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Everything you think you’ve discovered, Yoon Ahn already knew about first. After all, as the co-founder of AMBUSH and Dior’s Men’s jewelry director it’s her job to understand what, and who, will dictate contemporary culture at any given moment. To have a finger on the pulse across fashion, music, pop culture, art, and tech all at once, to have the innate ability to seamlessly cross-pollinate disciplines, to actually create what comes next in culture, now that’s a craft.
Since the last time I spoke in person with Ahn backstage at Dior Men’s Spring/Summer 2020 show in Paris, she has gone on to collaborate with Uniqlo and Disney on an apparel and accessories capsule, with Bvlgari on handbags, with Beats on special edition glow-in-the-dark earphones, and with Moët & Chandon on bottles of champagne and pop-up retail installations. Meanwhile, she’s expanded the product range of AMBUSH, worked on 10 more collections at Dior Men’s, and continued her partnerships with Converse and Nike — among which marked the first Nike and NBA collection to be designed by a woman, ever. And that was just during lockdown.
“It’s probably the longest I’ve [ever] been stuck in Tokyo, since last February,” she tells me over a 90-minute Zoom call where I see her head and shoulders floating in front of a filter of the Tokyo skyline. “It’s been okay actually. I’ve been traveling out of the city quite often, trying some new things, so I feel like I’ve kind of gotten to know the city in a different way.”
As with everything, maybe that’s just the power of timing. At least that’s what Ahn told me two years ago when I interviewed her for Highsnobiety’s ON THE RECORD podcast, when she talked about meeting Kim Jones in Tokyo at a Teriyaki Boyz concert while she was working with Kanye on Pastelle.
Perhaps the right timing also played a big part when she co-founded high-end jewelry line-turned-fashion brand AMBUSH in 2008, after seeing the success of catering pieces to high-profile figures and local rappers under her previous jewelry company Antonio Murphy & Astro. Maybe the right timing was the reason she started working with NIGO, Kanye, and Virgil Abloh in the late noughties, and why she was early to the partnership game with BAPE and Reebok, long before brands made collaborations key features of their marketing and product strategies.
Timing most definitely influenced her, and her partner Verbal’s, decision to sell a majority stake in AMBUSH to New Guards Group — whose portfolio includes Off-White™, Heron Preston, and Palm Angels — in January 2020, just a few months before COVID-19 halted the world.
Timing matters, however Ahn’s success should also be attributed to her immaculate understanding of what and who influences youth culture across geographies, the art of marrying content with commerce, and her eye for visual storytelling. This is why I wanted to know more, and ask what advice she can give us on nearly everything.
“It’s just a matter of time before AI and all these things are going to become more and more part of human life. Labor is going to be a really big issue as well. As humans, with our vulnerable bodies, we do need these machines to complete certain works. We did a really fun show with Amazon where we had Alexa as a sales person in our store, so you could order through her and a product would be delivered to your house. So I kind of fantasize about AI that can do just one thing and how processes could be easier.”
On the Clothing to Own
“Everyone should own a hazmat suit. You never know what will [happen] next, so it’s better to be prepped just in case.”
On Leaving Earth
“Look at Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. All those guys are already thinking about it and kind of putting the next stage of exiting Earth [in place], which is why they’re pouring all their energy into discovering a place that we can live in the future. There’s going to come a day when Earth isn’t going to be a place where humans can exist. I don’t think we’re going to all migrate into other places, but we’re going to become heavily dependent on machines.”
On the Billionaire Space Race
“What they’re doing is reckless, but I think it’s amazing. They’re spending their own money on experimentation, to build, to go out there. With government money it’s harder as it’s based on tax money, but with [these billionaires] it’s out of their own pocket, and I think that’s how they can speed it up, by just trying. It can help push things further for all humanity.”
“I’m currently listening to lots of ’90s Jungle and DnB remixes on YouTube like Tangerine Dream, David Axelrod. In the mix is Nine Inch Nails and Helmet for a mental workout here and there. But also teenage coming-of-age artists like Olivia Rodrigo and smooth pop like BTS. I cut sugar out of my life, so I need the sweetness from somewhere.”
On Her Latest Nike Collab
“I live in Tokyo, and with the Olympics happening, I wanted to just capture my take on Japan. At the time I was designing the Dunks and looking at how I could construct the shoe. I looked at car construction and animations like Akira and Kawaii culture, and so we thought we would just throw everything in and see what comes out. It was my love letter to Japan and Tokyo.”
