Hosted by Highsnobiety's Editor-at-Large Christopher Morency, “On the Record” is a podcast series of intimate, off the cuff conversations with icons and cultural engineers that have shaped the worlds of fashion, music, tech, art, business, sports and youth culture at large. For this episode, Morency visited AMBUSH designer Yoon Ahn in Paris.
When Ahn co-founded jewelry-turned-fashion label AMBUSH, she’s single handedly pushed the boundaries of what high-end jewelry looks like, catering experimental designs to a loyal clientele that includes Kanye West, A$AP Rocky and Skepta. The line is sold at some of the world’s most globally influential retailers and has partnered with Nike, Amazon and Beats by Dre.
Meanwhile in April 2018, Yoon also joined Kim Jones’ team at Dior Men’s as head jewelry designer, where’s she’s worked on statement pieces with Daniel Arsham, Kaws and Hajime Sorayama.
We caught up with Yoon in Paris where we talked about being a woman in streetwear, working with Kim Jones and how fashion has become more of a branding and communication game than just about design alone.
The below interview is a written version of ‘On the Record’ Episode 6. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Christopher Morency: Yoon. Where are we sitting today?
Yoon Ahn: We’re at the new Lucien Pages PR showroom. I think they just moved here a few months ago.
In a recent interview you did with SSENSE, the interviewer spoke about The Antwerp Six. You’re creating something similar for the Instagram age with people like Virgil and Matthew Williams, Heron Preston and Kim Jones. I think it was Spring/Summer 2018 when a new wave came up. Did you feel it was different that time around?
I think working with Kim put me in a different light because, AMBUSH has been around for a little bit, and I've been coming to Paris every Men's Week as well, but just being on that platform definitely took it to different levels. I've been friends with Kim for over a decade. I actually met him in Tokyo, backstage at a Teriyaki Boyz concert. [My partner] Verbal was in the group. At the time, I was working with Kanye on Pastel, and he was in Tokyo. Verbal was in Teriyaki Boyz, and we've been friends since, and this is before Dunhill, too. [Kim] always wanted to do something together. I mean, we did work on something, a quite small but fun projects while he was at Vuitton, but everything is about timing.
There's a shift in luxury fashion where, obviously, streetwear and luxury have come together, where you can’t even categorize those two anymore as two separate entities. It's all just luxury.
You have to understand that the term streetwear might be quite new to this side of the world. But it’s something that’s been such a big part of the whole fashion scene out in Tokyo. It’s so embedded in how we live, that we don't even talk about the word streetwear. You know what I mean? Streetwear is a lot broader than what it used to be.
I wanted to go back a bit. Do you remember your first time, your first real interaction with luxury, and the first time you really thought this could actually be a career?
I mean, of course, when you're growing up, when you get your first paycheck, you want to buy your first Vuitton or Gucci and all that stuff, because that's something that's been taught to us. That those are the things that we [should] desire, and when you achieve certain success, it's owning those things that kind of defines success, and how you're making it in this society. But when I started fashion, it was literally just about making my and Verbal’s ideas into shape. That's all we wanted. We had so many ideas of how to do what we wanted with jewelry, and that was the beginning of Ambush.
You had a line before AMBUSH right? How did that inform the launch of AMBUSH?
It was more for personal use, so custom pieces. We started off with fine jewelry because Verbal wanted to only use fine diamonds, rubies, sapphires and 18 karat gold. It was a learning experience as well because we just had an idea. Maybe we were kind of naive and young, but we just wanted to [create]. That’s how we met a few people who helped us in the beginning to launch AMBUSH. It scared a lot of people off because it wasn’t something they were used to making, and we weren’t from the jewelry field. These guys were so used to making safe stuff because they were hired to make those things to sell. So it was hard convincing them to do things. But in the end when they saw the products and what it turns out like you could tell they had fun because they couldn't stop smiling.
What were those early AMBUSH days like?
