The reigning Miss Universe talks about the multitudes that made her a sustainable fashion designer.
Her namesake fashion label wasn’t exactly under the radar, but the influx of orders was still a feat for the beauty queen and eco-conscious designer, who has been sewing clothes since she was 15.
The first dress she made was a strapless polka dot red dress, she recalls, and she used to source “unique pieces that didn’t fit right” during thrift and vintage shopping sprees with her mom, who would alter these ill-fitting garbs on a sewing machine. Without realizing it, R’Bonney’s mother had introduced her daughter to upcycling.
As a teen in high school, upcycling was just one of many interests that R’Bonney honed; she also played volleyball, joined the marching band and yearbook club, played the oboe, and went longboarding. Her love for clothes would eventually lead her to take a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Fashion Design, with a Minor in Fibers, at the University of Northern Texas. Growing up in Houston, she describes the fashion scene as “small but alive,” saying, “there were talented creatives everywhere, but you needed to know where to find them.”
The designer’s university years were spent sacrificing her free time and social life in favor of all-nighters to complete her projects. “School taught me dedication on a deeper level,” she shares. However, she still made time for three fashion-adjacent internships. “It’s difficult to build on just talent alone,” she reasons, “it’s really important to make connections in the industry and learn from people who have experience.”
R’Bonney credits her gung-ho attitude to her diverse upbringing, growing up around a multicultural high school community and interracial family, with a Filipino father and American mother.
Her designs reflect this multifacetedness. Layers of chiffon and tulle make up her earlier work, but her newest assemblage is of repurposed denim constructed using quilting techniques. Each piece is made by R’Bonney’s hands, and she runs all operations for the brand on her own. Even the task of sourcing fabrics is hers alone; she frequents Magpies & Peacocks and FabScrap, two non-profit companies that collect and resell discarded fabrics. She also purchases natural fiber fabrics like silk and garments from thrift stores just as she did during her earlier years of sewing.
For R’Bonney, the fabrics aren’t just an essential part of the design process, but the process itself. While other designers may begin with a sketch, she begins with a swatch. “The material always sparks my imagination for what I want to create from it,” she explains. “I also draw inspiration from vintage clothing, textures in nature, and envisioning different shapes and angles on the body.” As a designer, she favors instinct: her Instagram videos show her cutting and sewing garments on a mannequin or on her own body, in order to see how a garment would best fit a figure.
After merely five years of sewing, the designer was introduced to the perils of the industry she wanted to be a part of. She came across The True Cost, a documentary on fast fashion’s unethical production practices and significant contributions to pollution. “After watching it, I felt a duty as a young designer to make an impact on the future of fashion,” R’Bonney shares. The film catalyzed an advocacy that led her to building her sustainable brand from the ground up, and later on, conducting sewing classes and educational talks.
“People can make fashion a force for good by recognizing how pollution in the industry affects us all, and taking small steps to make their wardrobe more environmentally friendly,” she emphasizes.
As the current Miss Universe, R’Bonney utilizes her platform to further her stand on fashion sustainability. “Right now, I’m creating educational sewing and sustainable fashion videos with Miss Universe’s digital team for everyone to access and learn from,” she reveals. For her latest project, she created a beginner-friendly tutorial on upcycling a pair of denim jeans into a maxi skirt.
The beauty queen still has a few months left of her reign. For now, she’s making the most out of the two most important parts of her life, and how they collide.
“Pageantry has a powerful way of making an impact, and it lets you use your voice to help fix problems we see in the world,” R’Bonney muses. “In the same way, sustainable fashion can impact our world as well. Through it, I’m addressing the problems of pollution and unethical practices in the fashion industry. I love how they go hand in hand in my world.”
By Ticia Almazan. Photography: Mikey Sanchez. Styling: Nicholas Centofanti. Makeup: Alex Levy. Hair: Robert Bradley. Stylist’s Assistants: Griffin Drake, Dan Centofanti.