As Miss Universe 2022, R’Bonney Nola Gabriel is using her visibility to help enact change in the fashion industry—starting with the dress she wore at the pageant, which she sewed herself. Gabriel was raised in Houston by an immigrant father from the Phillippines and a Texas-born mother who would take her to vintage and thrift stores and teach her the basics of sewing. After earning a BFA in fashion design and interning for Nicole Miller, Gabriel runs her own up-cycled fashion brand, R’Bonney Nola, featuring intricately constructed gowns and casual separates made from existing material. She is also the lead sewing instructor at Magpies & Peacocks—a Houston-based non-profit design house that received a Gucci Changemaker award for its work to reduce textile waste—where she also teaches sewing classes to women who have survived human trafficking and domestic violence.
Here, she talks about sustainability, her inspiring students, her Filipina heritage, and the power of the pageant platform.
How did your community and surroundings influence you while growing up?
Growing up in Houston gave me an open-minded outlook on life. Houston is home to every culture and ethnicity. My high school experience was such a great time in my life. We had every cultural background at school, and I was friends with everyone. I hung out with different crowds because I played volleyball, played oboe in the band, and attended yearbook class. This upbringing shaped me to accept anyone for who they are and showed me the beauty of so many different people.
How did you first become interested in sustainability?
I first started sewing at age 15. I grew up visiting thrift and vintage stores with my mother to buy our clothing. I would always find unique pieces that would never fit me, so my mom would alter them on the sewing machine. She showed me how to take something and make it into my own- which is where I really started upcycling without even realizing it. After sewing for five years, I watched a documentary about the issue of pollution in the fashion industry, which really opened up my eyes. From that day on, I realized I needed to be a part of the solution to make fashion more sustainable in the industry.
Why is making clothes empowering for women? Do we need to come back to this as a culture and an industry?
I got involved in a local non profit design house, Magpies & Peacocks. I always wanted to use my passions for design for the greater good in the world. When I found Magpies, it felt like the answer I was searching for, and I got hired on the spot during my first visit there. I was happy to have found a design house committed to sustainability by designing collections from upcycled and donated material. I also became the lead sewing instructor to women who have survived human trafficking and domestic violence. This position fulfilled me much more than just designing clothing.
Tell us about the women in your sewing classes.
The women that I have taught have really showed me what strength and hope is. They have all come from traumatic situations, experiences, and households but they have found a way to work towards a better life for themselves. It has touched my heart and inspired me. Some of the women would share some of their experiences with me, and that really showed me that it is important that we continue to invest in helping the lives of other people.
Why is the institution of the pageant relevant in today’s world? How has it helped you in your mission?
They are relevant because they are a global platform focusing on women's empowerment. Pageants girls and women not only display beauty and brains, but self-care, etiquette, public speaking, and advocacy towards social issues—which is what I believe are qualities of a well-rounded modern-day woman. My pageant journey has vastly improved my self-confidence, and has empowered me to amplify my voice to shine a light on sustainable fashion, human trafficking, and various other social causes that Miss Universe partners with.
What advice would you give a young woman starting her career that you know now?
My advice would be to dive in 100% if you want to make a passion, hobby, or interest into a successful career. Don't doubt yourself and don't get discouraged or give up when you fail. The more you try and fail the closer and closer you get to your big break through, and failure is just life's way of closing one door on you so you can open up a better one. The only difference between people that succeed and those who don't, is that they never let anything allow them to give up.
What does it mean to you to be the first Filipina-American to win Miss USA (and Miss Universe)?
My Filipina heritage is so special to me because I grew up visiting the Philippines with my family. It gave me the outlook on life to always work hard, make something out of nothing, and to feel fortunate for everything I have. These experiences have shaped who I am today, and I feel it’s so important to pay homage to my roots and always carry on the traditions of my ancestors and family who have paved the way for the beautiful life I live today. I am honored to be the first Filipina-American to win Miss Texas, Miss USA, and Miss Universe and I hope it opens the door for more Asian-Americans in this industry.
What does it mean to you to be a VOZ Woman?
I am Voz Woman because I support and wholeheartedly believe in woman-led companies. As a sustainable fashion designer, I love companies that ethically source their materials and work with local artisans. To me, it makes our fashion industry more meaningful and intentional.