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Project Runway Winner Anya Ayoung-Chee on Finding Her Voice

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ANYA
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I met Anya, the latest winner on Project Runway, back in September at the WIE Symposium. She was in New York for Fashion Week and I didn't recognize her at first, but I fell in love with the jacket she was wearing. I don't usually do this sort of thing, but I asked her where she got it. "I made it" was the answer and then it all fell into place. This was Anya from Project Runway. I have to admit, I'm really glad Anya pulled out the win.

Anya and I talked about women finding their voice. This was natural coming off the WIE Symposium since WIE stands for Women, Inspiration and Enterprise. The event focused on what it means to be a woman today and with Donna Karan as one of the hosts, it was an easy match to Anya's interests.

Anya is from Trinidad and though there's a woman prime minister, she's had to actively search out ways to find her voice as a young woman. Reflecting on the experience at WIE, Anya had this to say:

We had just finished the panel with several very strong women and it struck me that they were all very modern women and that in the Caribbean, this is not to make a huge generalization, but generally there are very few female roles that are powerful and stand out in the public eye ... The prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago is a woman, but she's the first who ever has been in office. My point was that I was searching for a way ... to have a voice and also still be me. So I did Miss Trinidad and Tobago and Miss Universe as my sort of grasping for that and that didn't really work out so well. I didn't enjoy being objectified in that way. But then Project Runway has given me, in a strange way, a role. I've become somewhat of a role model in my own community and it's been amazing.

I asked her about being a role model on the show, emphasizing collaboration and cooperation in such a competitive atmosphere. There's a moment in one of the final episodes where Joshua asks Anya for some fabric. The camera catches Anya and she seems to be thinking, "Okay. How do I do this? Do I give it to him or not?" Keeping boundaries is also something to model. I asked her what it was like competing and did she see herself as a leader.

I don't think I was that conscious of it. To be honest, I wasn't really too conscious of the competition until towards the end where you see when I'm trying to make decisions on whether I should give fabric or not. Until that point I was just sort of enjoying the process all the way along. I just prefer things to be more collaborative in general, so maybe I'm just accustomed to that way of working.

[Project Runway] definitely showed me personally that there's so much more to be gained from sharing ... We all did that throughout the entire time. I thought it was so much more enjoyable and so much more came out of it for all of us. I guess there was a point toward the end when we all started to feel more conscious of wanting to win and that changed it a little bit, but it wasn't quite as drastic as it seemed. It served me better just in terms of generally enjoying the process to be more open and more giving the entire time.

Coming from the Caribbean has shaped Anya's aesthetic and her identity. I really appreciated hearing Anya's thoughts on what it means to her country to have her advance on the show and bring attention to Trinidad. A friend of Anya's, also a beauty pageant winner, was recently accused of not being "trini" enough for donning an American accent in an interview.

Because I've maintained my accent without really thinking about it, we were sort of put against each other ... Anyway, I think identity is a huge part of a culture that is small and fighting for its space in the world. And Trinidadians are very, very conscious of their accents because we have to sort of distinguish ourselves from other small islands like Jamaica who have a very powerful cultural voice. So me keeping my Trinidadian accent very strongly on the show has been a big talking point. I think it's fascinating because I didn't really notice that's what I was doing. But it's fascinating for me to come back home and that's what everyone is talking about.

It's important to me that I continue to evolve as a designer and I saw myself do that towards the end of this competition, seeing a different aesthetic that wasn't quite so obviously Caribbean. I want to maintain my own growth as well as keep some measure of loyalty to where I'm from. I think that's what makes me unique. Right now I'm in this tension of what am I representing, but it's very exciting. Being on Project Runway has really allowed me to see the power of growth from a design point of view.

In talking about identity, I slipped in a question with some personal relevance, but is an issue many mothers face. I asked about self-expression through fashion, seeing teenage girls dressing provocatively and trying not to fight with my own daughter over this at times. Anya's answer helped me reframe the discussion, remembering how important the issues of identity and self-respect are.

Because Trinidad was once a British colony we all would still wear uniforms throughout high school and primary school so we didn't have as many opportunities to dress up. There was a really sort of egalitarian approach to things because of not being able to wear anything but a uniform. But of course I remember I was trying to express myself as much as I could whenever I went to parties. I never really battled too much with my mom. I guess she always let me be expressive, but there's that fine line, at what point are you being too overt about your sexuality or whatever ... I think there are many opportunities for lessons when you have a girl. And this is something that's interesting about the Caribbean, we tend to dress in a little bit of an oversexed way. You know, very tight, very short. I mean, it is hot and that's probably one reason. It is one of the only ways that I think women feel that they're going to get any sort of attention and I think fashion, on a more complex scale, can give us so many more options. For young girls and their moms it's an opportunity to discuss identity and self-respect and pride and how very many options there are to be expressive without being disrespectful to yourself. But, of course it's a lot easier said than done. I think it's really [laughter] trial and error. I think a lot of it comes from how the mother dresses. You know, setting an example by the way they dress themselves.

I think I'd be setting a great example wearing the gorgeous jacket Anya had on when I met her. You can see it here on her website. So I've got my fingers crossed that Anya will get her line out soon and include that little jacket. For more on my interview with Anya, go to www.betweenparents.org.