Jojo Bragais: Here comes the hot-stepper

Jojo Bragais.

Tiis-ganda — suffer to be beautiful or suffer for fashion — is often the mantra of wannabe beauty queens and fledgling fashionistas who yearn to be bongga (fabulous). How else were constricting corsets, cumbersome ball skirts and vertiginous heels been so popular throughout history? So fasyon, it hurts.

There’s a sense of dread about steep pumps, like Naomi Campbell’s epic tumble in Vivienne Westwood’s “Super Elevated Gillie,” the “mock-croc” 10-inch platforms from the “Anglomania” autumn-winter show in 1993. Gorgeous and outrageous but can break your legs, literally.

Catriona Gray, Miss Universe 2018.

While towering platforms give the benefit of boosting the confidence of someone with a petite frame, sometimes the shoes send off a tacky, stripper vibe. More Showgirls/Burlesk Queen/Hustlers than Miss Congeniality/Devil Wears Prada/Pret-a-Porter. They elongate your legs but they don’t elevate your looks.

Some Filipinas, not blessed with supermodel height, prefer high shoes that add a few much-desired inches to their small stature. Thus, Jose Joaquin “Jojo” Bragais became the most famous footwear designer in the Philippines, as women, especially those who compete in beauty pageants, gravitated toward his platform design in droves.

Jojo Bragais shoes in cocoa.

But when Bragais was announced as the footwear sponsor for the 69th Miss Universe competition, he unveiled designs that are refined, tasteful and flattering. Perfect for “confidently beautiful” women. The shoes remind one of the cover on the Design Museum book, Fifty Shoes that Changed the World, a Jimmy Choo lilac-suede feather-trimmed shoe that Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) lost in a 1998 episode of Sex and the City.

Miss Universe, the biggest pageant to be mounted amid the Covid-19 pandemic, will be held on 16 May 2021 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida, United States. The dazzling Zozibini Tunzi of South Africa will relinquish her crown after the longest reign of any winner.

It is rumored that the selection committee will be composed of eight all-female panelists, with Miss Universe 2012 Olivia Culpo as co-host (to Mario Lopez), and Miss USA 2019 Cheslie Kryst, Miss Universe 2017 Demi-Leigh Tebow and Miss Universe 2014 Paulina Vega as backstage commentators.

Yvethe Santiago

Barring any Covid-19 infections, 74 candidates are set to compete. They will be subjected to unforgiving scrutiny down to their footwear preferences. They better take footnotes from the harshest judge of all, Michelle Visage of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Speaking to ETOnline in 2019 about the runway looks she never wants to see, Visage said: “There’s a few. Usually, for me, it starts with the shoes, because there’s a lot of times the girls feel comfortable in certain clunky, chunky, not cute shoes. And they can have a great outfit, then you go down to the bottom of the feet. You just, like, the [shoes] ruined everything you’ve worked so hard for.”

Jojo Bragais shoes in silver.

After a deadly bout with depression, the Albay-born Bragais bounced back with a business venture. Treading into unfamiliar territory, he bought a shoe factory in Binangonan, Rizal, upon the encouragement of his aunt, Raquel Presentacion. With capital from his mother Elsie, he started his shoe-making business in 2013, making his first shoe sale two months after.

A series of business deals excited him, but he soon realized that his knowledge of running a shoe business was inadequate. When his friend, Yvethe Santiago, joined Binibining Pilipinas in 2014, Bragais offered to sponsor her pageant shoes. Impressed by his craftsmanship, Binibining Pilipinas Charities Inc. chairwoman, Madam Stella Marquez Araneta, tapped his brand to be the official footwear of Binibining Pilipinas 2015, the year when Pia Wurtzbach won Miss Universe.

In 2017, he opened the Bragais Flagship Store at 42 Scout Borromeo Street, Diliman, Quezon City. Then Catriona Gray was crowned Miss Universe 2018 wearing his boots at the national costume show and his platform heels on coronation night.

Leap of faith

One inspiring incident solidified his decision to take shoe-making seriously, when Bragais’ calling as a midwife and licensed nurse and being a budding businessman converged.

“One time there’s a certain debutante with a foot deformity. Ang tawag dun is Pes Cavus (a foot with an abnormally high plantar longitudinal arch). Ang sabi ng nanay sa akin ‘di pa raw nakapagsuot ang anak niya ng closed shoes. Then I took the project. Sobrang natuwa ‘yung nanay to the point na niyakap niya ako. So that time na-realize ko na ‘di pala ako talunan. That I matter, na may silbi ako. So mula noon, minahal ko na ang sapatos. I gave my heart in everything to the best pair of shoes that I can give,” Bragais tearfully told Entertainment News Portal. “This is the reason why I love what I do. Because shoe making saved and changed my life.”

Paolo Ballesteros as Bharby Ghorl.

Huge strides

On 17 April, the Miss Universe Organization (MUO) announced that Bragais will be the pageant’s shoe sponsor.

On Facebook, the MUO stated: “All of our delegates walk with purpose, strength and in their own unique stride. Presenting the official footwear sponsor of the 69th Miss Universe competition Jojo Bragais, who empowers women to ‘Walk. Win.’”

In @jojobragasiofficial on Instagram, the shoe sensation posted: “Jojo Bragais is a world-class Filipino brand that understands how walks in life can make or break one’s ability to win. For that reason, it has always designed its shoes to be uncompromising in style, comfort and quality. The brand has been worn by winning queens in some of the most important runways around the world.”

