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Growing up in a family of 11 children, Ayana Ife had a fairly no-frills lifestyle, but her love for ruffles and bows runs deep. For proof, look no further than the clothes she’s created as Project Runway’s first-ever modest — and first Muslim — fashion designer to make it to the season finale.
Ife has been a season 16 frontrunner since episode 2, when designers were tasked with creating looks out of (literal) garbage. Ife credits her big family with her gift for creating something great out of nothing. Growing up, she’d deconstruct and jazz up the hand-me-downs she inherited from her siblings.
But when Ife started working, she noticed few brands were offering stylish modest wear. Not finding anything that fit her criteria, she started designing stylish conservative pieces for her own closet, and eventually she established her own brand.
Below, Ife discusses her design process, what it’s like being Project Runway’s first Muslim finalist, and her extensive collection of bold, bright lip colors. And tune in to tonight’s finale to see if she takes home the prize!
What inspired you to become a designer?
During my brief fling with nursing (which my parents looked upon as a more stable profession), I remember watching a YouTube video of [UAE-based designer] Rabia Z’s collection. When I saw all those models dressed in vibrant harem pants and flowy hijabs, it inspired me to throw caution to the wind and realize my true calling as a designer. That’s when I decided to pursue a degree in apparel design.
What was it like competing alongside so many other talented designers on Project Runway?
I think I’m a sponge. So while I was trying to put my best foot forward during the challenges, I was feeding off of other designers and applying their interesting perspectives into my design philosophy as well.
For instance, I picked up Amy Bond’s technique of draping on the form in muslin, and using that to create the final piece instead of making patterns. So without her knowing (and she still doesn’t know), I started doing that as well! [Laughs] I feel that if you see someone doing something more efficient, than you should take from that.
What’s the worst and best critique you’ve received from the judges on the show?
During the first “unconventional materials” challenge, Nina Garcia was so excited about my piece that she was almost jumping out of her chair. So that was really flattering.
In the “winter wonderland” challenge, Heidi Klum said my jumpsuit underneath the coat was really childish and gimmicky. I understand where she’s coming from, but I actually really like it and I wore it already. I love that thing! [Laughs]
Being Muslim, have you dealt with any pressure to represent Islam a certain way on the show?
I was just being myself throughout the show, and I think it came across as very genuine. I wanted to represent myself and my parents in a positive light, and the fact that I’m Muslim just worked in my favor. But it wasn’t hard at all.
What’s your ultimate vision for your brand?
My goal is to continue bridging the gap between mainstream and modest, so I see myself showing at more and more runway shows throughout the US. I’d also love to show in countries like Trinidad, Dubai, Canada, Indonesia, and Italy. I see myself expanding and using all the feedback I’m getting from the audience. For instance, there’s a demand for more performance pieces and street style.
In the future, do you plan to stock your clothes in stores? If so, where would you like to see them?
Absolutely; I’m looking for brand deals right now. In terms of my performance pieces, I’d love to see them in Nike, Under Armour, or Reebok. I feel it’s very tricky to find modest but really cute sportswear, so I’d love to start there.
What’s your own personal style like?
It’s a combination of preppy-meets-rugged street style, so I’ll wear a cute dress with ripped jeans. It’s usually a mix of whatever I’m feeling in the moment.
What’s the best thing you bought recently?
I love the plaid holiday pajamas I got from Old Navy.
What’s your shopping weakness?
Tell me about your collection of hijabs — where do you get them, and what do you look for?
I like lightweight georgettes and anything chiffon that isn’t too sheer. These days, I wear a lot of neutral colors because they go with everything. One of my favorites right now is a nude power mesh that’s very comfortable. I like the way it falls.
What are some of your favorite beauty products?
I’ve been using Maybelline BB cream for a really long time. I also love really loud lip colors; that’s where my adventurous nature kicks in. I do have some MAC, but I buy a lot of drugstore makeup from Walgreens and Walmart.
What’s the nicest thing you’ve bought for yourself lately?
I’m choosy when it comes to spending money on myself, so I only buy things if I need them. I put a lot of my funds toward my clothing label. So the most expensive thing that I’ve bought is fabric, which was $100 a yard.
What’s the most expensive thing currently in your closet?
A Louis Vuitton bag and a Movado watch — which I didn’t buy for myself. [Laughs]
Correction: November 20th, 2017
A previous version of this story stated that Ife was the first Muslim and modest designer to appear on Project Runway; she's the first to make it to the finals, but season 13's Nzinga Knight was the first to compete on the show.