EXCLUSIVE | The hands that made light work of Zozibini Tunzi's soon-to-be-exhibited 6.6kg gown

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Miss Universe 2019 Zozibini Tunzi appears onstage at the 69th Miss Universe competition at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on May 16, 2021 in Hollywood, Florida. (Photo by Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images)
Miss Universe 2019 Zozibini Tunzi appears onstage at the 69th Miss Universe competition at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on May 16, 2021 in Hollywood, Florida. (Photo by Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images)
  • On 8 December 2019 we saw the crowning of the 68th Miss Universe when Zozibini Tunzi became the third South African and first black Miss SA to win the crown.
  • Beyond the historical win - and historical long reign - her beaded gowns for both her first and final walks stood out. These were custom-made gowns by local designer Biji Gibbs of Biji La Maison de Couture - a fashion house that has been around since 1990.
  • Biji La Maison de Couture has a few of their most memorable gowns exhibited at Sandton City's Diamond Walk, and the epic black and white gown Zozi wore for her final bow is expected to join the exhibition.

With an Instagram bio that reads: "A designer of luxurious, one of a kind gowns worn by exceptional women who breathe life into my craft," it's certainly fitting that Zozibini Tunzi became an ambassador of the nation while adorned in Biji La Maison de Couture creations.   

For their full circle Miss Universe reunion, Biji, Werner Wessels and Zozi made a collaborative effort to come up with the showstopper custom-beaded contemporary Xhosa heritage gown - with illusion mesh as a base - that has been an internet sensation since the early hours of Monday morning.

And it is indeed as exceptional as the woman who wore it. 

Speaking to Biji Gibbs of Biji La Maison de Couture this week, she explains that "a lot of design creation is fed by the energy of who the dress is for". As such, it can be inferred that the creation of this exquisite gown would have been a no-brainer for the designer. 

With Zozi's energy, a simple brief for a nod to Xhosa heritage, and a dummy body of Zozi that was crafted from measurements taken in 2019 from the crowning gown, Gibbs set out to outdo her previous work. This time, remotely and without any fittings. 

zozibini tunzi
Image supplied by Biji Gibbs
Images supplied by Biji Gibbs 

READ MORE: WATCH | A dress that weighs 35kg, and other heavy red carpet gowns celebrities have worn

Styled by the highly acclaimed Werner Wessels, this gown was paired with a black Xhosa headdress that usually completes the traditional Xhosa women's attire, called umbhaco.

HOLLYWOOD, FLORIDA - MAY 16: Miss Universe 2019 Zo
Miss Universe 2019 Zozibini Tunzi appears onstage at the 69th Miss Universe competition at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on May 16, 2021 in Hollywood, Florida. Photo by Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images

From the onset, Zozi wanted the garment she wore for her final walk to be a tribute to her family and her Xhosa roots, and Biji remembers asking herself: "How do I top [the 2019 gown] without disrespecting traditional attire?"  

Well, you might recall Thulisa Keyi's gown from when she participated in the 2018 Miss World pageant in Sanya, China. Zozi's final bow gown is a slight reimagination of this number.

For Thulisa too, it was a nod to the pageant princess' Xhosa heritage.

Biji remarks that it was so well-received at the 2018 pageant that it won the 'Designer of the World' award on the Miss World stage that year. 

Reimaging it at this year's level was therefore an easy sell.  

miss universe
Image sourced via bijilamaison.com 

And so a sweet story follows - possibly the most endearing "behind the dress" anecdote we've heard in a while. 

Even more remarkable is the craftmanship that went into the 6.6kg dress that was made by hand.

At an estimated 800 hours of hand beading and at the injustice of the impact of Covid-19 on multiple industries, including fashion, it took a village to complete the couture masterpiece. 

Biji La Maison de Couture is one of the fashion houses that had to let staff go due to the Covid-19 pandemic. After making a cloth mask pivot at the height of restrictions, general interest in mask collecting dwindled and mask sales were no longer fruitful.

The visionary has since picked up her sketch pad again and business is back up. However, Biji is still short of hands. 

That is, until her family stepped in this March in time for preparations for the 2021 Miss Universe finale and said: "Tell us what to do".

The local designer reveals that not only did her husband, friends and daughter volunteer to roll up their sleeves to bead this dress by hand, but her 93-year-old dad, who she admits is frail, also committed himself to the mammoth task. 

zozibini tunzi x biji la maison
zozi tunzi
zozi tunzi
Images supplied by Biji Gibbs 

"He was beading from 10am to 10pm," she says in admiration. 