It were the late 2000s. we got into making POW chains. We had one huge knuckle ring that we turned into small chains in neon colors, which we started giving out to friends and that’s how people like Kanye picked it up. I mean, he did put us on the map, I really appreciate it because we weren't even trying to build a brand, and then all of a sudden this guy wears it, and you get all these calls from buyers. So we're like, “I guess we have to make it and put it out to stores.” So the beginning was quite humble. We were literally packing it up in the apartment we were living in after we would come back from the club as we used to throw a lot of parties in Tokyo. We would host the parties, come home at 4 in the morning, pack up the jewelry because the delivery would have to be shipped in the morning. That was the start of AMBUSH.
Work hard, play hard in the literal sense.
It's so important to play, because those are the times that our ideas and creativity just flowing. You know, because we’re just out there with open minds, meeting so many different people and seeing different things and giving us so many ideas. You know.
I wanted to quickly go back into the past. Can you tell me a bit about what that was like early on, and what were you into in terms of fashion wise and music wise?
It was moving around a lot because my dad was in the US Army, so he was constantly packing and moving. So I lived in so many different cities. To be honest, when I was little, it wasn't the easiest thing because I couldn't make friends, because by the time you get used to a place, you're like “okay next.” So I did spend a lot of time by myself, and when you spend a lot of time by yourself it just becomes about books and magazines and like those things.
When we settled in Seattle, I worked at a public library after school, because I wanted to just read all this stuff for free. Because you don’t have money to buy all these magazines when you're little, but if you're at the public library you’re technically getting paid to read. I thought that was the best idea. It’s how I got to know all the British magazines like I-D, The Face, and all those. And I was just like “what are these worlds? What am I doing in this dark, rainy place?” It was then that I decided that, I'm getting out of Seattle.
I don't think that a lot of people, especially from the Gen Z generation understand the escapism that magazines gave.
There was internet but it wasn’t like now. You couldn’t get on the phone if someone was on your internet, and magazines were how you got information back then. They got published once a month so you had a whole month to read cover to back and, over and over. Looking back, I was able to learn so much about different cultures, by taking the time.
You eventually moved back to Tokyo. Why?
For a change of scenery. I wanted to move to New York to work, and Verbal was like, “why don't you check out Tokyo.” I'd never lived in Tokyo, obviously because I'm not Japanese, and didn’t speak Japanese. So moving to another country wasn’t the easiest thing. But I was like, “why not?” You know, if it doesn't work, I always had a choice to go back to the US. I've been there for 15 years and I’ve met so many wonderful people that I don't think I would’ve otherwise met. It’s also led me to where I am now. It’s such a conducive environment to be creative. I always think about me being Asian American, if I were to do what I'm doing now and had to start in the US, would it have been the same? Definitely not. It isn’t easy. I think also, creatively, it's such a big place.
Now being more and more in Paris, what’s that like?
It's an interesting crossroads of the old meets new and where the past meets the future. You have to understand, a lot of those cultures that they embrace, and I’m talking about the streetwear scene but also music, those have all been imported. Those are the things that they took in from our side and they loved it so much that, the few people who are passionate about it, they turned it out even better, because that's how obsessed they are with it. So, in a way, their appreciation for certain things that happen in the West, they perfected it because it wasn't their own thing. And I think me being in that environment, it really taught me to look at things differently, and it helped me to appreciate so many things that I don't think I would have otherwise would I have lived in the US.
This appropriating and remixing of cultures. Sampling in a way, we see it in fashion a lot more than we used to. I think everything is repetitive in its essence. And that really brings me back to what you do with AMBUSH. You recreate the idea of a puffer jackets to make it into a blow up life jacket, or crushed cans into a bag and zip ties into jewelry. How has sampling really informed what you do at AMBUSH?
