“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.”