Words by Jesse Serwer, Interview by Simone Serwer
Chuck D. once said, “Public Enemy interviews are better than most rappers’ shows”–or something like that. Well, we’re pretty sure Project Runway contestant Anya Ayoung-Chee’s interviews are better than most of her fellow designers’ clothes. In Part 1 of our conversation last week, the former Miss Trinidad & Tobago Universe 2008 spoke about her experiences representing tiny T&T on the world stage, how her brother Pilar’s death inspired her to pursue her dream of becoming a fashion designer…and generally defied any notions one might have about a beauty queen turned sex tape star turned reality TV contestant. Read below for Part 2, as Anya discusses how carnival season influences her designs (and fashion in Trinidad as a whole), why she responded to her sex tape scandal by launching a lingerie line, and how she balances her creative impulses with her need to sell clothes. She also has some interesting ideas about rebuilding Trinidad’s dormant manufacturing sector. She’s lived a lot already but we’re pretty sure this is just the beginning for the 29-year-old –and her aerodynamic haircut, which we can already see is starting to catch on in New York. This definitely won’t be the last time you’ll be seeing her on LargeUp.
LargeUp: Where have you sold most of your clothes?
Anya Ayoung-Chee: I’ve done mostly custom orders. A lot of my clientele is diaspora West Indians living in cities. It’s Toronto, New York, London, Tokyo. It’s always one off but a weird mix of ready to wear and custom. It’s not like I’m designing specific pieces for them. But they’ll still only order one piece at a time from the collections that I’ve made that are “ready to wear.” I do have West Indian clients who live in the West Indies. But local fashion in the Caribbean is a strange, art-on-the-wall kind of thing. People don’t really buy it. Because we’re competing with Chinese imports and it’s very hard, price-wise, to compete with that.
LU: What about Bacchanal? When it comes to that time of year, do you get more business?
AAC: Absolutely. In fact, I have really modeled my business off of Carnival. That’s an excellent question. Carnival is the mecca of Trinidad life and, to some extent, because it has sort of a South Pole position in the Caribbean, [Trinidad] has a big bearing on the Caribbean in general. And so our lives revolve around that time of year. It’s when people, wherever they’re getting their money from, they’re spending it. And then all the diaspora come, foreigners come…
LU: Every T&Ter I know goes back for Carnival, no matter of what…
AAC: And they have a fete every night. They know they have to dress and not wear the same thing as everybody else. It’s a big deal. For a young designer, which is really what I am, if I can make money then, I’m making money then. There’s no spring, summer, winter so our seasons really are event-based. There’s Christmas, there’s Carnival and we still celebrate many ethnic festivals like Diwali, Eid. It’s a very eclectic situation. But Carnival is my big time. I never really focus on it like, “This is going to be my life trying to make money off of Carnival” but certainly, as a young designer, that’s where I have put my energy. And then dressing the celebrities, the soca stars. It is its own little model but it works.
LU: That clientele that utilizes you during Carnival, do they come back the rest of the year?
AAC: Not really. It’s very seasonal. They want clothes to wear to all the parties and then after that they’re gonna go to our little version of H&M and buy little shorts and little tops. Trinidad is not a fashion conscious place. Most of the Caribbean. Well, no. Jamaica is very fashion conscious.
LU: There are a lot of Caribbean designers now. There’s Caribbean Fashion Week in Jamaica, T&T Fashion Week…
AAC: It’s not like it doesn’t exist. Everybody from throughout the Caribbean shows [at T&T]. I’m not saying it’s all great but it’s not supported. It’s entertainment. Buyers don’t come, press doesn’t come. In Trinidad, it’s an insecurity. If we were a little more secure and owned our identity then we would dress a different way.
LU: I’d say that’s the same for any colony, though…
AAC: Jamaica’s not like that. I think when it comes to fashion and music in Jamaica, they are a little more confident about how to express that. In Trinidad, we’re close to Venezuela, so it’s a very Latinized culture. And it reflects in the fashion. Everything’s tight and short. It’s overly sexualized.
