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The Miss Universe Organization Is Getting a Fashion Makeover

The days of cheesy pageant gowns may be gone for good.
Miss USA 2016, Deshauna Barber, Miss Universe 2016, Iris Mittenaere, and Miss Teen USA 2016, Karlie Hay at New York Fashion Week. Photo: Getty Images

Miss USA 2016, Deshauna Barber, Miss Universe 2016, Iris Mittenaere, and Miss Teen USA 2016, Karlie Hay at New York Fashion Week. Photo: Getty Images

This past weekend, Miss Universe 2016, Iris Mittenaere, and Miss USA 2017, Kara McCullough, touched down in California for the Made LA festivities. This marked the second time that the Miss Universe Organization was on hand for the the event — and it makes complete sense. IMG bought out the organization after it was thrown into disarray following then-owner Donald Trump's racist statements, and now the titleholders have an organizational connection to the event, which is also owned by IMG — the very same agency that produces fashion weeks all over the globe, from New York to Berlin to Sydney. Since this change of hands, the organization has seen a growing fashion industry presence, with the current Miss Universe even appearing at the Cannes Film Festival a few weeks ago.

"The girls have always attended various amfAR galas and stuff, usually in the city, but I got the news about a month ago that [Iris] was going to be attending the gala at Cannes," Marquis Bias, the stylist who works with the Miss Universe Organization, told Fashionista following the Cannes appearance. Mittenaere, who was Miss France prior to her current reign, walked the red carpet for the premiere of "The Beguiled," as well as at the supermodel-studded amfAR gala. "Because she was already so well known in France, we knew that she would more than likely end up doing more things at the festival than just the gala."

Iris Mittenaere at "The Beguiled" premiere. Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Iris Mittenaere at "The Beguiled" premiere. Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

To prep for that trip, Bias — who has been with the organization in his current role since 2015, but first started as an intern in 2012 — reached out to a slew of designers, securing options from the likes of Christian Siriano, Marchesa, Berta and organization sponsor Sherri Hill. "When I get the news that we are doing something major like Cannes, this is the opportunity for me to get access to a world that I'm not normally afforded dressing at Miss Universe," Bias explained.

In addition to the Miss Universe Organization, Bias has freelanced for Law Roach, "Celebrity Apprentice," "America's Got Talent" and Interview magazine. "A lot of this world... a lot of the appearances, though we do a lot of red carpets, it's more so charity galas and things like that," he explained. "It's not the Oscars, it's not the Grammys, so though I try, designers like Chanel and Jean Paul Gaultier... These A-list designers are not throwing racks and racks of clothes at me." Recently though, since the transition to IMG ownership, there has been more occasion (and desire, on both ends) to bring in buzzy fashion names.

"As part of the IMG portfolio, the Miss Universe Organization now sits alongside an incredible fashion business including New York Fashion Week and MADE, IMG Models and Made to Measure," Paula M. Shugart, president of The Miss Universe Organization, said via email. "It's exciting to see our titleholders and brand continue to expand our presence in the fashion space." 

In 2016, Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach walked in the Go Red for Women Fashion show at New York Fashion Week. When Miss USA 2015 Olivia Jordan competed for Miss Universe in 2015, she was dressed in a custom look by CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund runner-up Adam Selman. This year, Ashley Graham posed as the backstage host for the Miss Universe pageant, and in May, hijab-wearing model Halima Aden judged the Miss USA competition after being discovered though the organization's state-level pageants. All of these instances can be traced back, directly, to the involvement of IMG.

"You know, before they were acquired by IMG, I was already working to elevate the aesthetic of the girls," Bias admits, alluding to the common perception of "pageant girl" style being cheesy or tacky. His aim has been to transform the girls' looks from a traditional pageant aesthetic into a more fashion-forward one. "I actually think that's one of the reasons that the organization asked me to come back in the role that I currently hold because I had been trying to do that before. I think they saw what my aesthetic was."

For the Cannes Festival appearance, Bias snagged a Jean Paul Gaultier couture gown. "Being that she was going to be in France — and she was [formerly] Miss France — this was an opportunity for me to reach out to some designers that wouldn't normally respond positively," Bias said. However, many showrooms in Paris had already been emptied for the festival. "It just so happened that Jean Paul Gaultier was a judge of hers when she was Miss France, so she had a preexisting relationship with the brand." And while that gown served well for the premiere, a black shimmering offering from Berta was the option for the gala.

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"As a couture, high-end brand, we feel that those stunning ladies are more than suitable to represent our fashion house," Nir Moscovich of Berta told Fashionista, noting that the brand dressed Jordan and Wurtzbach in the past during their reigns. "We certainly see them as part of the fashion world." The black, shoulder-feathered gown that the label supplied was one that Bias had his eye on for a while.

Iris Mittenaere at the 2017 amfAR Gala during the Cannes Film Festival. Photo: Dave Benett/Getty Images

Iris Mittenaere at the 2017 amfAR Gala during the Cannes Film Festival. Photo: Dave Benett/Getty Images

"I'm actually quite glad [it wasn't available before] because this was the perfect moment," he revealed. "It was so funny because I actually was in the midst of preparing Deshauna for her walk, and we had a mishap with her gown. I was searching for her dress and saw this. I had already researched what people wore to the gala last year, and this was perfect." But that instance of styling multiple titleholders for different events simultaneously, sometimes styling them for the same event, is quite common for Bias. For him, particularly when it's for the same event, there's an art to it.

"You know, I have to look at the other IMG girls," he explained. "Ninety percent of the Victoria's Secret Angels are IMG Models; half of the girls who do the Sports Illustrated covers are represented by IMG and when they step out, they look a certain way. When the Victoria's Secret girls are doing promo and they step out, they all have their individual looks, but they all look unified. Maybe it's by color palette, or silhouette, but they all look like they came together and they present a united front."

"I feel like before I would see pictures of the titleholders and they would have very different looks and I didn't like that," Bias continued. "So now, when I'm doing something like fashion week, since we travel together to go to shows, I don't want them to look like they're in Destiny's Child, but I do want them to be unified in some way." 

To wit, on the recent trip to LA, one photo series featured Miss USA in a pattern while Miss Universe's solid shirt was a shade of green that complemented that pattern. Another series featured them both in simple jeans and tees, and for their show looks, Miss Universe's knit striped dress was complemented by Miss USA's solid knit Roony Kobo dress. The mustard from the Miss USA gown, too, matched a color from Miss Universe's look. 

For what it's worth, Bias has said that after IMG's involvement, the fashion week process has changed a bit. "We've become more selective," he admitted. "We go to fewer shows now. Before, we would go to any show we could get into, and now it's become a little bit more strategic." That change comes in part because IMG is there to assist, opening more doors so the final list is culled to shows that reflect the Miss Universe brand and symbolize a relationship. This past season that meant a presence at shows like Lacoste, Nicole Miller, Jeremy Scott and Bibhu Mohapatra.

This close attention is for good reason. As far as social media, the Miss Universe official titleholder accounts, which include Miss Teen USA, total over 2.5 million followers. That's a large following that fashion brands like Berta and others like Reiss and Christian Siriano are interested in getting their wares in front of. This exposure can assist setting up winners for careers in fashion or as influencers, like former titleholders Olivia Culpo and Olivia Jordan, the latter of whom was just recently in the top 35 of the Sports Illustrated Swim Search — though Jordan had cultivated and maintained a career as a model prior to winning Miss USA.

"You know, I think the biggest difference, I think the expectation is different now that we've been acquired by IMG," Bias said. And it's his job to make sure that expectation is met.

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