Young. Beautiful. Immensely Talented. Project Runway and former Miss Trinidad Anya Ayoung-Chee has an indomitable spirit and wears many hats (and earrings!) Fashion designer. Philanthropist. Businesswoman. But the moniker she might love the most is “sister.” Anya opens up with Ocean Splash in this edition of COFFEE SHOP.
So what was it like to be on Project Runway?
It was more intense than it was on TV. Challenging. Enjoyable… it was nice to be forced to produce clothes constantly.
What was your favorite part of doing the show?
Having the opportunity to show my work to some of the most well-respected people in the industry. It forced me to grow, like being in an incubator.
How did you get along with the other contestants on the show? Quite well. We had quite a good comradery between all of us. The producers even said how much better we got along than previous seasons. The last eight of us were very close. We got along well, helped each other. It was really nice.
What was it like seeing your designs on the runway at Fashion Week?
Oh my gosh, it was surreal! We were very tired. Standing backstage with Tim Gunn, having watched Project Runway before, I couldn’t believe I was standing there. There was this huge catwalk. Amazing – it really amplified the clothes. Having great models… just amazing.
I heard you were the judge’s favorite. Did you feel that way?
I didn’t really. I think it’s easier for people to feel that way from the outside, but there were extended critiques, different from what people saw [on TV]. I was constantly having internal conversations with myself about my own work and the standard I wanted to achieve.
How is Heidi Klum in real life?
She is very funny, honest, genuine. Unexpectedly candid. She’s hardworking, smart, savvy. It was wonderful to see her in her element. She has, like, four kids and 10 jobs – she’s incredible to witness.
Did you really learn to sew right before the show?
Yes, I did.
How long have you been designing clothes?
Well, I started Pilar by Anya in May 2009, so 3 ½ years, but I have a background in graphic design, so I’ve been a designer for about 12 years.
When did you know you wanted a career in fashion?
Soon after I finished Miss Universe in 2008. Really, I probably knew all along, I just didn’t know how. When I did Miss Universe, I had a chance to design some of the clothes. But when my brother passed in 2007, his tragic death at a young age propelled me to follow my true passion, to live my dreams.
What inspires your designs?
Often I’m inspired by indigenous cultures and the way they’ve dressed through the centuries. Their clothes are very beautiful without being contrived – they don’t do it for fashion. I love to see people who are fashionable without trying.
When do you work best?
Usually under pressure, which you saw a bit of on the show. Or by the sea. I’m in a good place to design when I’m by the ocean, so home in Trinidad or Tobago – that’s when I create my best work – away from urban settings.
What is your everyday attire?
It varies. When I’m in NYC, practical. The Caribbean, airy and easy. My clothes are designed around that [island] lifestyle. But it varies, it’s never actually one thing.
Your favorite new trend?
As the seasons change [here in NYC], I like to see shorts. Shorts and patterned stockings.
Your least favorite trend?
My least favorite thing in fashion is people who are just copying. People who embody a style 100% and haven’t put their own flair into it.
Who is your favorite designer?
I have several, but if I had to pick one it would be Alexander McQueen. He was a real genius. It’s really hard to get any better than him in our generation of designers.
Who would you most like to see wearing your designs?
I’ve been wanting Rihanna to wear my clothes for a long time. She represents what my look is about on so many levels, she’s a Caribbean woman, very relevant, very global…
What is your idea of the perfect day off?
I love going to look for fabric. Being at the markets. Being around things that inspire me.
You used to be a pageant queen, do you miss doing pageants?
Oh my gosh, no! (laughs) I really don’t miss that experience. I really enjoyed being able to represent my country and designing clothes, but I don’t miss the pageant.
What do you want readers to know about your background, where you grew up, your family….
Although I was born in NYC, I grew up in T&T. I have five brothers. We’re a very tight family. I am the only girl and the oldest. I feel blessed to have grown up in a strong nuclear family. My brothers are my best friends.
You have overcome some real trials and scandals in your life, what advice kept you going?
I have received a lot of great advice from family and friends. I have had strong support. But ultimately I had to listen to my inner voice. It was about learning to grow within myself rather than listen to the outside, and remaining true to me in the process.
What is next for you?
I have a resort collection coming out in June. I intend to show at the Spring/Summer shows at New York Fashion Week in the fall. I’m working on a retail project and continuing to build my e-commerce platform. I’m also involved with several charities, including an Arts program –The Tall Man Foundation.
What advice do you have for a young designer who dreams of being where you are?
I feel like I was not where I am now not so long ago. It’s hard to believe sometimes. But I’d say being 100% confident in your own mark and believing that if this is your calling, you have to stick to it and be persistent.