Fashion Fridays: Exclusive Q+A with Trini Project Runway Designer Anya Ayoung-Chee

August 26, 2011

Words by Jesse Serwer, Interview by Simone Serwer

When you walk into a bar half drunk at 11 on a Friday night to interview a former beauty queen turned sex tape star turned reality show contestant, you don’t expect to happen into one of the most intellectually stimulating conversations you’ve participated in all week. But that’s just the type of chick Anya Ayoung-Chee is. The charming, cerebral Trini designer with the aerodynamic hairstyle on the current season of Project Runway, Ayoung-Chee represented Trinidad & Tobago in the 2008 Miss Universe pageant before a salacious sex-tape scandal made her a point of controversy across the Caribbean that same year. Less than 12 months later, she’d already bounced back with her twin fashion lines Pilar by Anya and Anya de Rogue. This is a girl pon de move.

When downtown don dada Matt Goias called me about grabbing some drinks with Ms. Anya at Jo’s on Elizabeth Street in Manhattan, I thought, let me bring along my wife, Jamaica-born style expert (and former assistant to Project Runway‘s Tim Gunn), Simone Serwer. The ladies hit it off, chatting about what it means to be the first Caribbean fashion designer to get a major international TV platform, why cops in Trinidad still wear wool, and the possibilities of reviving Trinidad’s dormant clothes manufacturing sector, among other hard-hitting topics. It was hard not to be impressed with her thoughtfulness. (And judging by her runaway lead in the voting for Project Runway‘s “Fan favorite,” a whole mess of other people seem to really connect with her, too.) There’s so much going on with this interview that we decided to break it in halfโ€”so be sure to check back next Friday for Part Two.

LargeUp: Did the [Project Runway] producers prep you for what life would be like after the show airs, with people coming up to you?
Anya Ayoung-Chee: We did have a meeting at the very end. Just so you know, we all are there to the end. I’m not allowed to talk about where we are at. We all go to the finale. So if I mention anything about that, it’s a sort of universal thing. And they do meet with all of us and they say, this is going to be a little weird going back to normal life because we are sequestered for the entire time.

LU: No media, no newspapers?
AAC: No phone, no music, no Internet, no books, no TV, nothing. Because obviously that’s part of how potentially you might go a little crazy. And of course it avoids any sharing of information. We’re not supposed to be influenced in any way by current fashion. You can’t date the show by saying for instance “Gay marriage is approved in New York” while you’re on it, because it wasn’t technically when the show’s running. So things like that. So they do somewhat prep you that it’s gonna be a bit of a mad rush. And I can 100 percent tell you that’s what it’s been. I think even the conversation about that didn’t prepare me for this. I didn’t expect the entireโ€”not only Trinidad but the whole Caribbeanโ€”there’s a sense that one of our own…

LU: Like you’re representing the entire West Indies basically…
AAC: Yeah, literally. Of course, that’s my impression. I’m very aware of the fact that I only know what I’m told or what I happen to hear or happen to read, and I am very deliberate about not reading things that I think might tarnish my own sense of self. So I don’t know too much of the hatred…

LU: So you’re not just the designer, you’re the West Indian designer, you carry that weight on your shoulders…
AAC: Yeah, that’s my impression but I will say that aware of that because that’s what I choose. If I sat down and started to read, I know there’s a lot of other stuff going on that’s not so positive. The [sex] tapes thing is there, that’s real. People don’t believe that I’ve actually just learned to sew. Which is actually in a twisted way sort of a compliment because I really did. There are things I choose not to engage in. But I really genuinely feel a lot of love, a lot of support. There’s a sense that maybe there’s a chance for us people who come from a small place to make it. And it’s true. And that’s nice. I didn’t intend on that. I did this for me as a designer. And if all that comes with it, I am proud of that. I became Miss Trinidad & Tobago really so that I could rep the Caribbean.

LU: Do you feel that the hate comes more from the States, more from back home, or both?
AAC: I don’t know. I’d be speculating. I just don’t bother to get engaged in that. What’s the point, cause really and truly, I don’t know them and they don’t know me. They may think they do, and I may think I do but I don’t and they don’t, so what’s the point?

LU: When would you date your passion for dress and design to? When did you decide I need to design?
AAC: To me, there’s two answers because I, from very young, I didn’t know so much as acted out an awareness of the way you dress is a form of identity. I understood that instinctively from very young. I would always make the effort to be different. My mom always says there’s two things I did before I could even sit straight was pose and dress up. And then I had five younger brothers. I’m the only girl. I think that I just never wanted to be a boy but did want to be a boy but because I could’t be a boy, I had to be a girl. So I was very girly in that sense and loved to dress. I wasn’t a girly girl. I just understood that the way I dressed was my form of representing me.

