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Meet the young designer who 'elevated' Rabiya Mateo's national costume for the 69th Miss Universe

By ALEX Y. VERGARA Published May 13, 2021 4:28 pm Updated May 13, 2021 6:53 pm

Will Miss Universe Philippines (MUP) Rabiya Mateo bring home the country’s fifth Miss Universe crown? Not too fast! Before you begin pondering the Ilongga beauty queen’s ultimate fate in this year’s pageant of pageants, she has one more hurdle to overcome tomorrow, Friday morning in the Philippines, before she tries to best the fairest of them all on preliminary and coronation nights.

And both the living and the dead, so to speak, have Rabiya’s back as she tries to win for the country’s its third Best National Costume prize in Miss Universe. If earlier reports are to be believed, Rabiya’s costume, which has no bearing in the beauty pageant’s final outcome, is inspired by the MUP organization’s logo as well as Iloilo, the dusky beauty queen’s hometown.

MUP, led by creative director and beauty queen maker Jonas Gaffud and design council head Albert Andrada, had tapped Rocky Gathercole to do Rabiya’s costume earlier this year. Unfortunately, the designer known for his avant-garde designs died early March without having finished the project.

“It’s a good thing I was constantly in touch with Rocky, as in every day,” says Albert, who is himself a seasoned designer who made headlines several years ago by making Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach’s now iconic royal blue gown during the finals. “It was like 75 percent done when I received the sad news of Rocky’s passing.”

Instead of setting aside the unfinished costume and finding a replacement, the MUP board decided to let Rabiya wear it as a tribute to the late designer. Relying on their industry contacts, Jonas and Albert were able to assemble a small team to finish the work.

Meycauayan-based jewelry designer Manny Halasan came in much later when the MUP board decided to further elevate the costume’s bling factor. In a way, says Albert, the final product is a “collaboration between Manny and the late Rocky Gathercole.”

Manny, in fact, came on board just a little over two weeks ago after Albert contacted him. But his family has been in the jewelry business, making not only jewelry pieces, but crowns as well, for almost 50 years now.

Manny Halasan previously created pieces of artists such as Regine Velasquez and Vice Ganda.

Tito Albert called and asked me if I could make a jewelry accessory to go with Rabiya’s national costume,” says Manny. The young designer immediately buckled down to work, incorporating his company’s “signature” style.

Manny was also responsible for designing a number of crowns used for local and international beauty pageants in the past, including Miss World Philippines, Mutia ti La Union, Mutya ng Pilipinas and Miss Asia Pacific International, among others. He also did the jewelry worn by Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Gray during her farewell walk in Atlanta.

He was also responsible for producing the crown and jewelry components that make up part of Michelle Gumabao and Bella Ysmael’s respective costumes when they competed with Rabiya during the Miss Universe Philippines search last October.

Manny Halasan also worked with Michelle Gumabao, who wore this piece for the Miss Universe Philippines 2020 pageant. 

“Like in my previous pieces, I combined and incorporated softness and sharpness where it is needed,” he says, referring to Rabiya’s jewelry. “For me, each crown or piece of jewelry I make has an identity. Before working on a piece, I try to make it as different as possible from the others. This one is no less special.”

This time, he made use of brass and silver, which served as a base for the constellation of shimmering stones that make up the entire piece.

The accessories he did for Rabiya, adds Manny, are not to be viewed separately from the costume Rocky did. That sense of cohesion will allow the audience to appreciate the entire ensemble as a whole.

One of Manny Halasan's old pieces for Regine Velasquez.

Should Rabiya’s pasabog (surprise) earn the judges’ nod, she will be only the third Miss Philippines in Miss Universe history after Charlene Gonzalez and Gazini Ganados to win Best National Costume.

If there was one challenge Manny had to hurdle in producing the jewelry, it wasn’t lack of creativity, but time. Although he was given just two weeks to finish the entire set, he is grateful, he says, for MUP’s trust as well as for the hardworking members of his team who went over and beyond themselves to meet the deadline.

Manny isn’t only artistic, but he’s also very nationalistic. He sees his work as his “humble” contribution to the country’s continued quest for honor and recognition on the global stage. Having been directly involved countless times before in making beauty pageants work, these events, he insists, “are not superficial and all glamour. They go beyond that. They empower not just the contestants, but the entire country these girls each represent.”