It's all stems from a DIY mentality. Me having so much admiration for the punk movement, but also just me being an outsider [allows me to] explore all these ideas without any rules. I think if you live in a culture then you have to participate in it, and there are so many rules within those scenes. You start going into the topics of what's real, what's not, and all those things. And because I’m an outsider, for me it doesn't apply. So I in a way, I'm free from all those things. [Asking questions like] “Why not this? How about we do it this way?”
It's not luxury in the traditional sense.
You have to look at the generational shift too. The environments where we grew up, our ideals, our values. The old luxury was catered to upper class people. It still exists in the world but generally speaking, the new money [crowd] has different interests and different things that they spend money on.
Having my own brand, I also understand the consumer side of what really works with customers and what they're seeking. And it’s also about this idea of what [defines] upper class and what [symbolizes] luxury. It’s no longer this very European-like colonialism way of thinking, as in what’s been installed into so many countries and this idea of how it should appear. I think those things are all coming down thanks to the Internet, and I think, thanks to the rise of Chinese customers and Japanese customers having this power to be able to demand when they want something. I think that becomes a trigger for a lot of these luxury houses to have to rethink [what they know].
What do you think a lot of luxury houses get wrong about the Asian market?
To be honest, I think me being an Asian-American who lives in Asia, I have a quite good understanding of both worlds. [Brands] do look at Asians, collectively speaking, as people who consume things. So they just look at us like it's a money spot. But it's definitely shifting, the respect is growing. You know, once it was looked at as, "Oh, we just have to do business there because it makes money." But there’s definitely going to be a huge cultural shift in the next decade.
To go back to luxury. Do you still think it's tangible? Is luxury still something money can buy or is it bigger than that?
That’s such a big question. I don't think there's one specific answer because it's quite subjective, and I don't want to say my answer is the correct one. But for me, at this stage in my life, I think it's something that isn’t tangible. For me luxury is something that you really can’t purchase with money, like time, health, those things. Being able to be healthy is a luxury in itself and then having the time to spend it the way you want to is a luxury. So that's where my mind is right now.
Between all the working, do you still get time to obtain that luxury?
It’s busy and quite demanding. Fashion is nonstop working. But I'm thankful just to be able to do what I love. I mean, I feel blessed each day. I didn't even study this. You have to think about it. I'm literally an outsider coming in and being able to do this, you don’t understand. I’m tired and all this stuff but I'm not trying to sound like a Hallmark card. I'm happy and really thankful for all these opportunities.
When was the first time when you saw that your work was being recognized?
The first shift was definitely when Kanye wore our jewelry. I was like, "Oh, this is the power of a star that can put you on the map." I guess the next thing is definitely just being able to work with Kim at Dior. I've been doing Ambush since the late 2000s but it was 2012 when we started putting out proper collections twice a year, and the business has been growing, opening up our own brick-and-mortar and just generally the business growing. But that's still my own business that I've started with my own money out of my own pocket and built it. Being at a luxury house like Dior and seeing a different side and way of doing business definitely opened my eyes in such a big way.
Having a business isn’t just about designing things. I overlook every aspect of it down to customer service, how they write back to customers, to training the store staff. I've talked to them, I get reports on exactly what moves, what doesn’t. It sounds tedious, but that's the business because everything's out of my own pocket at the end of the day. People have to remember that this is business.
I think a lot of kids nowadays think they can make some screen printed T-shirts and call it a brand.
No, that's a hobby. This is business. At the end we make products, we sell to customers. Having said that, it does matter what you create, is it translating to the customers, and also from that you build your business, step by step and then you want to take it to the next level. I have a certain thing in mind that we're working towards with AMBUSH. And the things that I got involved in every day, it taught me so much because just listening to our customers and listening to our shop staff. The terms “marketing” and “Marketing Director” might sound boring, but they’re so important because that's a big chunk of business that actually moves the whole business. So having that knowledge, it helped me when I went into Dior, having meetings with the marketing team and the directors. I even moved the studio above my Tokyo shop so I can understand what's happening every hour.
