Has streetwear’s reign over fashion really ended? Statements to that effect have been made by major publications and designers alike — notably, the late, great Virgil Abloh himself. But Yoon Ahn, the Tokyo-based brain behind Ambush and Dior Men's jewelry line, begs to differ.
“The streetwear that a lot of people recognize took shape in 2013, 2014, when it merged with the luxury world,” Ahn says. However, the subculture itself goes much further back. “Maybe the look that was created is passing,” she adds, referring to the oversized hoodies and sneakers each and every luxury brand has since released. “But they’re talking about a certain trend, rather than what streetwear truly stands for.”
From drops to hyped-up collaborations, streetwear’s legacy is now inextricable from luxury as we know it. This is true of not only business models but the people helming brands, and Ahn’s growing influence on the industry is a case in point.
A Korean-American graphic turned jewelry designer, in 2008 she founded Ambush with her husband, the rapper Verbal, to sell designs accenting 90s hip hop and streetwear with Japanese futurism. Immediately sought after among tastemakers and rappers across the globe, the label’s nostalgic, statement-making hardware was bolstered by a ready-to-wear line in 2016, by which time Ahn’s network spanned the likes of Abloh, Kanye West, and Kim Jones.
But Ahn didn’t stop there. In 2017, the duo was named a finalist for the LVMH Prize. The following year, she was appointed jewelry director to Jones’ Dior Men. And in early 2020, New Guards Group, the Milan-based owner of brands including Off-White and Heron Preston, acquired Ambush for an undisclosed sum soon after it was itself purchased by Farfetch in a $675 million (4.9 billion RMB) deal.
Until then, all of Ambush’s operations were based in Japan. The goal was to make the most of New Guards Group’s scale and capital to go global, but the pandemic threw a spanner in the works. Now, the label’s physical network is slowly but surely growing. Earlier this year, it partnered with I.T Group to open the first mainland Chinese Ambush outpost in Shanghai’s Taikoo Li, and this month sees the launch of a standalone store in Hong Kong.
One of the first things on Ahn’s to-do list is an in-person visit to cities like Shanghai, Chengdu, and Beijing, where Ambush has a bigger presence. “We’re still a niche brand, so the [Chinese customers] who know us have to be informed and curious by nature,” notes Ahn, who launched the brand on Tmall in April. “A lot of the information I have is from a distance. I’m hoping to learn more about how we can build content that relates to the local market rather than speaking from where I am.”
As an Asian-American creative that’s worked in both Japan and Europe, Ahn is no stranger to the eurocentrism at the core of the fashion and luxury industries. “People always look to Asia as a place that consumes,” she explains, linking this to an underlying lack of respect for markets like China. “A lot of things are driven by financial reasons…I understand the frustration.”
After all, the designer still remembers feeling like an outsider. Looking back at her time in fashion, Ahn describes her identity as that of an “admiring fan” turned “tourist” and now “citizen,” well-versed but still learning the ups and downs of a magnetic yet cutthroat industry. This came down to swallowing a hard truth. “We create beauty, but it’s still business in the end. It’s important for designers like me to find joy in this endless cycle of things to churn out, and have an understanding of where the world is growing and going as a social place.”
Though “churn” makes light of Ahn’s work across formats, her work ethic is non-stop. On top of helming Ambush and working on Dior Men, she advises other brands and celebrities through her and Verbal’s creative consultancy, and markets her personal brand through social media. All the while, she’s juggling an ever-growing list of multimedia projects and collaborations, which she’s particularly fluent in, having made her mark during luxury’s streetwear boom.
Most recently, the designer celebrated a cereal crossover with Reese’s Puffs, which spanned a limited-edition bag and cereal bowl cast in futuristic chrome, and “breakfastverse,” an interactive online space. Bullish on Web3, she sees every physical project as an opportunity to bridge real life with the virtual world; building the brand’s own metaverse platform, rather than housing it on Decentraland or The Sandbox, ensures she’d have total creative freedom.
Of course, Ahn has also overseen her fair share of fashion crossovers. There’s an ongoing partnership with Nike, which includes both ready-to-wear and the popular Air Adjust Force sneakers, and a Levi’s capsule just this fall, featuring classic denim styles adorned with Ambush’s signature silver-plated bottle caps.
Both aesthetically as well as in pedigree, the recent collaborations point to how Ahn is growing her name while staying true to Ambush’s roots. Rather than calling Ambush a brand, she refers to it as a platform. “We got into so many collaborations that I don’t like the traditional way of [labeling] it. Yes, it’s part of our DNA but we want to see how that can spur other ideas.”
And amid fashion’s collab frenzy, she describes the balancing act of preserving her brand identity and spontaneous experimentation as an intuitive one. “I’ve been very selective, and only say yes to the ones who I know are the best in their fields — that way, I can learn,” she remarks. “It’s about knowing what will fit and whether or not I can bring something new to the table. But if you only do things that you expect, there’s no fun in doing it.”
Indeed, when asked about her dream mediums and collaborators, her answers range from the big screen, where she’d have ample room to explore graphics, music, styling, and storytelling; to Elon Musk, with whom she could devise outer-space applications for Ambush’s futuristic designs.
It’s a lot for one brain to contemplate, but multitasking across mediums and disciplines is Ahn’s resting state. “I’ve put myself in this situation because I know how my brain functions, and I know how to stimulate myself…I don’t think in a linear form, I like to bounce,” she says, comparing her way of thinking to an old-school mobile game. “I want to connect the dots — I know it will all make sense.”