LU: I can see it now. You’re look is still feminine but it’s not frills and bows and sequins.
AAC: I was never into that. I went to Tokyo when I was 15. And I kind of told my parents y’all could leave me here. I was so into how aesthetically pleasing the place was. I enjoyed seeing how design was so integrated into every little aspect of everything, from sweetie rappers to toilet paper rolls. Everything. I didn’t know what design was. You grow up in the Caribbean, the only respectable thing to do is grow up to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. Somebody met me yesterday and sussed me out in a second. They were like, you went to the school with the kids of all the ambassadors. I grew up, for better or worse, in a relatively privileged way in Trinidad. The only things you did from that point was go to Yale, go to Harvard, go to Cambridge, go to Oxford and become a doctor. And pretty much all of my friends are that. They’re all Ivy Leaguers. They work for BP. They run things. Very bright, very successful, in a conventional sense.

LU: As a creative person, do those friends look at you and say why didn’t you study economics or engineering?
AAC: I think I looked at myself that way. I went to Parsons and Central St. Martins, I didn’t exactly fuck off. But in the relative landscape of I’m not doing geology at Yale, I judged myself a lot through those years. Eventually, I’ve given up that. Becoming a designer was very instinctive for me after being in a place like Tokyo. Design wasn’t something introduced to me as a way of thinking. But after going to Tokyo I understood, this takes thought. And I liked it. So when I was 18, I came here. I wanted to go to Parsons, I knew I wanted to do fashion. And I chickened out hardcore. I did my first few weeks in the fashion department and I was like fuck this, I don’t want to be with all these girls, because there was too much cattiness, and I didn’t think I had what it took. So I did graphic design instead.

LU: But your heart was always in fashion…
AAC: Always. I worked as a graphic designer for a bit, and then my brother died so I went home to be with my family. That is sort of what liberated me. I went home to be with them and ended up staying there, as things happen. I thought, I’ll try to work here. I got a job, it was a good job, and the day I started working at this new job, doing graphic design, I became Miss Trindad & Tobago.

LU: The same day? A very huge message…
AAC: The same day. I tried to do both: Train to be Miss Trinidad & Tobago, and also work. Cause I really was abhorrently against being a beauty queen. I was really conflicted. After a month and a half, I gave up the job and just did the beauty queen thing. I was into my wardrobe, and it just reminded me this is what I want to do. A year later, I launched my own line. Trinidad & Tobago Fashion Week had just kind of started. It was the second year of it, 2009. I was currently Miss Trinidad & Tobago, so I did definitely had a platform. I named it after my brother, so it’s called Pilar. And that’s what I’ve been doing for three years.

LU: Your brother’s passing was the catalyst to say, ‘Life is too short, I need to focus on what I’m passionate about.
AAC: He died at 18 and probably never even had much of an experience of what life really is, never fulfilled his dreams, so I figured let me just do what I want to do. Definitely his death has sort of spurred my life. I know it sounds a little corny but it’s true. Every time I’m losing track I revisit that, and it’s instantaneous. It’s amazing to continuously be reminded why I’m doing this. It’s never dated or old. It’s so live for me. I don’t mean him in a personified way. It’s very spiritual, and I genuinely feel that him leaving, I’m conjoined–I’m no longer just me. It’s not like he’s only joined me. But in my life it is an exponential kind of growth.

LU: He’s a big part of how you design and think?
AAC: I hate to localize him. He and whatever it is that he represents in the universe, when I connect to that, it’s so powerful. I am first and he is fifth, so he’s seven years younger than me. Our relationship, the memory of it is until I left for New York, so he was 11. Then I reconnected with him and he was becoming a manโ€”17, 18. I remember playing masโ€”we were on the road, and the band he used to play with was one of those where you had to kind of jump before a drink. He was young, so he wasn’t really supposed to be drinking but I was passing him drinks and I remember thinking, You’re actually a man now. And that was my last experience of him. He died soon after.

LU: Moving forward, where do you see your aesthetic going?
AAC: I don’t know how much I can really say. My style’s always, from the inception of my line until now, been very influenced by the Caribbean. The first line I did was based off of the Boboshanti. Very African, very Afrocentric. Because the Caribbean is that. I love the way that Rastafari dress. I’ve always wanted to be one of them, but I am not. So this is my vicarious way of doing it. But then I also brought in a little Japanese in it, because I made all these Africanized Obi belts. And then the second collection was military inspired. We live in this strange post-colonial environment. And the policemen still wear wool.

LU: In 100 degree weather…
AAC: It makes no sense. But that’s what’s around me. Also the idea of uniformityโ€”I wore a uniform my whole school life. My sense of the Caribbean, fashion-wise, it’s a very uniform way of dressing. Girls dress some version of this but not as adventurous and don’t actually realize that they’re wearing a uniform. So it was a little bit of a play on that. But I think recently my style has evolved outside of the Caribbean vernacular into something more sophisticated. Because I’d like to work in the bigger world. I’d like to be able to survive and make clothes that people who don’t live in the Caribbean buy.

LU: And have a functioning line…
AAC: It’s not just resort. But it’s still… I can never extricate myself from where I’m from. It’s deeply part of who I am. That will always influence me.