By Vennette Lailani Seprado
On Dec. 17, 2018, Catriona Gray made history as the Philippine’s fourth Miss Universe. The stunning Filipino-Australian bagged the crown only three years after Pia Wurtzbach won the title in Las Vegas. By now, the dust has settled, reaction videos have been watched and re-watched and countless photos reposted but what makes Catriona’s journey so exceptional?
Apart from her well-documented and well-researched training and planning program, what delighted Filipino pageant fans the most was her daily outfits in Thailand. For those who are unaware, Filipino representatives to Miss Universe used to rely heavily on sponsor-partners of the Binibining Pilipinas Charities Inc. when it came to their wardrobe.
In fact, for years Colombian designer Alfredo Barraza exclusively designed and made the national costumes and evening gowns of our representatives, much to the dismay of pageant fans who pushed for more Filipino involvement. It wasn’t until after Mary Jean Lastimosa’s much-ridiculed terno ensemble in 2014 that the organization started to relax its rigid rules and allowed more Filipino designers involved in the styling process. The decision to allow a Filipino designer to make our national costume and evening gown paid off when Pia Wurtzbach won in 2015 wearing Albert Andrada creations.
Catriona’s wardrobe in Thailand was well researched and well presented. She had an all-Filipino styling team comprised of friends in the fashion industry who worked extensively on showcasing Filipino elements in almost all her looks. They sought the talents of local artisans and designers to carefully curate her daily outfits. Just like the Filipino favorite halo-halo, her outfits and accessories were a delightful mix of Filipino textiles and treatments from traditional Northern Luzon weaves to embroidery patterns from Mindanao.
Catriona and designer Jearson Demavivas visited Lake Sebu in South Cotabato in July to consult and ask permission from the T’boli women to use the T’nalak fabric for her upcoming competition. T’nalak is an abaca cloth weave with patterns that are said to have been passed down through dreams earning the weavers the title “Dream weavers.” This unique textile is protected under the Intellectual Property Office of the Philippines and pulling all the stops for a fabric so rare was already a feat in itself. Following the guidelines of T’nalak Tau Sebu (TTS), a group of weavers comprised of women whose products bear a registered collective mark to maintain the authenticity and excellent quality of the fabric, Demavivas created five ensembles, which respectfully incorporated his beloved T’nalak. The most notable ones were the scarlet and nude off-the-shoulder midi dress she wore for interviews with the Thai media including Entertainment Tonight Thailand, a modern purple strapless dress with a bow accent for the press junket and a white top paired with high waist tailored pants with a ruffle accent.
Catriona’s strategy was all about collaboration. Even members of her stellar team collaborated with other artists to make her vision a reality. Demavivas, who bloomed artistically during his muse’s stint at Miss Universe, showed his range by partnering with painter Jeffrey Catuira in creating dresses with very feminine silhouettes featuring handpainted sampaguitas, anahaw leaves, and orchids. Even the newly-minted Miss Universe herself collaborated with bag label Calli Handbags to create a woven purse with sampaguita embellishments, as well as her fan-shaped clutches. Tessera Jewelry, makers of her now iconic “Three Stars and the Sun” ear cuff, co-designed the jewelry she wore for the preliminary competition and the finals, appropriately named “Alab at Dangal,” a patriotic ear cuff set featuring diamonds and rubies with South Sea Pearls and the “Pearl of the Orient”—a pair of dangling pearl earrings.
Her vocal stance in championing Philippine textiles and talents were evident in her wardrobe story. Throughout the competition, Catriona wore a mix of pieces from established designers and artisans based outside of Manila. Under the tutelage of stylists Justine Aliman, Francis Chee, Vhee Co, Ton Lao, Patrick Henry Mergano, and Macky Combe, she was able to reawaken interest in Philippine culture and heritage through clothing. Everything she wore had traditional elements appealing to the social media-loving masses because of their contemporary design and modern approach.
In one of her early appearances, Catriona wore a white Thai silk blouse with a beautiful Marsala colored skirt by Davao-City-based clothing brand Nino Franco featuring T’boli embroidery. At a visit to a snail farm, she was stylish and relaxed in a green Inabel top by Edgar Madamba, which she paired with a vibrant and heart-string tugging denim jacket with an image of a jeepney and the word “Kababayan” by Lahi Lifestyle, a label established by Cebu-based designer Mia Arcenas and local celebrity Solenn Heusaff. For her introduction video, she wore a pristine white “modern Filipiniana” by Charina Sarte, accessorized with custommade, jasmine-inspired earrings with detachable baroque pearls from MJorian and whimsical bucket bag by famed accessory label Aranaz. In a sea of well-tailored suits and cocktail dresses, she stood out in a tangerine terno over a Kalinga fabric pencil skirt and wowed the crowd in her dainty handmade pineapple silk barong top from Laguna.
Catriona and her team made bold choices in terms of color. Her striking suits and dresses in bright pinks, indigos, chartreuse, yellow, and orange were offset by simple accessories from Jewelmer, Uber Finds with a few statement pieces from Farah Abu, all of which were locally sourced and produced.
One of her mentors, Carlos Buendia, Jr.—who is now known as her catwalk instructor and chief architect of her now famous “slo-mo turn”—is a member of Teatro Tomasino and the UST Arki Dance Troupe. His exposure to Philippine history, mythology, and legends was integral to the conception of Catriona’s mythical frocks expertly designed and executed by designer Mak Tumang. Tapping into Philippine literature, Tumang drew inspiration from the dazzling Ibong Adarna, a blazing phoenix-like bird interpreted in a gown with hundreds of crystalized feather appliques in shades of orange and gold.
Her piece-de-resistance was another Mak Tumang masterpiece called “Mayon,” a perfect name for the fiery red gown she wore to the finals. The volcano-inspired gown drew awe and appreciation to detail as Tumang meticulously embellished the fabric with thousands of crystals over a digitally printed fabric depicting lava flow.
Catriona’s cerebral approach to preparing for the Miss Universe definitely raised the bar for future pageant aspirants. Beauty queens are no longer just representations of physical beauty. They are effective ambassadors of their country. Catriona’s influence and marketing potential may help more local industries flourish by patronizing local brands and supporting local artists. She has, after all, a full year ahead of her to showcase what the Philippines can still offer. Interest in everything she does, everything she wears, might just reignite our interest in other facets of our collective histories, traditions, and stories, flora and fauna.