bib-front tuxedo shirt. She also began flexing her knowledge of fashion history by stepping out in rare archival pieces, such as a 2000s purple and lime green Versace gown (a variation on a previous Beyoncé stage outfit) and a voluminous blue top once owned by Eunice Walker Johnson, a Black fashion icon who set up the Ebony Fashion Fair in the '60s. Subtle references to icons such as Cher and even DC supervillain Poison Ivy filled her wardrobe.
As the pandemic brought red carpet events to a halt, Zendaya still found ways to impress, donning a custom Giorgio Armani dress to accept an Emmy over Zoom and landing a high-profile gig as a Bulgari brand ambassador. She also continued breaking new ground over the course of her highly anticipated "Dune" press tour. Kicking off the circuit in style with an on-trend wet-look gown by Balmain at the Venice Film Festival, she later channeled the sci-fi-meets-fantasy spirit of the movie at its London premiere, where she wore a futuristic gold breastplate by Loewe and a sculptural Rick Owens gown.
Scroll through the gallery above to see Zendaya's evolving fashion through the years.