Anya Ayoung Chee doesn’t take the opportunities she’s had in life for granted. She understands and appreciates the unique power and influence she has as one of the Caribbean’s brightest creative stars. And she wants to use that platform for good.
“My work has evolved beyond fashion in a sense where I’ve started up something that has to do with where entrepreneurship meets social impact and with an emphasis on small business – and I guess if you want to get more granular, creative industries,” the 39-year-old fashion designer, reality TV star and creative entrepreneur told WMN.
Everyone knows Anya’s story. She was TT’s feisty 2008 representative to the Miss Universe beauty pageant. She was the plucky season nine winner of hit US reality fashion design series Project Runway – despite learning to sew just barely six months before shooting. She’s a model, a businesswoman, an influencer, social activist and even a member of the Inter-American Development Bank’s Next-gen Board in TT as one of the shapers of the future.
But behind the glitz and glamour is a woman who just wants to make the world a better place.
“What is the Anya brand? It’s really a complicated question because it has really kind of expanded to where design and creative industries have become married in as many ways as possible with social impact and entrepreneurship.”
Her core interest that underpins her empire remains fashion design, with the Anya Ayoung Chee Limited Edition brand as the flagship and WYLD FLWR – a new brand launched last February (not the best timing, she laughs) with a focus on festival wear.
She also launched Nudge last year, a social enterprise in partnership with regional conglomerate Massy, to give a space and visibility to small and micro enterprise owners. And this year, she’s hoping to get grant funding for Spool, an off-shoot of her Together WI foundation, that will create a database of skills and competencies among women, particularly low-income and migrant women who are trained in tailoring and other arts necessary for apparel production. This would help not just her, but other designers in TT access use and grow a pool of local talent.
Make it work
A huge part of what drives her, Ayoung Chee said, is a desire to encourage and help creative professionals like herself, but who don’t always get the respect and credit they deserve.
“The creative professional struggles. On the outside, we’re all really good at branding and marketing but on the inside of it it’s a struggle. And I want to change that. We are the creatives in the community, the ones who bring all the vibes – we bring all the effort of what eventually becomes commodification. So how do we benefit. We can’t always be cut out of the deal. That’s not fair. That’s a huge part, I think, of what motivates me with Nudge… How to protect the livelihoods of the ones who do. The intellectual property belongs to us. We have to benefit in a more significant sustainable way.”
She wants to be that support for others the way her family and friends are for her.
“It started with my parents being willing to put me through design school. And now, fast forward, my husband (photographer Wyatt Gallery) is really supportive of me and my work.”
Gallery, Ayoung Chee’s longtime love and creative partner also does his fair share of work around the home – especially with child care when it comes to raising the couple’s two-year-old son, Kairi.
“It’s because of that I could do what I’m doing full-time. I’ve had to fight for the credibility to do what I do to – convince people and even myself that what I do is legit and not a hobby or a side hustle. I think it’s a combination of solid family life from my parents and now my husband and son, as well as the evolution of the world where it’s more acceptable to have a creative profession.”
Ayoung-Chee always had a visceral desire to help people. She’d been inspired from childhood by her mother, Michele Jodhan, the director of the TallBoy foundation, which encourages young men to embrace their creative side. What she couldn’t figure out was how. That’s when she realised she could leverage the exposure of being Miss Trinidad and Tobago.
“The whole reason I wanted to do Miss Trinidad & Tobago was because I wanted to have a voice, I wanted to have a platform, to be a voice for women in general. I was 26, so I don’t know how clear that was in my mind, I’m probably adding more wisdom to my 26-year-old self at the time but if I look back I really didn’t want to be a beauty queen. It really was a very bad fit for me. I was terrible. I hated the process. But I did love the space that it gave me to talk about things I felt were important and add weight to areas that I saw in TT that were not being highlighted.”
Then, a few years after Miss T&T, she auditioned – and won a spot – on Project Runway. Ayoung Chee is a trained designer – she attended the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York and Central St Martins School of Art and Design in London. But she didn’t know how to sew – something that was evident through her time on the show, despite being a fan and judge favourite.
“I never thought I was going to win. I was probably the most surprised out of anybody. So, when it happened, I wasn’t ready for it.”
Winning Project Runway was an unimaginable boost to her credibility as a designer. But it also came with a price.
“The expectation was so high after I won. It was a lot. I was being pulled in a thousand different directions and couldn’t figure out what my purpose and direction was. I was trying to be everything.”
Eventually, she took a year off, not consciously, she said, but it was definitely a necessity.
“I was grateful, it was a massively incredible, transformative experience. It’s given me so much opportunity, it still does. I’m so grateful for it. But after about five years of constant grinding, trying to keep up with the opportunities, trying to make the most of everything, I burnt out.”
Her time off gave her some time to reflect on what it was she really wanted to do.
“I think during that year – the silence, and space and struggle – I connected with something in myself about purpose. I think what was missing in all those years after Project Runway was purpose – I was lost. The commercialisation of my brand was so much about making it commercially viable and it wasn’t enough substance for me. I wasn’t interested in making dresses to make money only.”
Of course, not one to stay still, despite her year off, Anya channelled her energy into launching a non-profit foundation, Together WI, in 2017. One of the first campaigns was a tie in with Calypso Rose’s hit that year Leave Me Alone, highlighting sexual harassment and violence against women, tying in to the global #MeToo movement, and also some of the more unsavoury yet less talked about aspects of Carnival.
So, how now to blend activism and business?
“I love designing clothes. That will never go away. But (I want to) design clothes in a way that I am actively bringing livelihood opportunities for people who need it. It might seem a stretch but I see the connection between women’s livelihoods and avoiding abusive situations. The more financial independence women have, the less likely they will be stuck (in a difficult situation.)”
Anya the brand’s business model, then, is ensuring fair pay and social services for the women – many of whom may be in the lower income bracket.
“I’m actively making sure that women are being paid fairly that the programmes they belong to are connected to psycho-social services, ensuring the health and wellness of these women – that is core to what I’m doing now. So, the clothing is secondary to that. The clothing is a form of earning money. And I’m very proud of that and that is much more meaningful to me than having a brand that is successful for the sake of success.”
It’s also about playing to your strengths.
“Social work for social work is not for me. I have to do what I’m good at and it has to be connected to social impact. And that’s where it all gels. Okay, I’m a good designer, I have a brand, people care about what I say. I’m grateful that’s the place I’m in and now I can do it well, with social impact as the core intention.”
Glam Team: Anya’s hair and makeup by Soirée Beauty
See more of Anya’s projects and activism on Instagram @anyaayoungchee and @wyldflwr