Hot from the surface, right down to the bone, my skin was boiling. Running on adrenaline during a 2-week Caribbean ‘run & gun’ (nonstop location shooting), the sticky-sweet humidity made my entire scalp feel like it was a victim of slicked down baby hair. Lip gloss going from luscious to lackluster, I craved a refreshing moment to pull it in before rounding out TV coverage for a lifestyle show.
Runway staging set, the conversation bubbled as plush chairs filled with tastemakers, socialites, fashion, sports and film personalities at Ocean Style’s invite-only affair at ATL Autohaus in Montego Bay, Jamaica. No better time to channel my inner ‘Klymaxx,’ an 80’s R&B favorite, for “…a meeting in the ladies room…”
Most female event sophisticates in the U.S. are familiar with classic powder room politics. Basic etiquette includes: 10 seconds of complete mirror domination before enduring a ruthless stare down and exchanging “…cuuute dress” compliments in exchange for full-length mirror time. Careless whispers focused on he, she or they are spoken in code. In the Caribbean, my experience proved different. Packed with women primping to perfection, I nearly ran into Project Runway winner Anya Ayoung-Chee upon entry. Flanked by a group of influential women, including editor and lifestyle aristocrat, Novia McDonald- Whyte (often referred to as the Jamaican Anna Wintour) and the venerable (and proudly opposed to the limelight) Trinidadian fashion designer Meiling. Anya’s eyes popped with excitement in their company.
Forgoing the states tempting assortment of multi-colored Blow Pops and bathroom attendants offering scented hand lotion, the power trio and their tribe commenced to wardrobe pinning as they rolled out professional grade flatirons, designer lipstick and crème. With one powerhouse hoisted high in a makeup chair, preparing for her facial pat down, they reinvigorated the term-‘freshening up.’ Kindly clearing a space of refuge for me in front of the mirror, as an outsider I felt their calming welcome. Supporting each other’s greatness, they quickly swatted off Anya’s “does my hair look okay” inquiry as if to rightly affirm- ‘darling, you are smashing!’
Anya was now in their lair. While it was the 30-year-old’s first trip home to the Caribbean following her unexpected win on the popular reality design competition, Meiling had long mentored her fellow Trini. It was apparent that the cradle of local support, gently anchoring Anya prior to her win had tightened-not by way of harboring shallow exclusivity but rather to ensure her focus and protection from hype.
With foreign fashionistas in awe of the “exotic” expression of her “Caribbeaness” that innately influences her designs, insiders point out that Anya’s deserved fame and newfound spotlight on island inhabiting designers, was built on the backs of her predecessors, including Claudia Pegus, Heather Jones and Robert Young.
Initially capturing Anya’s glow on camera during an interview at Caribbean Fashion Week in 2009, I recently asked if she envisioned reality stardom. “Oh no!” she quickly responded. “Its’ been a bigger deal than I ever imagined. This experience has shed more light on fashion in the Caribbean and it definitely opens more doors for collaborations.” Anya’s prize? A $50k technology suite and $110k in starter cash to enhance and distribute her existing clothing line-Pilar, named in honor of her 18 year-old brother who perished in a car accident.
Despite the current fanfare, the classically-trained ballerina was initially panned for her technical shortcomings. Many dismissed Anya’s win as another beauty pageant winning vixen that slipped through the cracks. Yet five months later, her name still garners media attention. Designing a costume line for Trinidad Carnival this past February, Anya’s talent and perseverance reigns supreme.
Creating a micro-finance program for young, marginalized artists, the only daughter of eight confesses, “…winning was never the point. I wanted to challenge myself. It has given me a tremendous amount of exposure in the U.S., which is great, but there has to be a product and solid functioning company behind it. That’s something that takes a lot of work and resources. I’m learning everything by scratch.”
Hinting at crafting a full-scale lifestyle and design-fused concept in New York, the exact details remain tucked like her crew: tight.
Keeping consumers guessing while finessing her own lane, Anya Ayoung-Chee embraces her journey. “When I’m in Brooklyn and can hear Soca in someone’s car, it warms my heart and I’m like, 'okay maybe I’m not so far away'.”