When I started having meetings at Dior, it was a great moment because I was a little intimidated but at the same time I actually knew about this stuff. I realized it wasn’t that different than my business. It's just the scale happens to have extra zeros at the end.
Walking into a house that has this massively larger scale. How was it the first day?
Eye-opening and exciting. I don't really get intimidated because I know my lane, I know what my duty is within the team and [subsequently] what I need to focus on. I just wanted to make sure that whatever I created with Kim, translates into sales. It’s not that sales is everything at the end of the day, but what I mean by sales, I want to see people own it and just enjoying every moment of it. It’s not just about seeing the clothing at a show or in a magazine, but about consumers actually going out spending their hard-earned money towards owning something and then just enjoying it. That’s everything to me as a designer.
What’s the approach working with Kim Jones?
He’s the director. There are different teams. My job is to make jewelry so I can't just force my own ideas into it. I have to make sure that what we make compliments every area because we're creating the whole look head to toe. So, Kim sets up each collection: what he wants to do, who he wants to work with and all those things. I want to make sure the jewelry complements what the apparel team is coming up with, because they're not making those things around the jewelry. There has to be good teamwork.
What's the power of jewelry in this aspect? What does it contribute?
I don't see gender in jewelry. It’s not a marketing thing, it’s how Verbal and I just started in the beginning. We wanted to make things we could both wear. A ring is a ring; a necklace is a necklace; a bracelet is a bracelet; those parts of the body don’t have gender parts. Right? So, that's why we call it unisex. It doesn't have the men's or women's, it's just a ring at the end of the day. I think I was able to bring this in [at Dior], because I think there’s a huge shift in male customers don't care about the definition as much now.
It’s interesting to see this little renaissance in men’s jewelry.
Historically it were usually the men who were decorated in jewelry, I don't know where in the history this shifted. Maybe it was just Christianity, or I don't know what it was, that put this mentality on people that decorating yourself as a form was a feminine thing. It's funny, isn't it? How the ideals just triggered into different cultures. But now it doesn't really matter [anymore].
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned in business?
I haven’t always been this way. I learned the hard way. It's a lot of things I've done in the process that cost me a lot. I learned that [things] don't work with customers. I would have this ego like it's going to be a hit, it's going to do so well. But sometimes customers didn't connect to it. I don't look at that as a fail, but it made me think about what I could do better. I honestly think it comes from my parents just being immigrants and just having their own little business after my dad settled down from the army, and just growing up watching them just working 14-16 hours a day. Every single day except Sunday because they had to go to church. Growing up in that environment I think it just naturally made me responsible.
I wanted to speak about collaboration. I think it’s a really interesting word to speak about when we speak about today's luxury industry and that spirit of collaboration that came from streetwear originally, and is now trickling all the way upwards to luxury. What's the importance of collaborations in today's day and age and why are brands more open now?
It’s definitely coming from consumers. They want something different. And it's fun to collaborate and especially with people you respect and things that you can bring in, they can bring in, and it gives birth to new things. It’s exciting for consumers too. But collaborations are quite saturated in the market right now. But you can tell when it's genuine. [It works when there’s] genuine respect for each other and also there's a story. I think a lot of people just do it for quick marketing reasons. But consumers are so smart now, they can see through these things. A good collaboration, usually requires a few things. You need a surprise element that you didn't expect and creates a good synergy. We don't make shoes at this moment, so it makes sense for us to work with Nike and Converse because it could help us with other items.
Talk to me more about Nike.
My understanding of a Nike collab, was that you had to play sports. So when they reached out to me and wanted to collab, I was a little bit surprised because I don't play sports. So I was kind of thinking, how can I come up with something that at the end of the day can [translate into] performance. I'm a working woman, working nonstop from morning to night, so how can I make sports gear that I can wear from morning to night time? And that's where all those ideas came like, I can wear these to the gym, but I can still go out at night. That’s why you can convert the garments into different looks by flipping it.
