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“Everything in life is always preparing me for something bigger,” says the designer Yoon Ahn, tying back her mermaid-length champagne-blond hair, and settling into a chair after wrapping up a morning photo shoot. She has just flown back home to Tokyo from a family trip to Honolulu—a rare vacation in a calendar that keeps the 41-year-old travelling the world. Along with her commitments to Ambush—her phenomenon of a streetwear brand—she has countless collaborations and a post since last year as Dior Homme’s jewelry designer. To the highly determined Ahn, achievements stack like a ladder that can then be climbed.

Born in Korea, raised in the Seattle suburbs and a graduate of Boston University, Ahn moved to Tokyo in 2003 with the rapper Verbal (real name Young-Kee Yu), her future husband and partner at Ambush. She arrived not speaking Japanese, but 16 years later, there’s nowhere she feels more at ease than in her 16th floor Shibuya apartment, or at the nearby Ambush studio, which sits above the brand’s minimalist concrete flagship at street level. “I really love this city,” she sighs. “Tokyo is always moving, always shifting, but the undercurrent of the country is so traditionalist, so it’s an interesting intersection here.” She sees the most rapid developments from her window, surveying the many cranes in action as the city prepares for the 2020 Olympics, but she embraces the possibilities of change. “It’s exciting—it will bring more people to where I live, and even more energy.” In fact, she’s dedicating her next collection to the Tokyo Olympics.

Ahn and Verbal met at a local church while they were both students in Boston. Finding her way in Tokyo, a new and foreign city, she tried graphic design jobs and styling gigs, and then began designing showpiece jewels for Verbal to wear onstage, working with local goldsmiths to bring the pieces to life. “We had to,” she explains. “You can always find any kind of clothes you want, but the jewelry wasn’t out there, and jewelry is so personal, especially in rap culture, with their custom chains and stuff—it becomes like a person’s logo.”

From the sizable 18-karat showstoppers of Verbal’s rap performances, Ahn started designing smaller pieces in humbler metals for people she knew. But the real groundswell began when Kanye West, a personal friend, sported Ahn’s big, cartoon-style pavé-encrusted Pow! pendant necklace. The occasion presented a crossroads for Ahn and her fledgling project: She could fritter away the fervor around her hobby, or take the leap and become an entrepreneur heading up a genuine brand. By 2008, Ambush was born, and Ahn was navigating the market.

“People don’t realize that a brand is beyond just designing. You’re the leader of a business and you have employees,” she says. “I think the real creativity is in how you construct your business.” Certainly, Ahn has managed to craft a trailblazing company whose products are smartly tailored to an eager slice of the public.

“In the earlier stages, I used to make crazier pieces, but they don’t sell,” she says coolly, pursing her scarlet-painted lips. As she talks, she packs up long bundles of the blond weave she wore for her shoot, combing out each one with her stiletto-sharp crimson nails. Her high-impact look—on this day, a crisp white sweatshirt and a gemstone-studded choker chain encircling the base of her neck; on all days, layers of Ambush gear and extravagant makeup—has made her the prime avatar of her own brand. Ahn’s online identity—she has almost 400,000 Instagram followers—has become as fundamental to her line as the apparel itself.

“I really love this city. Tokyo is always moving, always shifting.”

“What makes a great designer is being able to come up with something creative but also make it desirable for a great number of people,” says Ahn. “I get more creative when I know my boundaries.” That clear-sighted approach rendered her a 2017 finalist in the LVMH awards, and helped her guide Ambush through a wealth of collaborations ranging from Chitose Abe of Sacai, to Nigo of A Bathing Ape, and Jun Takahashi of Undercover. She also designed a celebrated collection of Nike athletic gear sharp enough for the club, and military-inspired sneakers for Converse that were an instant sensation. There are upcoming projects as well—a Nike World Cup collection in June, Gentle Monster sunglasses in July, plus “a lot I can’t announce.”

For Ambush, Ahn oversees both the creative and business direction, while Verbal handles the administrative side. Since adding a clothing line in 2015, she’s proven adept at reimagining sports styles into genre-defining must-haves, from her sleek (and fully functional) white wetsuit to futuristic takes on military jackets inspired by David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The jewelry that established Ahn’s reputation similarly remixes familiar items, turning the quotidian into something distinctively uncanny: A faceless watch becomes a bracelet, a gold-plated USB key becomes a pendant, a clothespin becomes an earring. They are easy to sport yet loud and identifiable, instantly signaling a wearer’s alliance with the international adherents of Ambush.

Since her appointment in April 2018 at Dior, Ahn has infused the fashion house’s jewelry for men with similar Instagram-ready recognizability, with logo-heavy pieces that resonate more with a hip-hip aesthetic than the classically restrained world of the Paris fashion house. Ahn, who has never studied fashion or jewelry, sees the role at Dior—her first official job in fashion beyond her own brand—as less complicated than heading up Ambush, where she compares her responsibility to that of Christian Dior himself. “Mr. Dior was there for nine years and created all the codes, then you have decades of designers reworking that heritage,” she says. “I don’t know if Ambush is going to carry on for 60 or 70 years, but I have to create the DNA, I have to create all the codes. At Dior, all the codes are there, so it’s easier for me.”

