Michelle Dee Pays Homage To Her Mother At The Miss Universe 2023 Preliminary

Michelle Dee’s Miss Universe 2023 Preliminary Gown Is A Homage To Her Mother

Photo by Kieran Punay

When Melanie Marquez was crowned Miss International 1979, she wore green. Over forty years later, her daughter wears the same shade on the Miss Universe stage.

At Michelle Marquez Dee’s first pageant, Miss World Philippines 2019, the first question she was asked was about her mother, the model and Miss International 1979 title-holder, Melanie Marquez. Host Lauren Lehmann had asked the fresh-faced contestant what the most memorable advice her mother had given her before the competition. 

Dee answered in a way she probably would today, down to its punctuation. “Well, the most important advice that you gave me,” she said, as her eyes immediately found her mother’s within the crowd, “was to be yourself. I’m not trying to replicate her, but I’m trying to shine as my own woman.” 

Photo by Kieran Punay

She won later that evening, then went on to place Top 12 at Miss World 2019 and, of course, bring home the Miss Universe Philippines 2023 crown earlier this year in May. With every feat, Dee has never compromised on her identity; if you asked anyone on her close-knit team, they’d tell you that her individuality is the kind that never wavers. They speak of an inner strength that shows, no matter the look she dons. “MMD is MMD,” said her stylist, MEGA fashion director Ryuji Shiomitsu. “You can’t really put her into a specific category or box style-wise, and that’s why I love her.” 

Photo by Kieran Punay
Photo by Kieran Punay

It’s why, in thinking of a gown to wear to the Miss Universe 2023 Preliminary, Dee only had one main criterion for her to-be designer: “I don’t want the typical ‘Pageant Patty’ gown.” She explains, “It doesn’t really resonate with my personality. [This] year, I really vowed to show my authentic self—make sure that that personality of mine shines.” 

In any case, she had already found that trusted designer who shared her sentiment. “I told the organization right away that it’s Mark, or I’m resigning,” she laughs. “I’m just kidding. No naman, but it was actually quite unanimous; almost nobody contested that decision. I was able to say ‘Mark Bumgarner’ right after I won.” Bumgarner still remembers when she asked him to do her Miss Universe gowns. “Michelle came to us, and the first thing I told her was ‘Sige, I’ll do it,’” he says, “‘as long as you don’t expect a pageant gown.’” 

Bumgarner had designed the Miss Universe Philippines gowns she wore last May, and still chuckles at the shock audiences felt at the time. “When she won with just a clean black gown with no embellishments, people were like, ‘What the hell?’” Black might have been a plain choice to some, but to Dee and Bumgarner, it was far from it: understated, elegant, strong, the presence of every color all at once. By the end of that night, it was her lucky color. 

Photo by Kieran Punay

In thinking of the Miss Universe gowns, black was the natural direction for the Mark Bumgarner team. Over fifty sketches and four months later, they landed on the first idea that stuck: a sharply tailored cut-out gown that spoke to Dee’s image. It immediately went into production, becoming the first dress Dee would fit for Miss Universe. But when she put it on, something clicked, says Bumgarner. “That’s when I decided that it should be green instead of black.” 

Photo by Kieran Punay

Touch of luck

“[The Mark Bumgarner team] asked me months ago,” Dee recounts, “‘If you were to choose like three colors, what would it be?’ I did mention green as something I’d like to focus on.” She gave two reasons why: the first is her mother, who wore a glittering green strapless gown during the Miss International 1979 finale, while the second is that it’s the color of her advocacy of autism awareness through the organization Autism Society Philippines. She muses, “[It] really pays homage to a lot of aspects of me.”

Photo by Dion Trinidad

Find Marquez’s 1979 gown in the details, too. “The gown is made up of more than 30,000 [Swarovski] crystals, which I brought home a month ago from when I did my fashion show in LA,” Bumgarner adds. Beading is unconventional for the fashion house, but the designer decided it was necessary for the Miss Universe stage and cameras. 

Photo by Kieran Punay
Photo by Kieran Punay

His personal touch, he tells Vogue Philippines, is in the gown’s fit and construction. “If you see the actual gown, you won’t see a corset, but she is cinched two and a half inches with this dress. All the boning is hidden in certain parts of the dress. [It’s] just a technique that we learned and figured out how to do.” 

Shiomitsu still remembers the first time he saw the dress. “Mark and Earl [Semitara] walked me back to the workroom of the atelier to see the initial beadwork of the gown,” he recounts. “I had goosebumps seeing the handwork that the atelier was doing. The detailing, the craftsmanship, the precision, the love is so evident.”

Photo by Kieran Punay

Dee carried this love with her on the Miss Universe 2023 Preliminary stage earlier tonight. With its edge, pristine tailoring, and her mother’s lucky color, the gown was an homage that didn’t sacrifice a single facet of Dee. “The homage is just the color,” Bumgarner says. “It’s not necessarily the look, ‘cause the look is still very much inspired by Michelle’s personality, which is someone who’s strong and a woman who really knows what she wants.” 

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