The candidates will wear three shades of nude shoes during the opening and select pre-pageant activities and a silver pair during the swimsuit round. That means about 300 pairs of shoes for about 74 delegates.

Bragais knows that he has big shoes to fill, because the previous footwear providers for Miss Universe were global brands Payless and Chinese Laundry.

“When you wear Jojo Bragais, your walk will be noticeably different. You are more confident, stronger, and more powerful. Why? Because you have a pair of shoes that can carry you well, make you feel comfortable, and support your every winning step, allowing you to make your walk uniquely yours.”

Walk tall

At six feet and one inch, the tallest Miss Universe in history is 2003’s Amelia Vega from the Dominican Republic. The shortest winners are Colombia’s Luz Marina Zuluaga, Miss Universe 1958 and Thailand’s Apasra Hongsakula, Miss Universe 1965, who both stood at five feet and four inches.

The Miss Universe 2020 shoes have a height of 4.5 inches, with sizes ranging from size five to size 12.

Jojo Bragais shoes in cream.

At five feet and seven inches, our own Rabiya Mateo will gain a few extra inches of confidence to make her stand out. And so will other ladies as tall or shorter than her, such as Australia’s Maria Thattil, Cambodia’s Sarita Reth, Thailand’s Amanda Obdam, India’s Adline Castelino and USA’s Asya Branch.

The tallest candidate is the stunning Nova Stevens, Miss Canada, towering at six feet. Hot on her heels are the 5’10’’s and up such as Indonesia’s Ayu Maulida, Mexico’s Andrea Meza, Panama’s Carmen Jaramillo, Colombia’s Laura Olascuaga, Peru’s Janick Maceta del Castillo, Jamaica’s Miqueal-Symone Williams, Brazil’s Julia Gama, Miss Brazil and Puerto Rico’s Estefanía Soto Torres.

But as proven by past winners, height hardly matters in snatching the crown. Finals night co-host Olivia Culpo, Miss Universe 2012, and rumored backstage correspondent, Miss Universe 2017 Demi-Leigh Nel Peters, both stand at five feet and seven inches.

Which past Miss Universe winners does Bragais want to meet and gift with his shoes and why? “It would be Leila Lopez of Angola, Miss Universe 2011. I want to really push for inclusivity and create shoes that fit all types of women, especially women of color,” he said.

Walk the talk

In a recent virtual talk moderated by fashion designer Bessie Besana, reigning Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi and Bragais discussed the footwear design in detail. The shoes’ lining is made with pigskin while the outer layers are made with microfiber. The sole and heel guard are made with rubber.

“There’s actually one design but there are four colors. I prepared three shades of nude. One is cream. The second one is actually mocha. This is more for the Asian people, like it has a yellow undertone. For cocoa, it has a reddish undertone,” Bragais explained.

“I want to push for inclusivity. Like I want the ladies to feel that there is something that is really fitted for them, like a color that could best represent them. I want them to feel like they’re really special. I don’t want them to try something for them to fit in. I mean I want to offer something that you could feel like you’re empowered as a candidate.”

Besana: “How did you make sure that aside from being stylish, the shoes are very comfortable?”

“I’ve worked with several beauty queens here in the country. I realized how important it is for the shoes to be comfortable in order for them to deliver the best pasarela that they can do on pageant night. I got a little backstory because I got a sister, and she is my quality checker. Each and every pair that I create, she will be the very first one to try it on. And when she says that it’s not comfortable, I need to find a way to make it comfortable.

“So along the way I developed my own style, like I put something on inside the shoes to make it comfortable and different from other shoe brands. And I guess I’m successful enough to make the shoes comfortable because each and every beauty queen would say that my shoes are the best pair of shoes that you could ever wear in a pageant. So, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just lucky.”

Besana: “What are the qualities of a winning shoe?”

“First of all, I make sure that the shoes are tall but strong. Second is, it should be stylish but it should be comfortable. The thing about my shoes is that it’s made by the finest craftsmen here in the Philippines. My shoes are actually hand-made. So we put our heart out in everything that we do here in the Philippines. It’s our heart that is present in each and every pair of shoes that we give out to ‘Bragais Babies’ as how I call them. So I’m hoping you feel the love from the Philippines in each and every pair that I create.”

Walk through

The South African queen is ecstatic about the color scheme of Bragais shoes: “As a Black woman, a woman of color, I truly, truly appreciate the range of colors that you bring into the shoe because believe it or not, in 2021 it’s still a struggle to pick out something that matches or is even kind of closer to your skin tone whether it’s makeup or whether it’s the underwear that you’re trying to wear with your shift dress. To have that range and to make sure that all the women are going to feel comfortable in picking a shoe that matches or is close to their skin, I think that’s fantastic. So, kudos to you. I really like that.”

Needless to say, Tunzi wanted to follow in the footsteps of Catriona, the fabled “Lava Walk.” “I think myself and the rest of the world was blown away by Cat. I mean Catriona’s walk for me will always be legendary. I mean, all the former Miss Universes all have an iconic walk,” she said. “But because it was the previous year to mine, it was fantastic. Cat and her Lava Walk, I think I might have watched it a thousand times, honestly. Not even for just learning but just being mesmerized. I mean, when she did the hair flip and the whole hair moved with her body? How insane is that? I said, no way! This is unreal! So Cat, up there. Way up there if I’m counting top five of the most memorable and best walks in like the history of the pageant. Yeah, she definitely takes the crown for me.”

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