sustainability is taking over the universe


illustration by nadia stewart

More than a decade ago, sustainability started to become an industry buzzword, but now, it’s an expectation within the fashion community. From the insightful influence of Kent State University School of Fashion professors, such as Noël Palomo-Lovinski and Rachel LoMonaco-Benzing, the future generation of fashion professionals are already critically thinking about ways to abide by ethical and sustainable practices. Designers and merchandisers alike continue to explore new solutions with a mission for a brighter future. It’s not just fashion students who are thinking about ways to better the future, but there are those who are already making a difference on a wider stage. 


On Jan. 14, 2023, the Miss Universe pageant took place, showcasing the fierce contestants with various talents and unquestionable patriotism for their countries. The Miss Universe pageant is no stranger to leaving an impression within the fashion world, though for this most recent one, it left a bigger mark than usual. This year, contestants self-designed or collaborated with designers to create outfits that were representative of their backgrounds and, most importantly, their efforts to promote sustainability. 


Miss USA 2023 R’Bonney Gabriel was ultimately crowned Miss Universe, partly due to her strong stage presence, but mostly because of her passion for a sustainable fashion industry. Her commitment to sustainability and environmentalism was depicted throughout the Miss Universe pageant. Little did everyone know that Gabriel made some of her attire out of upcycled materials for the contest. This included natural dyes and used water bottles for the “If Not Now, Then When?” cape for her swimsuit event, scrap fabric to make an embellishment for her Van Gogh inspired outfit for the Miss Universe interview and upcycling an old jumpsuit for a Miss Universe rehearsal look. 

What’s up next for Miss Universe 2023 is her continuation of spreading sustainable thinking. What got Gabriel started off on her journey was thrifting and sewing with her mother as a hobby when she was little. Once she entered into the fashion industry, Gabriel noticed that fast fashion has taken a huge toll environmentally and socially, since the fashion industry has taken the number two spot on the top polluting industry in the world; with that, she knew she had to become part of the change. In 2020, Gabriel started her own business R’Bonney Nola, where she constructs her clothing collections from fabric scraps and old garments. In an interview with People, when asked about a documentary she watched about fast fashion, Gabriel said, “I said ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t want to be part of that problem. I want to be part of that solution.’ So that’s when I really dove into recycling pieces [and] using fabrics that are donated.”


Even though many people want to make an impact in the fashion industry, doing things halfway is like not doing anything at all. Professor Rachel LoMonaco-Benzing said, “I’m naturally a skeptic when I see the term ‘upcycling’ or ‘sustainable’ used for fashion – that’s the result of and nature of my job. For instance, not everything in their looks is truly upcycled or sustainable, so I get cranky when I see that said about the look as a whole. For example – R’Bonney Nola, the look that had the video – only the base of her leotard was upcycled – you can see them unrolling fresh rolls of orange tulle (synthetic!!) for other parts of it.” 


That said, R’Bonney Gabriel has been doing better on her brand and being transparent with the materials she uses, thus she is still making her way on becoming a full-fledged sustainable designer. Her commitment to making a difference extends beyond fashion and into giving back to her community. She visits different schools and communities around her hometown in Houston to help inspire the younger generation to be more environmentally aware. To demonstrate her motives, she tends to also bring along the clothes that she upcycled as an example of moving towards the green. 


Gabriel wasn’t the only one to incorporate environmentally-friendly elements in their attire on the Miss Universe stage. Miss Thailand Anna Sueangam-iam broke the internet with her glistening evening gown, designed by designer Arif Jehwang and Thai fashion brand MANIRAT, with the use of recycled pop-tabs as the face of the dress. As gorgeous and amazing as it looked, there’s far more to the dress than what meets the eye. 


The dress paid homage to her childhood and parents, considering life wasn’t as glamorous for Sueangam-iam as it is now. She grew up on the poorest side of Bangkok, where her father worked as a garbage man and her mother was a street cleaner. With little income coming in the household, Sueangam-iam had to dig through trash for used bottles and cans in order to help her parents out financially. Without the proper income to buy your everyday toys, Sueangam-iam was forced to improvise. She used her imagination and played with leftover scraps and trash, crowning herself “the queen of garbage”.


Palomo-Lovinski expressed that “the countries that two of the women come from have an incredible amount of trash that is a result of other countries. We are overwhelmed by a linear approach to waste.” With that thought, this serves as a great inspiration on utilizing pop-tabs. 


After the dress was presented on stage, Sueangam-iam took to Instagram where she expressed how personal this dress was to her. In the caption she wrote, “This gown was inspired by the familiar surroundings of my childhood. Growing up with garbage collector parents, my life as a child was among piles of garbage and recyclables. This unique gown was purposefully tailored-made with discarded and recycled materials, namely the ‘Can Tab’ to present to the UNIVERSE that what’s considered worthless by many actually possesses its own value and beauty. Thank you all for seeing it, hearing it, and hopefully being that message of self-worth.”


The gown was soon named “Hidden Precious Diamond” to help elevate the meaning. Even though Miss Thailand didn’t win the crown, her message of sustainability and upcycling will remain engraved into the minds of many. 


Even though Hương Ly did fall short in Miss Universe Vietnam 2022 to advance forward to the Miss Universe pageant, she did catch the attention of many Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American viewers with her evening gown for the semi-finals that she made out of SCOBY—a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast made out of vinegar.


As a Vietnamese fashion designer and co-founder of TRANHUNG, a sustainable and ethical luxury clothing line, Ly wanted to create a garment that stood out from the other contestants and show the judges her dedication to sustainable fashion. With that, Hương Ly came up with the ideas of using a biodegradeable and sustainable material, SCOBY, to create the dress. 


LoMonaco-Benzing emphasized, “I love the SCOBY dress idea, as that is something that is very difficult/time-consuming to grow. And that to me has the most amazing craftsmanship to it as far as how it was assembled with all of those small, shaped pieces.”


From growing the bacteria to drying the material so it was durable enough to sew, the process of making the dress was long and tedious. The end result of the dried SCOBY is a leather-like material. This is a more sustainable option of leather because little to no CO2 was created to produce the material; furthermore, the SCOBY is biodegradable and good for the soil. 

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Hương Ly (@huongly.ngg)

In addition to the SCOBY dress, Ly also wore a 3D floral dress for her Miss Universe Vietnam examination that was constructed with fabric scraps from her fashion line Tran Hung.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by TRANHUNG (@tranhungofficial)

Everyday, people are trying to find solutions for the waste created by the fashion industry. Schools are also trying to branch out students’ imagination and problem solving skills to help create change. 


Palomo-Lovinski expressed that she was surprised and pleased with the garments that were presented in the pageant. “The level of craftsmanship and sophistication was very impressive. It is nice to see that recycling from trash has upped its game!” Even though the materials being used for all these pieces above isn’t really “new”, the statement that these women are trying to give to the audience is to be “sustainable and aware of the incredible amount of waste we are creating.” 

Support Student Media

Hi! I’m Catie Pusateri, A Magazine’s editor-in-chief. My staff and I are committed to bringing you the most important and entertaining news from the realms of fashion, beauty and culture. We are full-time students and hard-working journalists. While we get support from the student media fee and earned revenue such as advertising, both of those continue to decline. Your generous gift of any amount will help enhance our student experience as we grow into working professionals. Please go here to donate to A Magazine.