updated 10/28/2011 AT 12:00 PM ET
•originally published 10/28/2011 AT 2:00 PM ET
When she auditioned for Project Runway, she admitted she’d only been sewing for four months, but now Anya Ayoung-Chee is a bona-fide designer – with more than $100,000 in the bank.
The former Miss Trinidad and Tobago won Project Runway, a well-kept secret not revealed until Thursday night’s episode.
“I finally feel like I can enjoy it now that I can tell everybody,” Ayoung-Chee tells PEOPLE. “It’s really overwhelming. I came from not expecting to go past the casting because of my sewing skills … it’s just the most unbelievable story, and I’m just along for the ride.”
Ayoung-Chee, 30, was a favorite of the judges, and won several challenges on her road to victory. But she also received some criticism from contestants – namely fellow finalist Joshua McKinley – about her lack of sewing skills.
“I thought it was unnecessary at times, but I never took it personally,” Ayoung-Chee explains. “He and I are very good friends, and I think I really get him. Sometimes he says things that he may not mean, for no other reason than that he was hurt himself.”
In the finale, mentor Tim Gunn gifted each designer with $500 for extras at Mood Fabrics, which they could use to enhance their final collections. “It was absolutely integral,” Ayoung-Chee says of the cash. “I don’t know what would’ve happened if we didn’t get to go to Mood. I realized that was a huge blessing at that moment.”
Her collection of breezy, Caribbean-inspired dresses was “definitely strong,” she says, but there are some tweaks she’d make to the clothes.
“I think that it was powerful and had a lot of appeal,” she shares. “But with a little more time, and more clarity, I would’ve had a little bit more variety in the shapes. I think it was a little repetitive in some of the necklines.”
Now with $100,000 in the bank – plus an additional $10,000 she won when she was crowned “fan favorite” – Ayoung-Chee is busy setting up an Internet retail site in time for the holidays and helping those in need. “I will start a microfinance loan with the fan favorite money to support young, creative people in the Caribbean,” she says. “It’s an unsupported region of commerce, so I’m excited to start that.”
In the meantime, she’s savoring time with her family and responding to celebrities, who are already calling her up to design some custom clothes. And as for those so-so sewing skills? “Yes, they’ve improved” she says, laughing. “Absolutely!”