Project Runway Season nine winner, fashion designer, model and T&T icon, Anya Ayoung Chee is blessed with the "wow factor". Just when we think she has reached her epitome of excellence, she pulls out yet another innovation out of her artistic sleeve and the result is wow!
We can't seem to get enough of her cutting edge creativity and unique personality. The former Miss T&T Universe dazzled in the 2008 Miss Universe Pageant wearing our colours. She was a stunner. She invoked patriotic pride as the winner of Season nine Project Runway and raised many eyebrows because she was the "Comeback Kid" after controversy. We can't help it; everyone loves a comeback story.
Many admire, some speculate, others try to emulate her style and others who know her simply love her.
Ayoung Chee is a staple in our twin island republic. Like pigeon peas is to pelau, the American-born NYC Graphics Art and Interior Design graduate is to the T&T culture.
While these events of Anya's emergence in the spolight are still fresh in our minds, we have a book of Anya moments to draw upon and each one bears that distinctive appeal, a brilliant manifestation of beauty, brains and brawn.
As I sit on this hot and sunny Tuesday afternoon in the comfort of her couture living room to chat about life after Project Runway, I am impressed by her calm, cool persona. It is two days before her first show in T&T, "Fashion Rocks the Avenue", the forum where she will showcase her 2013 collection, "Carnival of Colour". A teaser before Carnival week to be held smack in the middle of all the action at Adam Smith Square, Ariapita Avenue, it is a highly
anticipated event by her fans.
"Are you nervous about your debut?" I ask.
"Fashion Rocks the Avenue will be my first show in the Caribbean and in Trinidad and Tobago. I am not nervous but I am excited. It's really important to me, it's a significant step! I have always wanted to display my work in the Caribbean and at home here in Trinidad and I am happy that this moment is drawing near," she declares.
She is wearing a colourful mini dress and her make-up is flawless. Her hairstyle is still edgy but elegant, shaven on one side and a long mane on the other side. It's a hairstyle that has her patent written all over it as I have seen many women try and fail with it especially this Carnival season.
Ayoung Chee is flipping through her phone and showing me her most recent photo shoot. "This one was challenging, in this photo you see here I could barely breathe. I nearly died doing it," she joked. The photo before me taken by famed photographer Laura Ferreria, captures the athletic model with half her face (and her nose) immersed into a pool of water. Amazing and abstract, so Anya indeed! "Your photos are great, so out of the box," I comment.
"I like to be unique. My section in Tribe Mas Band, Acara Acraea, for their 2013 presenta-tion, Butterflies, Beasts, Bacchanal was inspired by my love for African prints. It empowers the sexy, edgy, powerful but beautiful dimensions of a woman," she informs. Strange enough, these features are all intrinsic to Ayoung Chee.
Add confident, assertive and committed to the list. When she displayed Carnival of Colour at the New York Fashion Week and in Johannesburg and London last year, the 32-year-old trendsetter wasn't intimidated by the big name designers. For her, the Project Runway title was her springboard and ticket to the world of fashion and with hard work, she put it, she deserved a spot amongst the best in the industry. But more importantly the young, bright and energetic woman who named her first designer line "Pilar", in memory of her brother, began her dream of becoming the Michael Kors for Caribbean and resort flavoured fashion. Nothing and no one would deter her from fulfilling her purpose.
"I believe in embracing adversity and making opportunities out of obstacles. So far it hasn't been an easy trek to where I have reached today and I still have far to go. I admire the likes of Angelina Jolie and Rihanna and their unwavering determination and drive. I, like them, know who I am, what I want and I won't let anything stop me," the St Joseph's Convent alumni states. Her easygoing but elegant, raw but polished, risky (does she mean risque?) but resplendent sense of style and self emanates through her designs. Pretty colours, light, flowing fabrics, prints which tell a story, Ayoung Chee's designs are animated, they talk to you and change your mood when you wear them.
I am looking at one of her designs, a lovely halter back dress, which will be featured at Fashion Rocks the Avenue, and I become nostalgic for a Maracas beach lime, I see myself walking along Store Bay, Tobago wearing it as the surf caresses my feet. It isn't surprising that the inspiration for her work comes from her experiences and the sights and scenes from her beautiful island. With inspiration and intuition as the fundamentals in her business strategy, her path is clear. "Pilar was my first release and I want to start mass production. It's a challenge as before Project Runway, I was into the boutique market catering for a smaller niche. With Carnival of Colour, I am looking at the resort market. I hope to increase the demand for my work and simultaneously promote my beautiful country." Carnival of Colour has undertones of Ayoung Chee's favourite time of the year, Carnival.
"Carnival is a spiritual experience for me. I won't be at the New York Fashion Week this year not only because I haven't launched my winter line but because it is clashing with T&T Carnival. Last year it was close but I was able to do both events but this year I had to choose. I am a Carnival die hard. I don't play with my Jouvert, it's a staple for me!" she declares. She informs me that she will be playing Jouvert with a friend's band, a small and fun-guaranteed ensemble. "Mud or paint?" I ask. She responds with an assertive sigh. "Mud of course. For Jouvert I get to be carefree, paint is nice but it doesn't have the same effect as mud!"
The former ballet dancer reminisces on the good ghosts of Carnivals past, her teenage years of playing with Harts Mas Band, her memorable experience of carrying forth a section with Tribe Mas Band last year and the life changing experience her friend from Utah, USA, had on experiencing Carnival for the first time. Her plans for this year's Carnival are as packed as previous years. "Friday I will be at the International Soca Monarch, after which I may go to Girl Power, and then Saturday it's my party to raise funds for my foundation, TallMan Foundation, established by my family for the empowerment of young people in underprivileged areas. I am not stopping there, there will be no sleep as on Saturday night I get ready for the Diamond Vale Breakfast Fete, Sunday I am split between Booze Cruise and Brian Lara's Fete, Monday it's Jouvert, Monday afternoon and Tuesday it's on the road for pretty mas and Ash Wednesday I'm off to Tobago to rest after these activities!" "Jeezanges!" my reaction is uncalculated but I am breathless just listening to her schedule. The self-acclaimed fetaholic however, flashes a smile of sweet anticipation.
"So what are your key goals now that you have carved a niche for yourself in the International Fashion Industry," I quiz. "I want my work to empower, educate, enlighten and influence women and the world. I want to teach women how to become entrepreneurs and how to take control of their lives and proceed down a path of positivity and prosperity. I believe that this is my purpose in life," she responds.
I have a few more questions for the beauty queen/fashionista extraordinaire and I try my best to compete with her event planners for her show who keep checking in every few minutes. "In the next five years...Marriage?" She laughs. "Yes!" "Children?" Her answer is a blushing affirmation once more. "In the future I want to fulfil my purpose, start a family, get back into my ballet if I find the time that is and possibly learn how to cook my favourite dish of pelau (I can't cook, but then again I have come to terms with the fact that I can't do everything well!)."
Wow... Anya Ayoung Chee is more than a fashion designer, more than a pretty face, more than a ballet dancer, more than a businesswoman... she is an impressive display of a woman and I must admit I am glad that she is Trinbagonian, what a blessing to our country indeed!