When Tokyo-based Korean-American Yoon Ahn, co-founder of label Ambush, was appointed jewellery designer for Dior Men in April 2018, it came as a bit of a surprise to industry watchers unfamiliar with her work. Ahn, however, has been a key player in fashion for almost two decades.
The designer has known Dior Men’s artistic director Kim Jones for more than 15 years, not to mention that Ambush, which recently joined New Guards Group, a Milan-based company that distributes and manufactures apparel for labels such as Off-White, Palm Angels and Heron Preston, started out as a jewellery brand.
Ahn founded Ambush with her partner Verbal, a Japanese hip-hop artist, almost on a whim. With no prior fashion experience, she started styling him for his performances and eventually began to make jewellery for him to pair with his stage get-ups.
Trained as a graphic designer, Ahn had a fresh approach to jewellery, making chunky and street-inspired pieces that didn’t look too precious. She quickly built a following, especially after being embraced by stars such as Kanye West.
Ahn and Verbal waited almost a decade before making apparel, which they launched only because they needed clothes to pair with the jewellery in lookbook shoots.
“I’m still learning but I have realistic goals and never do something I can’t achieve,” says Ahn about her slow and steady approach. “Ten years seems quite long … but it’s definitely the right pace for us, so certain things we learn one season we make better the next. We’re still building the code of what we want to do and what Ambush should be.”
Clad in an oversized white top paired with bold jewellery and wearing flawless make-up, Ahn is taking a break from fittings the day before the Dior Men fall 2020 show in Miami in December.
“Kim [Jones] always wanted to do something with me and it was around the time when he was leaving Vuitton,” Ahn says. “He said he wanted me to do the jewellery at the next brand he was going to and at the time I didn’t know it was going to be Dior. I wanted to learn so I said yes. I’m a student and I love learning. And then it turned out to be Dior.”
While Ambush is a thriving label with global reach, it’s a far cry from Dior and its rarefied atelier smack in the middle of Paris.
“At the beginning it was a bit intimidating to go to a big house like Dior because I had never worked at a fashion house, but it’s a small, intimate team. It’s so easy to work with them and everyone gets along really well,” she says.
Ahn, however, wasn’t new to big companies as Ambush had previously teamed up with brands such as Nike and Converse.
“I don’t sign up for collaborations unless it’s people I respect and can learn from. The key word is ‘learn’,” she says, adding that it made sense to partner with Nike and Converse, given that Ambush doesn’t make shoes yet.
Ambush’s foray into apparel has been very successful, riding on the sportswear unisex wave that has completely changed luxury in the last decade.
“Whatever things I like and want to wear, I make,” Ahn says. “Most of the pieces started out as menswear but we made it unisex also because we couldn’t support both men’s and women’s. Our jewellery is unisex and I also wear a lot of men’s stuff so it just made sense. It was before this unisex and genderless thing became such a marketing thing. For me it was just normal.”
Although Ambush was conceived in Tokyo, where Ahn says the company has deep roots, it’s likely that a lot of its fans don’t even know that the label is Japanese.
Reflecting Ahn’s global and eclectic background, the brand is not defined by Japan or any specific location. It had been embraced on the global fashion scene even earlier than in Japan, where a lot of home-grown brands often rely on the domestic market and are very slow to expand internationally.
Ahn and Verbal’s connections with influential figures such as musician Pharrell Williams and A Bathing Ape founder Nigo, one of the pioneers of Japanese fashion, certainly helped, but she attributes the brand’s success to its measured approach to growth.
“You have to have very clear goals of where you want to go and you have to learn how to set that pace, so don’t do things just to keep up with the Joneses or you’re going to burn,” Ahn says. “That’s why we kept our timing.”
The brand, which is already available at some of the top stores around the world, including Joyce in Hong Kong, has two bricks-and-mortar shops in Tokyo (one that recently opened in the Parco mall in Shibuya) and has plans to expand further to China and the US.
The brand’s acquisition by the New Guards Group is meant to propel this growth.
“Our vision for the brand has always been a global one, and by partnering with the New Guards Group, we open up a new chapter for the international growth of Ambush,” Ahn says. “They respect our creative process and want to keep our roots based in Japan, while coming in to help strengthen areas that we could improve on. They are the perfect partners for us to grow the business together.”
Ambush is an example of what Asia-based brands can achieve when they do things right: become global labels on par with the powerhouses of the West by resonating with younger shoppers who are less loyal to big names and drawn to designers that offer an element of discovery.
“There’s a lot of creativity coming from Asia, but you have to know how the landscape of fashion works because you can’t just think domestically,” Ahn says. “It’s not just creativity but also the synergy and alchemy, and that’s how it gets big. The US is still the cultural leader and there’s another thing happening in fashion – fashion now is part of pop culture – so it all has to work together.”
A self-professed member of the MTV generation who discovered fashion through music videos and hip-hop culture, Ahn embodies what it means to be a global designer in the 21st century and is someone who will play a key role in shaping the industry for years to come.