Being a woman and making sportswear now with Nike. What do you think that different approach is?
I think [Nike] is having much more fun with it and they’ve loosened up a lot. My impression is that it was much more serious before because they were more focused on athletes, which they still do, but I think they’re exploring different territories. I think they’re definitely on the right track. Whenever I work with Nike I have so much fun. Honestly they never say, "No." To a lot of things I come up with, they're actually really open about it. And this fun like that, I could kind of do certain things with Nike that I've never seen in Nike catalog before.
What have some the challenges been creating your own brand? It’s not something that's often talked about.
With any business, to get into a role takes a decade. It’s not just about sitting there everyday, you have to really build and try it and do it better next time. If it doesn't sell, doesn't move in the stores, there's no point to it. At that point it just becomes an expensive hobby, right? So what I would tell young people is that I know a lot of people, the fashion designer has become such a desirable career path.
But you have to understand that this is pure business. You’re making things, you sell it and it’s finding your place in the world. Fashion is already a very competitive and saturated market. So whatever it is you want to tell, make sure it’s very clear. And even if you know what it is you want to tell, it’s going to take hard work to convince people as well. Fashion isn’t the easiest. Another thing that I can say is that you need to have a lot of money to burn in the beginning. It requires a lot of capital and that’s real talk. If you’re coming out of school, unless you understand how this business works, I advise you to go work at someone else’s brand and learn from that. Get paid to learn pretty much. Give your service to these people and after you get the grip of exactly what it is you want to say, then go into your own business, because you don’t always have to start your business from day one.
Absolutely. How has that role of creative changed over the years?
I don't think it has changed. It has always been the same. I think you have to design and you have to be the best promoter and all that stuff. Except we live in a digital age now, so it's not like in the magazines. People want to see who made the clothing and why they came up with it. That's just how people think now. They want to see it instantly. What were they thinking? Where did they do? They're more curious about that person's life. So it really depends on how you want to carry it. But more than ever you have to be a better marketer and designer [than before]. There are a lot of hats to wear.
I feel like a lot of kids nowadays want to buy into these micro-communities. What would you say the importance is of having that group around you and really creating a family feeling around a brand. Is that important?
Yes and no. I think it depends how you want to create your brand and what story you want to tell. If you look at it more as community oriented, then go ahead and do that. But if you have a distinctive story to tell and you want to bring something that no one else is doing, I think it's better to just do it on your own, be on your own. There are no right or wrong answers.
What brands excite you?
It's a big question. But I actually have more fun looking outside of fashion because I get more ideas there. But artificial intelligence really interests. I look at a lot of technologists. I love what Boston Dynamics are doing. I think it's insane to see those robots and how quickly they're advancing. Sometimes I kind of have these daydreams at the office. I just think, "Man, one of these days it's all going to be replaced by AI. So that's going to be kind of sick." It's not something you can be scared about, it's just going to happen.
Will it work for us?
Yeah, it will compliment us. We humans generally get afraid of something that we're not familiar with but, we all think it's like Terminator. And there's a danger to AI but we'll see. I like to look at it more positively. I like to rather embrace it because it's happening and hopefully it will lead to a better path. [The truth is] is that most of the workforce is going to be taken over by AI and robots in the future. It’s going to happen faster than we think, especially in fashion.
Where do you see fashion going in the next five years?
It's hard to tell because I'm not an oracle or a fortune teller, but for sure people will rethink environmental issues. I think we're all aware of that. And it isn’t going to stop because we're living in a capitalistic society, real talk. But after being informed more, consumers will definitely shift. I think hopefully that will lead to a better path [in terms of] fighting overproduction and also upcycling and reusing things. We don't need this much stuff, especially lower price apparel, we don't need it just to be worn [once] and then be thrown out.
Thank you Yoon Ahn.
Listen to last week's episode of 'On the Record' with Benji B, in which he discusses working with Kanye and Virgil on music and how club culture has changed.