On Megan Thee Stallion
“Fast-forward to the production of our campaign, and we had to do the campaign digitally through two shots. So I did my shoot in Tokyo and hers in the United States, and we combined them into a single image. Technology allowed that to happen, you know what I mean. I knew Megan loved anime, and Nike wanted other female figures in the campaign, so she was the right person.”
On the Best Anime
“I used to love Ushijima-kun, but it’s mostly Astro Boy. The character has a deep love for humanity, despite the many hardships he may face. It makes you really think about what makes a human. If there comes a time where androids and robots can have the same emotions as humans, are we better than them?”
“We never limit ourselves to fashion trends. For me, collaboration is an opportunity to learn about that subject. With my Moët & Chandon collaboration, for instance, I’m not the most heavy champagne drinker, but I’ll approach that as art. Looking at how the grapes are raised, the taste, where it comes from, it really fascinated me. I’m quite nerdy, so I love learning about it and unpacking that world. I think when they approached me they wanted something more loud and out there, but for me Moët was so iconic that I don’t think it needed that. I wanted to simplify it, so I made the label white. In Japan when you go to these small, local bars, you can actually buy a bottle, write your name on it, and leave it there so you know it’s yours. It goes with the art of giving, which is part of champagne culture as well.”
On Designers to Watch
“To name a few, Rui Zhou is doing a great job. I love what Isa Boulder is doing. Also Zellerfeld, who 3D prints sneakers, is directing sneaker development for the future.”
On Her Dream Travel Destination
“I want to go to Patagonia. I have this amazing picture of a mountain there that I can’t stop staring at. I’ve always been a huge beach and water person, but I’m starting to enjoy mountains a little bit. I’ll go on little hikes around the city. It’s a nice challenge. You get overwhelmed, but next thing you know, you’re already halfway there. It’s like life, isn’t it? Take the little things one at a time.”
On Picking Up Photography
“It hit me two years ago. I was looking at this photojournalist called Alex Webb. I think he just kind of runs around to different cities as a street photographer. His work blew me away, how he was able to capture so many faces in, say, one scene, and then the next thing you know there’s a depth. At the time I was getting into cameras. I wasn’t trying to become a photographer, but I like gadgets so I’m learning about cameras. Life photographers often say it’s good to slow down.”
On Slowing Down
“There was a time when I was struggling so much with so many things at once, I kind of felt jaded. I’m always looking for the next thing and always in a rush. When COVID happened, I was stuck in one place and it just dawned on me that everything I see, someone has seen before. There’s nothing new under the sun, right? So why should I get frustrated by so many things? That’s the beauty of photography, where you can look at the same thing with new eyes. A new side of me came out.”
On Men Wearing More Jewelry
“Hip-hop and pop culture definitely influenced that. Customizing your own pieces becomes like your own ID, and especially guys want to be able to bring that whole persona to the front and decorate themselves. I love that rappers really helped and opened that door where guys can feel more comfortable in their own skin. And it’s not just about jewelry, either. It’s about hygiene, hair, even down to manicures. They’re really feeling themselves. But now I’m glad to see that music and fashion are allowing people to just act as they are, no longer bound by all these unwritten social rules.”
On the Iciest Rappers
“Man, there’s so many guys now, everyone is getting iced up. You don’t even know if they’re real gold, it could be silver, it could be 10k, [but] as long as it’s shiny I think it’s okay. I can tell who’s really into jewelry by what kind of stone they’ve purchased. So it was fun looking at Lil Uzi having pink diamonds. I love Pharrell’s real stone necklaces, those for me have more weight to them. If you really want to flaunt having money, get a good stone. Don’t try to front with some iced-out thing that everyone can get from the mall.”
On Her Favorite Artists
“I’m revisiting and analyzing Picasso [on] what made him so good, as I like to analyze people. I’ve also been looking at lots of vintage Italian architecture and furniture designers from the mid-century to the late ’70s recently, like Gio Ponti, Achille Castiglioni, and Vico Magistretti.”
On Advice for Starting a Brand
“Have consistency in the output. It’s easy to be swayed by a big reaction on social media, but those are fleeting moments, and your work is only as good as the last thing you put out. Just remember that if starting a brand is something that you’re going to commit to doing, it has to really be something that’s worthwhile, that people can hold onto and find value in. The only way to do that is make sure to keep doing it and make sure that whatever you do is better than the one before. Keep building, building, building.”
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