Success by Design: Fashion designer Vara Ayanna talks style, social issues and A Tribe Called Quest

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Vara Ayanna describes her style as "girly gothic."

Vara Ayanna describes her style as “girly gothic.”

Vara Ayanna known as the “Thrift Queen” for her eclectic style and passion for thrift shopping has created a slew of clothing lines, two of which she has promoted at Fashion Week in LA. That was also the inspiration behind one of her earlier lines, Thriftqueened, which landed her on the map in the Phoenix fashion scene.

Did we mention she hasn’t even graduated from college yet?

The 25-year-old is graduating from ASU’s Fashion Design program next summer. We caught up with her before she showcased her new line, Marauders, at Fashion Week LA last weekend, to get the skinny.

When did you first take an interest in clothes and decide you wanted to be a designer?
I’ve been sewing my whole life, since I was four. My grandmother, she’s a seamstress … my mom is an artist and got me into art. I was always surrounded by art. I didn’t really get interested in fashion design until end of high school, college. It’s been about seven years that I’ve been designing.

Would you say that you’ve always had a unique style? And how has it evolved?
I feel like it’s changed a lot. When I was younger, I never really thought in terms of that; I would just wear stuff I thought was cool. In junior high, I had no style at all. I was such a dork. Everything changes and I think change is good. I want my style to keep evolving … Now, with my new line, it’s exactly what I want to put out and exactly what I want people to wear.

A portrait of Ayanna by Alexis Kim

A portrait of Ayanna by Alexis Kim

Do you have a specific type of person in mind when you’re designing that you hope will wear your clothing?
The person I’m designing for now with the Marauders line is a true artist, someone who wants interesting clothing that not everybody else has. This is definitely for a person who is stylish and cares about their style. You have to be a very confident person to wear my clothing. because they’re very crazy, out there and different and that’s the type of person I see gravitating toward my clothes.

Would you say there’s a difference between being stylish and being trendy?
There’s totally a difference. To me, personal style is kind of just the way you are in your everyday life. No matter what, you get up and put on that watch. That’s one of your favorite shirts. No matter what, you always want to wear those ripped up jeans because you think they look tight with that band tee. How you dressed when you were little, in a Captain Crunch shirt, so you grab it now because you think that’s sick. To me, that’s your personal style; stuff that has been with you your whole life that you would automatically do. To me, being trendy is just stuff you see in the mall at Forever 21 and in magazine ads or whatever people think is popular.

Ayanna says she designs for "creative people who want to say something about the world through the way they dress."

Ayanna says she designs for “creative people who want to say something about the world through the way they dress.”

What would you say is your “signature piece,” something you never leave the house without?
I always have a jacket or a sweater or something, no matter what, tied around my waste or I’ll wear it over my shoulders. To me, it’s fine. I’m never hot or anything. I love leggings. That’s all I wear. I hate jeans. I haven’t had a pair of jeans in seven years. Jeans really just stress me out.

You’ve been dubbed “Thrift Queen.” Can you tell me about that concept and how it evolved into the way you market yourself and your brand?
It’s had a big impact on the way people see my style. When I first started designing, I started off just doing recycled clothing and cutting up stuff and adding stuff to it from thrift stores, and I started making hats. Everybody would be wearing and buying my hats. Thriftqueened lasted for just a few years. All we did was have house shows in Tempe and hang out with different bands. A lot of people had different pop-up shops there. I became friends with a lot of people that did this group at ASU called TUF (The Underground Foundation) and I just started hanging out with a lot of people from there and that just started a three-year streak of house shows and pop-up shops. I was just doing styling, and that just became my styling name and this thing that everybody wanted to wear. I just dropped the name inadvertently, and use my own name now. Now it’s like a nickname. They’ll just call me “Queen” or “The Queen.”

It sounds like you’ve tried on a few different “hats.” Would you say you’re now coming into your own as a designer and this is where you’ll be for awhile?
I feel like I had to do all of that to get to what I wanted to do. Designing is kind of like a muscle, you just have to work it out and work it out. When you’re drawing out designs for a whole collection, you’ll come up with 1,000 designs and only actually make 12. I feel like I’ve been designing for Marauders for at least four years. Now, I’m finally like, ‘That’s the best one out of all these ideas,’ and now we’re going to Fashion Week with Marauders. I took Thriftqueened to Fashion Week and a lot of people loved the stuff, but now for Fashion Week LA, Marauders will be there so I’m pretty excited. I have some really awesome pieces I want everyone in the world to wear.

Ayanna's new line, Marauders, includes this reversible jacket with secret pockets and a stand up collar.

Ayanna’s new line, Marauders, includes this reversible jacket with secret pockets and a stand up collar.

Talk about Marauders and the concept behind it, and how it differs from your previous projects.
Marauders started when I was just talking to my sister. Probably about five years ago, we were just randomly trying to come up with names for any companies we wanted to start because my sister is a producer and music video and movie director. Originally, Marauders was going to be a web series. A Tribe Called Quest has that album “Midnight Marauders” and the idea behind the album and the series that she wanted to start was just creative people who were just going for what they wanted in their life and they would all have these intertwining stories; they would all be artists and really eclectic people that could help the world and change the world through their art. The idea behind Marauders is celebrating creative people who want to say something about the world through the way they dress. I feel like the only way to stop or bring awareness to what is happening is through fashion. I want people to understand things that they maybe could not have understood before, through clothing.

I wanted to ask about your time at ASU. How has your time there impacted where you are now?
They just started their Fashion Design program last year and that’s when I started it. I’ve already been to a lot of schools. I went to ASU and then I went to FIT in New York and I actually go to Phoenix College and ASU right now, so I’m just taking classes at both. I really like ASU’s design program; it is the best design program that I’ve taken so far. To me, it’s the most helpful and relevant to what I’m learning and what I’m already doing. It’s just very insightful. They have a lot of fashion business classes. It’s really helped me organize my thoughts better.

This gold sequin jersey is part of Ayanna's new line.

This gold sequin jersey is part of Ayanna’s new line.

What is something that you think is currently lacking in the fashion industry? What about something you’re really down for?
Something lacking in the fashion industry is diversity in clothing. Why does everything have to be the same color? I just see a lot of designers copying each other or all using the same silhouette. We need to make something cool and different that a lot of people don’t have. I want more designers to be more daring with the stuff that they design. One thing that I love right now that I’m seeing is gender neutrality, like girls can wear guys’ clothes and guys can wear girls’ clothes …

If you could give advice to someone who is trying to make it in the fashion industry, what would it be?
Experiment and learn what you want to do because the fashion industry is really saturated. It is hard to get into the fashion industry. You have to be either doing it for a long time or know a lot of people or have a famous aunt that works for Vogue. If you want to be a fashion writer, write as many pieces as you can. Find a random bum on the street and be like, ‘Hey, I like your sweater, can I write a fashion piece about this?’ If you want to be a stylist, you better find a photographer friend and do a bunch of photo shoots or use your iPhone to document your clothing with a blog. Fashion is an industry where you literally just have to work.

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