Yet this is a time when the codes of Dior, and many other high fashion houses, are shifting radically, and Ahn herself is a potent symbol of that change. A self-taught designer who is Tokyo-based, Asian and female, she is bringing the democratized and global aesthetic of streetwear to the couture house and breaking into a realm traditionally dominated by European men with institutional pedigrees and a rarefied vision of couture luxury.

Ahn’s appearance at Dior was part of a chain reaction. In March 2018, Dior hired Kim Jones—a designer noted for imparting a streetwear-friendly aesthetic to the runway in his former position at Louis Vuitton—to direct the menswear line. Jones then hired Ahn—the two had been friends for over a decade. To underscore the new guard’s arrival at Dior, Jones brought in the street artist KAWS, who collaborated on designing a selection of pieces. For Jones’ inaugural show, KAWS even designed a 30-foot-high sculpture of a besuited version of his BFF character, crafted with 70,000 flowers. (The show ended with Jones taking his lap around the runway leading Ahn by the hand.) Extraordinary flower installations have been a part of Dior’s runway sets since Raf Simons used them to create poetic hanging gardens and dense, romantic walls of flowers. KAWS’ giant bloom-covered cartoon figure showed that Dior’s elegant materials and craftsmanship would remain under Jones, but the outcome would be something far less reverent.

At the same time that Jones and Ahn started at Dior, Virgil Abloh was appointed to take over Louis Vuitton. Abloh—a friend of Ahn’s and also an untrained designer (holding instead a degree in architecture)—had become one of the most blazing names in fashion with his own Off-White line. “People like me and Virgil, we don’t come from the usual background of graduating from fashion school and getting our start as a fashion assistant,” says Ahn. “Life was our school.”

“I was intimidated when Kim invited me to come work at Dior,” she continues. “But when I didn’t know anything about business, I had to turn into a businesswoman. I had to come out with designs that made sense. That’s more real than anything like fashion school.” According to Ahn, her market-savvy tenure with her own brand taught her how the commercial world functions, how to work with manufacturers and how to deal with retailers and clients. “It’s natural that I’m in this position because I’m fit for it,” she says. “What do I bring to Dior Men? What’s modern, what’s 2019, what people actually want to buy.”

“It doesn’t get any more Shibuya than me... the clubs, the culture, I’ve lived all of that.”

So far in her tenure with Dior, that’s meant more pop style from the Tokyo streets than Paris couture, but this is the sea change that Ahn is helping to foment. Making the commute back to Tokyo helps keep her design roots and her personal voice vital, maintaining a connection to the city that fostered her original ideas in the aughts where she was part of the vibrant local club scene.

“In club culture you have to get dressed up to stand out,” she says, comparing the eccentricity of the period to the dynamism of London club life in the 1980s and ’90s. Her taste for extreme looks solidified in those days, after years of being more muffled in the tamer environs of Boston and Seattle. The immersion into Tokyo’s club tribes would influence the iconography of her designs, with her references to surfers, grunge kids, bikers, high school misfits and more. “It wasn’t like the US where everyone who goes to a particular club dresses the same way and listens to the same music,” she says. “Some people were punk, some people were hip-hop, but everyone was gathered in one room.” It was a time of endless parties and she met “everyone in the fashion industry that way,” she says. “That’s how a lot of my early collaborations came about—very organically, because of human relationships.”

Those relationships established her home among this city of 20 million. “From the outside looking in, Tokyo seems crazy,” she says. “But living here, everyone knows each other in the fashion community—it’s quite a tight group of people.”

Ahn has lived in the same high-rise for 13 years, at the center of Tokyo’s most boisterous, youthful neighborhood, Shibuya—the heart of nightlife in the world’s most populous city. “It doesn’t get any more Shibuya than me. I’ve seen all the changes. There’s so much that came in here, the clubs, the culture, and I’ve lived all of that,” she says. The area is less popular as a residence for foreigners, but Ahn no longer feels like one in any case. “I’ll never fully become Japanese because I grew up elsewhere,” she says. It was her father’s position in the military that moved her family between South Korea, Seattle, Hawaii and California. “But this is my home. It’s just that my outlook is much wider than people who never left their country.”

It’s an outlook that’s in continual evolution. Ahn no longer frequents Tokyo’s clubs. “Maybe I’m jaded,” she says. “But I don’t feel like there’s a scene worth checking out anymore.” Instead, before packing in what she calls an abbreviated day of 12 hours at the Ambush office, she diligently gets up at four or five in the morning “when everything is silent except for my cats,” and spends a couple of hours reading and contemplating design, turning to books and creations from the past instead of the electric energy of club life for inspiration.

“Working at Dior really changed me because I started to think about legacy and making something that could be more lasting,” she says. “So I look at art, furniture and architecture that stand the test of time after 40 or 50 years,” trying to understand “what about the piece still makes sense in the 21st century.”

With her own work—cassette tape earrings, padlock chokers, lighter holders as pendants—she seeks to transpose the prosaic into eloquent new forms. “I want to give value to things that people overlook,” she says. “Part of the designer’s job is to make people look at things in a new way.” For Ahn, at this pinnacle in her ambitious career, a fanatical crowd awaits whatever she wants to show them next.

“What do I bring to Dior Men? What’s modern, what’s 2019, what people actually want to buy.”

“What do I bring to Dior Men? What’s modern, what’s 2019, what people actually want to buy.”


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Thirty-Two

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