LU: Just reflecting that hot weather…
AAC: But no one’s really going out on a limb to make a statement with the way that they dress. Other than that they’re going to get noticed because they have nothing on. It’s not like here where someone’s making a statement with what they’re wearing. There’s a confidence that comes along with it.
LU: So in T&T if you were to construct something that wasn’t necessarily tight and part of that traditional paradigm, would you be written up like what is this designer doing?
AAC: I wouldn’t even bother. Not for a young audience anyway. The older generation of designers can do that. For me, if it’s not tight, short and revealing then who’s going to wear it. The thing about fashion is it’s not fine art. It’s not meant to hang on a wall. it has to sell. And so I am very aware of who my market is, wherever I am. That’s why I am very committed to coming back here because if I don’t do that, I’m just gonna be stuck.
LU: Would you like to base yourself here, production-wise?
AAC: I’m not sure. Because I do see the potential of building an industry, gradually, in the Caribbean. Rebuilding, I should say. Because Trinidad used to have a thriving manufacturing industry, and it fell apart. But I think the potential is there to take business back there. It’s cheaper than making it here. It’s close enough that shipping-wise, it’s not a huge issue. Producing in New York is not a cheap venture. If I’m going to [manufacture in] El Salvador, Guatemala or even LA then why not just do it in Trinidad, you know? For all of my disdain for certain things in Trinidad, I am 100, 000 percent committed to its development and whatever it is that I can do, as little me, to grow it. Trinidad is an oil economy, which is great, but finite. I think if I can do my little part to diversify the economy in my little way, why not.
LU: Do you think young designers from T&T can thrive if they stay or do they need to come here?
AAC: Because I’ve sort of becoming the young designer in Trinidad, people ask me things like that. And I think that if you can, it will always benefit you to be exposed to something else, whether the “something else” is Timbuktu or New York. It’s the “something else” that always triggers more thought and generates more ideas. Living in and working in New York introduces you to the pace of work that doesn’t exist in the Caribbean, generally. Everyone’s content to work just so much there. Here, that doesn’t cut it. For me, I have seen my capacity for work. If I didn’t live here and work to that extent, I would never know I was capable of that. I had to be pushed that hard. I wasn’t doing that for myself voluntarily. But it’s like you lose your job or you’re gonna keep your job–OK, I’ll work. And in Trinidad and probably most of the Caribbean who’s studying that? You got a nice job or you’re gonna going to the beach.
LU: You have a really interesting aesthetic for your website, with girls in lingerie riding on the back of giant insects…
AAC: Pilar is my mainstream line inspired by carnival. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s only to be worn at carnival but I’ve understood that carnival wear exists throughout the Caribbean throughout the year. Anya de Rogue I designed after the tapes because I felt I could experiment with who I was as a person and as a designer at that point. The lingerie was a kind of design response to what it meant to be a sex tape star. For me, life is an opportunity to sort of respond and I just responded…in the language that I knew. Lingerie was my way of saying what does one do when one is dressed in this way. The Caribbean is interesting when it comes to sexuality. Trinidad is kind of repressed–we’ll get on all bad at carnival but the rest of the year we’re not talking about sex. The insect thing happened because somebody saw the work, they wanted to shoot it and they shot it like that. It wasn’t my idea but I thought it was kind of cool. Like, why? But, why not?
LU: Do you know why?
AAC: Alex Smails, the photographer, shot it because he had all these insects being dragged into his house by the cat and started shooting them up close, seeing the textures. And he was like, “I just want to juxtapose these two things.: And I was like cool, whatever. I liked how completely illogical it was. And then Anya de Rogue for me is the line where I can do whatever I want with it. But none of that work sold. Nobody bought anything from it.
LU: So you’re not doing it any more?
AAC: I might. I don’t really care. I think it’s cool that it’s like my little art project. I can do whatever I want under that brand. It’s my way of experimenting.
LU: How, as a designer, do you reconcile your passion and having to pay the bills?
AAC: I think you separate the two. The Rogue thing is fully rogue. I don’t really care. Sell, don’t sell, whatever. it’s just fun. Without that, I couldn’t do the commercial thing.