Saturday 18 November, 2017

Designer with T&T roots makes it to Project Runway finals

Trinidad and Tobago could once again taste winner’s row on Project Runway when a winner is announced at next Thursday’s finale.

Ayana Ife, a first-generation American with Trinidadian parents, is one of the favourites to win this season’s show.

The Muslim designer, who has grabbed media attention, has been widely acclaimed for her creativity, attention to detail and for her conservative fashion that speaks to her faith.

Speaking to Loop this week ahead of last Thursday’s show when she found out she would be in the top four headed to New York’s Fashion Week, Ife said she didn’t go into the competition expecting the headlines to focus on the fact that she was a Muslim.

However, she said, she has embraced it.

“I do know the importance of representation and thinking back to when I was younger I would have been happy to see someone like me doing positive things so I decided I would step into this light and own it.  I think it is very positive,” she said.

Ife, 28, is the eighth of 11 children. The first six, she said, was born in Trinidad but she and her younger siblings were born in Brooklyn, New York, where her parents migrated.

Asked about the impact of her Trinidadian roots in her early years, she said she always felt her upbringing was different to those of her peers.

“My parents were super, super strict.  We always had to go out in pairs, we had curfews and the food we took to school was different - roti, aloo pie and samosas. There was an interesting mix of things. I didn’t have a Trini accent but I said some things with a half Trini, half American accent,” she said with a laugh as she remembered the reaction of her friends to her Trini accent.

Ife said her parents, Hakim and Ayana Muhammed, were very artsy. Her mother was a seamstress who sewed curtains and clothing for people while her dad wrote poetry and did calligraphy.

“I would copy his calligraphy fonts. Dad was pretty fashionable, he wore dress shoes and leather jackets. Mum was very skilled, she made us special occasion outfits. I was very much a sponge, so I would copy and take her scrap fabrics and make doll outfits,” said Ife.

Her love for design was honed when she had to dress in the second-hand clothing that comprised most of her wardrobe. 

 “I would cut things up and change things around and so for me, the design process started as a design necessity. I had a knack for it and I fell in love with it. I was a very, very quiet child and I found that designing was my way of saying what I wanted to say without speaking. And people would ask me questions and that is how I started opening up,” she said.

In her early teens, Ife did a Summer programme in design at a school run at the time by her aunt Sandra Carr. Carr is the current Programme Director of the Caribbean Academy for Fashion Design at the University of Trinidad and Tobago.

Ife used her burgeoning skills to create clothing for her friends at school but by 19, she hit the pause button on her desires to briefly flirt with nursing, a more sure profession which her parents preferred.

Designing was her calling, however, and she enrolled at the Middle Tennessee State University,  where she studied for a Bachelor’s degree in Apparel Design. She got accepted to the Milano Fashion Institute in Italy for her Master’s degree but deferred enrolment when she got accepted to be on the Project Runway Season 16 cast. She intends to take up her studies there following the show. 

Speaking about her experience on Project Runway where she has consistently scored high marks and won a few challenges, Ife said the experience has been very uplifting.

She said at first she was very hesitant about achieving her aesthetic but she found the judges very interested in her perspective.

One area Ife shone in was the unconventional challenge. For the first one, she said she was scared but the second challenge in which they had to use road construction material to create an outfit, Ife was in her stride.

“The second one I was 100 percent in my element and at that point in the challenge, I said I am here to do my thing. I knew what I wanted to do when I arrived at the site to get my materials and once I know where I am going and what I am trying to achieve it is just a matter of how am I going to get there. I feel because I started out in design as a scavenger I thrive in those places where I almost have enough but I don’t,” she said.

Ife is very mindful of Anya Ayoung Chee's win on Season 9 and is looking forward to bringing glory to the country again.

Looking past PR, Ife said she plans to become an international designer with a store where modest fashion is more accessible.

“I want to bridge the gap between mainstream and modest. I kind of want to help with the market across the board in business, bridal and casual wear. I like to wear street style fashion, that kind of thing,” she said.

Ife plans to visit T&T in 2018 and had this message for Trinis: “I want to tell Trinidadians, I remember and I know where I am from, I respect my roots and I value that.”

Part Two of Project Runway's Season Finale airs at 9/8 C on Lifetime on Thursday, November 16.