What Becomes of Anya Ayoung-Chee on Project Runway?
Project Runway makes for great television watching, no? Design-hopefuls turn on the hysterics and waterworks, they snipe at each other, puzzle over the right material selections at MOOD, and in the midst of all the drama, they even turn a few fashion tricks for the judges each week.
It's generally a bit of monotonous fluff, with oddball design challenges thrown in for good measure (make something fantastic from your knickers and bedspreads, people!) But this season, Heidi Klum's rollicking reality-TV show has been thoroughly interesting, if only for the addition of Anya Ayoung-Chee, seen above in a breathtaking image, snapped recently by Laura Ferreria...
A fellow Trinidadian like Ferreria and myself, the one-time beauty queen and alleged victim of a leaked sex-tape managed to finagle a spot on the show, after convincing the (originally dubious) judges that 4 months of sewing was enough to see her through the crazy challenges. The season is winding down to an end, Ayoung-Chee is still on the show, and will be sewing towards NYFW, tonight.
Currently in 2nd place for the Fan Favourite prize, the new designer has created a range of pieces on the show that either defied or proved her sewing skills; her Reggae Jesus ensemble for the Sheep Dogs' challenge was utterly abysmal, for instance, as was the Art Student's Painting piece. Yet her 70's Fashion look, made on a dime after she lost her money at MOOD and had to dye muslin at the last minute, was truly impressive, just like the Bird Inspired structured dress.
In fact, questionable design and sewing skills aside, Ayoung-Chee has gone on to actually win a few weekly challenges, including a huge cash prize of $20,000.00 for the aforementioned Bird Dress, along with a Marie Claire shoot. Now, if that's not impressive, I'm not sure what is. Heidi Klum and Nina Garcia, judging purely from the weekly comments, seem to like her. The fans - Trinidadians, West Indians, and others - are rooting for her.
And it would seem that the united mass of the entire social media world is glued to her every move; it's through their #PR9anya Tweeting power that Ayoung-Chee has a veritable shot at copping another cash prize for the Fan Favourite. And yet, for all the impressiveness of her stint on Project Runway, I wonder if any of this will matter, once the dust has settled and the show's over.
Why the reality check, no pun intended?
Because, across its nine seasons of pitting contestants against each other whilst dangling the coveted package in their faces (there's a cash prize, a chance to show at NYFW, a full spread in Marie Claire Magazine, and a design technology suite to be had), the show has only delivered a precious few major designers onto the fashion stage. Major, in terms of designers who, during the show and afterwards, consistently turned out the most amazing designs and clearly had a firm grasp on their aesthetic and skill.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but beyond the draping master Rami Kashou, who came in 2nd place behind the brilliance that was Christian Siriano back on the show's fourth season, there's not much to be said about 'major designers' from project runway. And even for the rising cream of the design crop, any measure of success outside the reality TV world hasn't ensured actual credibility within the design industry.
Siriano, by far the most outstanding and technically-masterful designer on Project Runway, has gone on to launch his eponymous label in NYC, showing continuously at Fashion week since his win. His fantastic and impeccably made clothing has appeared in numerous editorials for commercial fashion glossies; his pieces are worn by celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker; and he even has a shoe design deal with Payless.
Yet, commendations from the cognoscenti have been quite slow for the Runway alum. For his most recent showing, which featured dreamlike puffs of romantic ballgowns, an acid-sherbet palette, and utterly elegant separates at every turn, the collection elicited this staid nugget from Style.com's Meenal Mistry:
"Christian Siriano has won many hearts and minds... Still his quest to be taken seriously continues. The first half of the show reflected a no-nonsense glamour in simple shapes...
And suddenly, it seemed as though Siriano couldn't bear the restraint anymore, and in rolled a storm of flocked tulle and organza, capped off by a dramatic finish of dimmed lights and streaming models.
The crowd ate it up. It's what they were waiting for. But it didn't exactly help his case. Getting the respect that Siriano wants will require more than heeding a cool stylist..."
The Art/Fashion tome, Whitewall Magazine opined that, "for many casual followers of designer fashion, Christian Siriano may be one of the most recognizable names at Fashion Week thanks to his appearance on Bravo’s Project Runway in 2008. He has struggled, however, to make the same lasting impression on critics and buyers..."
Vogue contributing editor, Andre Leon Talley (ironically, a reality TV star himself, via a judging slot on America's Next Top Model), quipped that one of Siriano's past designs was akin to a, "roadside-diner peach melba." As for NY Magazine's redoubtable blog, On The Runway? They offered this bit:
"It is true that at Fashion Week, there is a bias against designers who came to fashion through unconventional means, like being a celebrity or, in Mr. Siriano’s case, appearing on a reality show like “Project Runway.”
Something about designing with a catch phrase just doesn't feel serious".
Is this the fate that awaits Ayoung-Chee, if she wins? And what if she doesn't; will she fade away into the land of reality TV reruns, not unlike many past Runway finalists?
There are signs that Ayoung-Chee can indeed turn the Project Runway attention into a sustained buzz for herself; there are talks that she's attempting to get her designs into boutique doors here in the US. And back in Trinidad, she's rumored to be designing a costumed section for an unnamed Carnival Band, and her Pilar & Anya de Rogue labels are still in high demand.
It all begs the question: Is it possible to turn a reality TV moment into a bona fide career? Or does the label of 'show contestant' always hang around?
Truth be told, labels have been following Ayoung-Chee for sometime, now. Trinidadians first knew of her as "the contestant from Trinidad & Tobago for Miss Universe". Then there was the label of "Miss Universe girl who has a fashion collection". Followed, most unfortunately, by "the beauty queen with that sex tape". Now, she's "Project Runway finalist Anya Ayoung-Chee"...
To a large extent, we are all followed by our labels. But for some of us, labels not only follow, they define as well. Whether she wins or not, one can only hope the latter doesn't apply to Anya.
Perhaps she can take courage from those who, beyond all signs to the contrary, make their labels work for them. Kim Kardashian (whatever is she famous for?) has apparently managed to do it. Paris Hilton's one-time sidekick Nicole Richie has done it as well, with her respected House of Harlow label. In fact, Richie is now considered to be more of a reputable celebrity that Hilton ever was.
And in other parts, Elin Kling, the Scandinavian blogger, magazine editor, designer and ex Dancing-With-The-Stars contestant has shed her Reality TV tag with a rare aplomb. The only label she currently has, Nowhere, is a minimalist fashion collection that's smartly positioned alongside cult contemporary favourites such as Acne Jeans and Rad Hourani.
Maybe Project Runway finalist Anya Ayoung-Chee isn't in bad company, at all...
EDIT: Anya Ayoung-Chee has since gone on to win the 9th season of Project Runway, capturing both the final prize package, and the Fan Favourite voter prize. Au Courant sends our congratulations.
NB Image courtesy and copyright Laura Ferreria