Miss Universe Is a Sustainability Queen

The native Texan talks to Treehugger about her dedication to sustainable fashion.

Miss Universe on stage wearing an orange cape that reads "if not now, then when"
R'Bonney Gabriel onstage during The 71st Miss Universe Competition, wearing a handmade, sustainable cape. Josh Brasted / Getty Images

When you think of Miss Universe or any other beauty pageant, sparkles, glitter, synthetic fabrics, and loads of single-use plastic might come to mind. That's how it's been for decades. But with younger generations now fully enmeshed in the workforce and international events, things are taking on a different kind of focus—oftentimes through a lens of sustainability.

Case in point: R'Bonney Gabriel from Houston, Texas. Crowned Miss Universe 2023 in New Orleans, Louisiana, Gabriel is making headlines for a variety of reasons: She's the first American to win Miss Universe in 10 years, the first Filipino-American to ever win Miss Universe, and the first contestant to craft an upcycled swimsuit cape from scratch.

The swimsuit cape was no ordinary bikini cover-up. Gabriel shared the laborious process on her Instagram of how she dyed the fabric a brilliant orange with sustainable dyes and molded used plastic bottles with just a candle's flame. The cape, deemed "Phoenix Rising," has Gabriel's motto emblazoned across the back: '"If Not Now, Then When?'"

"My one goal was to show that you can make fashion and art out of trash. that's why I brought in plastic bottles. fashion can be sustainable as well, you just have to get creative" Gabriel told Treehugger in a video chat.

"When you think of a phoenix, they rise from ashes and come back stronger," she explains. "With social media, visuals are big these days, so I wanted people to see the process from beginning to end. All the materials I used were secondhand. I studied fibers in college so I learned to work with fabrics and manipulate them."

This wasn't Gabriel's first foray into fashion. "I've been designing for about 13-14 years now, I fell in love with sewing when I was a teenager. It took me a while to understand what fashion industry improvements needed to be made. I've always been into second-hand shopping because of my mother. I adopted the upcycling lifecycle when I was a kid. Five years into my sewing journey, I watched a documentary about fast fashion and the effects of pollution on the textile industry and that's when I realized, I can make a bigger change here."

The 71st Miss Universe Competition - Preliminary Competition
Josh Brasted / Getty Images

Gabriel truly sees fashion as a force for good. She has worked as a sewing instructor at a nonprofit in Houston and is always exploring ways in which she can help raise awareness.

She also bonded with fellow contestants. "Miss Canada is into fashion and sustainability as well. Miss Venezuela made a pinky promise to collaborate on a sustainable fashion line" she laughs.

Gabriel explains that her father's Filipino heritage also had an impact on her outlook on sustainability. "My father's home country had an influence on me. I was able to see the street he grew up and it made me realize how much I had growing up in this country. I adopted the mindset of not over-consuming and being thankful for what I have. For instance, we have so many single-use products in America—everything I buy, I should be mindful of."

"I would love for everyone to follow along on my journey, I love to put content out there and use my voice on this platform for sustainability," she says.

Her advice for those just beginning their sustainability journey? "Get on YouTube! Watch bloggers, watch documentaries, keep trying to reduce reliance on single-use plastic," Gabriel enthuses. "The knowledge is at our fingertips."

For more on her journey and inspiring work, you can follow Gabriel on Instagram.