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Tracy Leeds, A+E Networks
Utah resident Ayana Ife on "Project Runway."

SALT LAKE CITY — A Muslim Salt Lake City resident, Ayana Ife, has been promoting her modest fashion designs on the current season of "Project Runway."

Ife, 27, grew up in a small Muslim community in New York. Her mother would sell the clothes she sewed to their neighbors and friends, and Ife would take the scraps to make her own doll clothes. One of 11 siblings, Ife got a lot of hand-me-downs growing up and would often cut the hemlines or change them up to add her own personality to her clothes. Her classmates would notice and ask her to make something similar for them.

"I found that it was a really great way for me to express my personal style," Ife said in an interview with the Deseret News. "I was really quiet growing up, so I was able to just put all of my emotion, my feeling into my work and designs, and I found a lot of joy in that."

She went on to get her bachelor's degree in apparel design and made fashion her career. Then, a divorce prompted her to make a fresh start for her life. So, about two years ago, she moved in with her sister in Utah.

Shortly after her move, Ife attended Utah Fashion Week to do some networking. It was there that she was introduced to a more Western style of modest dress than she'd seen before. She met members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the first time and discovered they understood each other when it came to modest fashion.

Ife spent some time working at a bridal shop, then became a recruiter for a medical research facility so she could focus on making her own label on the side. Shortly after moving to Utah, she found out that the state is No. 1 in the nation for creating small businesses, so she took advantage of that to sharpen up her business acumen. She joined an entrepreneur group and found mentors. She got better at pitching her business to strangers and targeting her market.

"When I came here, I put my best foot forward and I opened my mind to learning," she said. "I said, 'I'm going to flip this and make it positive.' It doesn't matter where I am or whatever state of mind I was in when I came, how sad I was about my reasons for moving. I just didn't want that to slow me down. I didn't want that to be the end of my story. So, moving here was that fresh start for me. It was me saying, 'I'm going to turn a negative situation into a positive one' and that's what I feel that I've done."

This was Ife's fourth time applying for "Project Runway." She said her first two times were so embarrassing she doesn't think they really count. The third time, she was selected to actually audition. She brought several of her designs with her that weren't modest so she could show the judges her ability to do other things, and she was surprised when they said that wasn't what they wanted.

"They were saying, 'No, don't bring us that stuff. Bring us what you do,'" she said. "'If you can sew, you can make whatever you want. Bring us your company. Bring us your brand.' That pushed me to be myself."

She took some of that feedback and when she applied her fourth time, she felt ready, and apparently the judges agreed.

Ife said her intention was to showcase her modest fashion and reach her market, but since the show has started airing and she's gotten feedback from viewers, she's realized the importance of people seeing a Muslim girl on "Project Runway."

She realized long ago there was a gap in the market for modest fashion lovers, and since that's how she identifies, it was easy for her to fill that.

"I've seen too many girls wearing long sleeve T-shirts under prom dresses and that hurts my feelings," Ife said. "I've seen so many of us wearing cardigans and just layering and we're hot. It's like, why are we even doing this? Can someone just make a long sleeve top? Why is it so hard to come by these things that are just so simple? … I feel like it's in my best interest to step up to the plate and say, 'Here I am. I'm going to make all these amazing things that are modest.'"

Ife has received a few negative comments online about how Muslim women are oppressed, which she said is "to be expected."

"But I feel it's as much a woman's right to wear a burqa as it is to wear a miniskirt," she said. "I think whatever makes us feel beautiful, we should be allowed to wear. I think it's just as empowering to show your curves and to show your skin as it is to cover. Modesty is subjective, so it really is perspective about how you want to showcase yourself and how you want to feel beautiful and empowered."

Being put in the public eye through "Project Runway" has been both exciting and scary, Ife said, but she's grateful for the encouragement she's gotten to be the best version of herself.

"Project Runway" airs Thursdays at 7 p.m. on Lifetime.

Email: mbulsiewicz@deseretnews.com

Twitter: mgarrett589