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Making the cut
Anya Ayoung-Chee was born to Trinidadian parents in New York City but moved to Trinidad at the age of two. She pursued graphics and interior design, and was Miss T&T Universe 2008. Despite learning to sew just four months before auditioning for the programme, she won season nine of the popular American TV show Project Runway in 2011.
Through winning the competition, Anya earned US$100,000 from L’Oreal Paris to begin her own line, Pilar. She also was featured in a fashion spread in Marie Claire and received a US$50,000 technology suite by HP and Intel for the chance to design and sell merchandise. She is currently part of the new American reality show Under the Gunn on the Lifetime channel. Here, travel and lifestyle photojournalist Sean Drakes, based in the US, takes a behind-the-scenes look at her role in the new show.
“In the workroom it gets kind of tense. There all sorts of psychological games that start to happen. My mentoring is also going to be about how to play the psychological games,” advised Anya Ayoung-Chee to her four mentees. Well, that teaser excited radars: who wouldn’t want to peep the playbook used to negotiate the illusion of honesty and authenticity some use to get ahead in the reality TV game?
There is no debate: Anya has an abundance of talent and ambition. To make the cut to join her boy’s club, each designer endured her soft-spoken scrutiny. In case you missed her notes: Anya’s not fond of nervous energy, as witnessed with Natalia, or over-styling, which is Oscar’s trademark; and your garment better not underwhelm, as evidenced by Stephanie. Yet each of Anya’s rejects got plucked from obscurity by mentors Nick Verreos and Mondo Guerra and given the chance to knock her out.
Anya’s charged with grooming four young men for runway battles that will change their lives. Brady Lange’s style is relaxed and youthful; Shan Keith channels the urban vibe that Anya digs; and Blake Smith and Nicholas Komor are mellow souls that deliver edge with upmarket finesse.
From the 15 candidates, only 12 became mentees, advancing to challenges to be judged by entertainers, editors, and the divine Ms Klum. Anya filled three slots in round one of mentee selection, and found herself “in a bind,” to quote Mr Verreos, with just one vacancy and many bold voices to choose from in round two. “I didn’t expect this seven to be as strong as they are; they are pushing the boundaries more,” admitted Anya.
Mentor Nick revealed his arrows are aimed at Anya: “I don’t know how Anya is gonna discuss construction with these designers when she barely finished a garment her whole season [on Project Runway].”
The road ahead is no stroll in the park for these mentors. Their brand and street creds may be tainted based on the pointers they pass to their contenders. Tim Gunn, the show’s patriarch, is there to spoon servings of wisdom. “Mentoring is very individualised based on the designer with whom you are working,” he advised. Anya’s approach to design, business and mentoring is informed by her mentor at 6 Carlos Street. We assume as she tweaks her team, she’ll impart that she learned the ‘M’ in Meiling is for meticulous, which should be evident in the details of a garment.
The formula for selecting teams felt like the recipe for paella. Anya was glued to gut moves and used gender to her advantage. On the flip side, Mondo was hardnosed and deemed over-designing a red flag, dismissing designs for being safe; while Nick scored for people “who can do everything, not something that’s in stores now; I want to see the future of fashion.” Odds are that Shan and Brady won’t get much playtime with the mind games of the workroom; we’ll be tuning in to see how long team Anya can make it work.
• Next Sunday: Game on: Anya sews into battle.
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