Anya Ayoung Chee beat the odds and came out a winner

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Calgary doesn’t quite make the list when it comes to fashion, with Canada’s major fashion schools located in Toronto and Vancouver.

Trinidad and Tobago isn’t exactly a global hothouse for fashion design either, yet that’s where Anya Ayoung Chee, winner of Project Runway Season 9, hails from.

Ayoung Chee launched her first collection Pilar by Anya in 2009.

Anya main2Ayoung Chee overcame many struggles to get to the point where she is now in her fashion career.

Photo courtesy of Project RunwayIn an interview with the Calgary Journal, Ayoung Chee dished about how she achieved success as a designer and what young designers can do to follow in her footsteps — even if they aren’t from New York or Paris.

Tell me about how you first came to be interested in fashion.

I originally studied graphic design at Parsons but really wanted to do fashion. I think I kind of chickened out.

I carried on doing graphic design till my brother died in 2007. I went back home to be with my family, and I was kind of lost.

I decided to enter Miss Trinidad and Tobago to eventually go on to Miss Universe. When I did Miss Universe, one of the things I got to do was design some of my wardrobe.

That’s what really piqued my interest in doing fashion as a career. I always loved it and when I look back now, I realize it was my calling.

Tell me about some of the difficulties and doubts you had along the way.

I had a lot of doubts. I didn’t know how I was going to be received. I didn’t know if people would think ‘Well, she’s not really a fashion designer. Who does she think she is?’

Designing in a small society is challenging because people are always quick to criticize and judge.

Anya main3 copyAyoung Chee is passionate about representing her home country of Trinidad and Tobago through her designs.

Photo courtesy of Project RunwayIn some ways, I already knew I was doing it for myself. I wasn’t that afraid of its success outside of whether or not I thought it was good. That relinquished a lot of pressure for me.

You’re from a small island in the Caribbean. How did that make being a fashion designer more difficult?

If it wasn’t for Project Runway, I wouldn’t be in the position I am in now. It’s definitely challenging.

I don’t think it has to do with coming from Trinidad. But, it definitely has to do with not being born into a certain network of people or a place related to the industry. I’ve had to cultivate a lot of relationships.

How did you come to compete in Project Runway?

I happened to see a tweet early in 2011 that said applications were being accepted. I figured “What do I have to lose?”

I came and did a few rounds of auditions and each time I couldn’t really believe it was happening.

I really thought when I got there for the final audition, which was the first episode, that would have been it. I never anticipated that I would get to the second episode, far less to win.

What was the experience like?

It was amazing. I never went to fashion school, and it really showed me that when you focus, it bears fruit.

Also, the camaraderie of the other designers — I was really impressed that on a competition show, we became friends. It was a privilege to be amongst all the talented people who came together to make the show.

What impact did winning Project Runway have on your success as a fashion designer?

It really opened doors that would not have been opened otherwise in the fashion industry. It has given me the opportunity to actually have what I wanted, which is a global fashion brand.

Given all your experiences, what advice would you have for young fashion designers looking to break into the industry?

Anya mainAyoung Chee says individuality is key to standing out in today’s competitive fashion industry.

Photo courtesy of Project Runway Maintain your individuality because nothing is going to differentiate you in a pool of all of these people trying to do the same thing except your own voice — plus your dedication and focus.

Trust yourself and also realize any dream you want can come true.

What’s in your future?

If anybody had asked me five years ago what my future would be like today, there is no way I could have said this.

I’ve always wanted to be the Caribbean brand that is accepted globally. I have a deep passion for representing Trinidad and taking our culture into the world.

My work has always been in some ways linked to how do I give back, what is the bigger purpose of my work, and how can I influence my home in a positive way.

Editor’s note: Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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