Zozi Tunzi’s final Miss Universe look took an astounding 800 hours to make

SA designer Biji takes us behind the seams of the beauty queen’s stunning Xhosa-inspired outfit

18 May 2021 - 18:21 By Toni Jaye Singer
Miss Universe 2019 Zozibini Tunzi prepares to crown her successor during the 69th Miss Universe pageant at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida, on May 16 2021.
Miss Universe 2019 Zozibini Tunzi prepares to crown her successor during the 69th Miss Universe pageant at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida, on May 16 2021.
Image: Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images

There’s a pleasing symmetry to discovering that Birgit Gibbs of Biji La Maison de Couture created the dramatic outfit for Zozibini Tunzi’s final moments on stage as the reigning Miss Universe.

This talented designer, who goes by Biji professionally, was not only responsible for the dress Tunzi wore when she crowned her successor during the pageant’s finale on Sunday, but also the one in which she was crowned Miss Universe in 2019.

That was Biji’s first thought when she was asked to design the garment.

“I started Zozi’s Miss Universe journey with her and it just felt right to complete it with her,” says Biji, adding that she has admired the way Tunzi handled her reign.

'This dress symbolises where I come from; it represents the brown of the sand and the blue of the ocean,' said Miss Universe 2019 Zozibini Tunzi of the Biji La Maison gown in which she was crowned.
'This dress symbolises where I come from; it represents the brown of the sand and the blue of the ocean,' said Miss Universe 2019 Zozibini Tunzi of the Biji La Maison gown in which she was crowned.
Image: Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Her next thought was one of momentary panic.

Like many business owners, Biji had been forced to retrench staff due to the Covid-19 economic crunch so she was short-handed.

She’d also only been given about month’s notice to create this all-important gown — a seemingly impossible feat when you consider the dress she designed for Tunzi’s crowning moment took about 1,400 hours and 132,000 beads to make.

Luckily this process had given Biji an intimate knowledge of Tunzi’s body shape and her proportions, so she wasn't too concerned that she wouldn't have the chance to do fittings with the US-based beauty queen.

As for the design, Tunzi’s brief was clear: she wanted something impactful that honoured her Xhosa heritage, but at the same time modern and glamorous. 

Biji looked to the past for inspiration.

The striking black-and-white ensemble she created for Tunzi to model during the Miss Universe Preliminary Competition in 2019 had been “very well received”.

The contemporary Xhosa-inspired gown she made for Thulisa Keyi to wear while representing Mzansi on the 2018 Miss World stage won a design accolade.

With the sketch for Tunzi’s new outfit approved, it was time to get to work. Biji’s family and friends rallied, offering her support and to lend a hand.

“They said ‘show us what to do’ so I trained them and they did 90% of the beading,” she explains.

“It really was a family effort. If it wasn’t for them this dress might not have come together.”

Biji estimates it collectively took them about 800 hours to make the figure-hugging gown, which features so many beads it weighed 6.6kg when it was couriered to the US.

Such is Biji’s skill as a couturier that the dress fit Tunzi “like a glove”, requiring only minor tweaks to the length of fringing.

The high-necklined silhouette emphasises Tunzi’s toned shoulders — an effect which made her look regal, statuesque and powerful in her final moments as the reigning Miss Universe.

Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi appears on stage for the last time as the reigning Miss Universe during the pageant's finale on May 16 2021.
Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi appears on stage for the last time as the reigning Miss Universe during the pageant's finale on May 16 2021.
Image: Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images
A closer look at the incredible beadwork on Zozibini Tunzi's Biji La Maison Couture gown.
A closer look at the incredible beadwork on Zozibini Tunzi's Biji La Maison Couture gown.
Image: Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images

Though Biji had sent Tunzi the choice of a beaded headband and a head wrap to wear, she added her own “signature” to the ensemble by choosing to wear one of her own.

It was an iconic look for an iconic African queen.

CELEB GOWNS ON DISPLAY IN SANDTON

An exhibition of many of the glorious couture gowns Biji has created for celebrities over the years is on at the Diamond Walk in Sandton City, Johannesburg, until June 6.

Along with the ombre gown in which Tunzi was crowned Miss Universe 2019 you can see garments worn by Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Gray, Miss World 2014 Rolene Strauss, rapper Boity Thulo, media personality Bonang Matheba and model Ayanda Thabethe.


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