Of course, the resplendent gown "required a fair amount of attention to detail" and to have family that literally helped carry the weight is something that Biji found "quite humbling". 

READ MORE: Nicole Kidman's Golden Globes dress took 425 hours to embroider

As if the moment when the longest-reigning Miss Universe takes her final graceful bow in a South African designer's creation is not an expression of magic in and of itself, Biji Gibbs marvels at the serendipitous outcome of the ombré effect. 

zozibini tunzi x biji la maison
zozibini tunzi
Images supplied by Biji Gibbs 

Different to the "top to bottom" ombré bleed of the 2019 Sunrise dress, the "back to front" ombré beading made it look like a "constellation of stars" was on Zozi's body as she walked down the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino runway on Sunday night.

"The beads dance when she moves," the Sandton designer proudly said about the gown. 

Catch the Sunrise at the Diamond Walk

Now, about that 2019 gown aptly named "Sunrise", Biji La Maison de Couture has a few of the house's most memorable gowns exhibited at Sandton City's Diamond Walk, including the Sunrise gown.

There, you'll also see the feathered gown of Miss Universe 2021 entrant Natasha Joubert.


ATLANTA, GEORGIA - DECEMBER 08: (EDITORIAL USE ONL
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - DECEMBER 08: (EDITORIAL USE ONL
Miss South Africa Zozibini Tunzi appears onstage at the 2019 Miss Universe Pageant at Tyler Perry Studios on December 08, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images) 

In 2019, the esteemed Sandton-based designer explained that the dress was inspired by the "South African earth's minerals," adding that "this gown is entirely beaded by hand, using four shades of beads mixed at varying degrees of intensity to create this ombré effect on illusion mesh."  

This week, she also revealed to us that she's found out the hard, yet rewarding, way that ombré is a "punishing self-sacrifice". But it's clear that despite the laborious hours, Biji wouldn't have had it any other way. 

Boasting 32 000 beads and 1 400 hours of delicate toiling, you can now catch the glorious Sunrise gown displayed at the Diamond Walk in Sandton City, Johannesburg. 

Speaking about the future of both the crowning and bowing dresses, Biji explains that "Zozi's gowns are archived and sacred". And while the former is already part of the Biji La Maison de Couture mall exhibition, the latest one will make its way back to South Africa, hopefully in time to cement its honour before 6 June when the exhibition ends.

The designer is crossing fingers for an extension for the exhibition, though.

Will interested parties ever be able to rent these stunners out? 

Miss SA Creative Director, Werner Wessels, has advised against this option for now as a means of avoiding "who wore it better" headlines and social media fodder. 

So out of respect for the former Miss Universe, both Werner and Biji have decided to archive the gowns until further notice. 

"In time, they may be available for future rental or purchase... maybe one day," the fashion house founder teases.  

According to the Biji La Maison de Couture founder, the 2021 Xhosa beaded gown is valued at an estimated R90 000 - R100 000, and the 2019 Sunrise gown is worth R208 000.

READ MORE:  Kim K's latest "ridiculous" outfits are actually archival pieces of high fashion 

Biji's Xhosa gown in numbers

Hours: 800
600 strands of glass beads
93-year-old dad (and family) helped with beadwork
Estimated value: R100 000
Fittings: Zero

Zozi also walked the runway during the preliminary stages of the pageant in one of Biji La Maison de Couture's creations - a cape dress, lined with a sequined African geometric print. 

And again, another beaded fringe creation with an illusion mesh base.  

miss universe
miss universe
Images sourced via bijilamaison.com 

Oh, and how could we forget this emerald green look - also styled by Werner Wessels - for her Miss Universe entry photo?

READ MORE:  Miss SA 2019, Zozibini Tunzi, crowned with the newly unveiled uBuhle Crown, here are the crowns that preceded it

Previous Biji La Maison de Couture muses


This local designer has previously dressed the likes of Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Gray, Miss World 2014 Rolene Strauss, and Bonang Matheba - Rolene Strauss, for her various public appearances, including the night she handed over her crown to Miss Spain in 2015, and Catriona Gray when she sat on the panel of judges that picked Zozibini Tunzi as Miss South Africa 2019.   

Rolene Strauss

miss universe

Catriona Gray 

miss universe
Images sourced via bijilamaison.com 

Additionally, the designer has dressed the top 12 finalists for the Miss SA pageant among other top-tier designers Anel Botha, Galluzzi e Gini, Orapeleng Modutle, Salomie Couture and Warrick Gautier.

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