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Fairy tale designer

Chances are you’ve gushed over Biji – La Maison de Couture’s dresses … now meet the designer who brings these fabulous creations to life

You may not know Birgit (Biji) Gibbs. It’s even possible you haven’t heard of her designer label, Biji – La Maison de Couture. But it’s a certainty that you’ve seen her work, most likely on our very own Miss Universe, Zozibini Tunzi, who wore Biji creations while winning our hearts on the pageant stage. And Zozi is just one of a long line of celebrities who favour her style. It seems as if Biji should be basking in the fame that comes with designing the gowns worn by the most beautiful woman in the world – but Biji’s humility, hunger to learn and fierce work ethic tell a different story.

Biji subconsciously started planning for this career as a little girl when she took the fabric scraps left over from making ballet costumes and converted them into outfits for her Barbie dolls, using sewing skills learnt from her mother. It was only in Grade 9, when she idly sketched an idea for a uniform, that she saw a glimmer of her future.

‘A few years later I studied fashion design at Leggatts Academy of Fashion Design. Archie Leggatt took me straight into second year as he felt my skills were strong enough to skip the first year.’ After a few odd jobs, she went solo at the age of 21, using a converted garage as a sewing room to craft capsule collections to sell to boutiques. She also took on surplus ‘grunt work’ from other designers.

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It was years before she took the step of renting a shop in Rosebank. ‘I found myself experimenting with new ideas to modernise the typical wedding gown. I researched and studied period costume design and construction techniques. I also learned that period wedding gowns were not white at all. Many of my wedding gowns were in full colour or had bold, colourful accents. It was quite controversial!’

Trying to make it in the industry was tough during these first years, and while Biji did attract her first famous client (Connie Ferguson), there were many all-nighters with needle and thread in hand. ‘This time in my career really took its toll on me and my confidence received a huge knock. When I look back at my life and my career, I cannot believe how much I tolerated and how little I valued myself through those years.’

Silver linings appeared when Bryan Habana’s wife-to-be, Janine, approached Biji to design her wedding dress. ‘This was probably the first time people began to recognise the Biji label,’ she explains. Not long afterwards, celebrity requests started to flood in, but business problems continued.

To combat the strangely low-profit-yet-high-profile world of sponsored weddings, Biji ended up making time to study again to boost her business. ‘I enrolled at Lisof to attend a part-time programme course in design. It made me realise I really do have a place in this industry and that I’m really meant to be doing this! The experience re-energised me for another few years and business took an upward turn.’ That energy soon faded, yet Biji never gave up. After attending a course under the tutelage of a lecturer from the New York Parsons School of Fashion, Biji found that spark of inspiration again. ‘I was cruising through my assignments because everything just clicked … it was probably the best two weeks in my journey to discovering my true ability to design and create authentically.’

She was approached by an agency that would establish the link with Werner Wessels and the connection to Miss South Africa and Rolene Strauss. Some years down the line, she would design the final Miss Universe Pageant dresses for Zozi. ‘As I sketched and jotted down the initial ideas, I looked up at Werner and Zozi and exclaimed, ‘I know nobody on that stage is going to have a gown anything close to this.’ I plunged into the project with 1000 per cent conviction that this would be the dress of all dresses. The time taken to get her final gown done amounted to an estimated 1400 hours. My rough calculations revealed that we applied around 132000 beads to her gown – all by hand.’

Biji stayed up late to watch the pageant. ‘I prayed she would at least make the top 10 so the world would see her in our dress. She took my breath away and it felt so good to know I was part of what made that vision come to life.’

To see who Biji will design for next, follow her @biji_la_maison on Instagram or visit bijilamaison.com

What’s exciting Biji in design these days?

  • A much bolder dress sense overall. Women who use their ‘voices’ more freely and stand up for their choices.
  • Pride in one’s roots and heritage and displaying it through fashion.
  • Super-classic and understated pieces are competing with more avant-garde creations.
  • Digital and 3D printing is becoming more accessible and advanced, so the possibilities are endless.
  • I find myself inspired by the innovation and brilliance of Iris van Herpen. If I had the opportunity to job-shadow someone (yes, at my age I still want to learn), it would be her. That would be top of my bucket list.

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