It may look like Yoon Ahn is busier than ever. She’s fresh off her first sneaker drop, an April release of an Air Max 180 that was part of the Nike X AMBUSH® Collection, a whole-body set of products that included clothing and a herringbone necklace. That was on the heels of a separate collab (a kimono and jersey) with the sneaker giant for the FIFA Women’s World Cup. There have been high-profile launches with Beats by Dre and Rimowa, as well as a partnership with Amazon, ahead of Tokyo fashion week. And, of course, since her 2018 appointment as jewelry designer for Dior Men, the Elles and Vogues of the world have been profiling her as a face of streetwear’s infiltration of the legendary houses. As her enviably followed IG account (with likes from Naomi Campbell and Rih) attests, the strawberry-haired, 42-year-old designer’s eye is the imprimatur for women’s streetwear worldwide. Yoon Ahn’s touch is all over everything dope right now.
Her glamorous come-up might seem instant if not for the round-the-clock work she’s put in over a decade to get to this point. Or the attention to detail she still shows to every part of her expanding brand. “Running the business and building the business itself is designing, right?” she asks, rhetorically. “It’s not just the branding. The way I see it, designing involves [everything from] branding to how you want to define the culture that’s going on at the company to systemizing everything. I’m still pretty hands-on on everything. I still check all the sales, the spreads, design everything. Like, everything.”
Ahn and then-boyfriend Verbal (now her husband of 14 years) launched the first iteration of AMBUSH® way back in 2002, as a studio for Ahn to do graphic design work for album covers. They had just moved to his native Tokyo to immerse themselves in the city’s emerging music scene. He got famous rapping as one of the Teriyaki Boyz, and she thrived as a sort of persona crafter, styling his wardrobe and overall aesthetic. Together, they designed ornate gold jewelry that called to mind the baroque American hip-hop style mashed with pop art references. Soon they were working collaboratively with a growing cadre of rap artists like N*E*R*D and Kanye West—figures who regularly made the trek to Tokyo to experience the culture in which Verbal and Ahn were mainstays.
Within a few years, the POW! gold chain that they’d made for West was wrapped around rappers’ necks in the U.S., and AMBUSH® had found a market among hypebeasts worldwide.
Tokyo was home for Verbal, but Ahn, a Seattle native, studied her new city and the creative cohort that suddenly surrounded her. “Me living in Japan, having to see and work with people like NIGO®, like Jun [Takahashi], and all those guys, and even Hiroshi [Fujiwara]—those are the pioneers of the scene right now,” she says. “Living in Shibuya, in the middle of the city, and rubbing shoulders with those guys, I did learn a lot by just watching them, how they moved and how they did things. It helped being around them.”
None so much as NIGO®, whom she and Verbal have known since the early aughts. Impressed by her trend-spotting and club connections, NIGO® asked Ahn to take over PR for BBC/Ice Cream in Japan in 2006 and, in 2010, to design a Bape women’s line, which she did for two seasons. Although her job was ostensibly to move the brand beyond just selling shrunken men’s tees to ladies, Ahn remembers fondly the time when she pushed too far and NIGO® killed her idea for a camo bikini because it was “too sexy.” “Listen, I never designed apparel before,” she says, laughing. “At the end of the day, that was not my brand, so certain clothes they wanted to keep, and maybe a woman’s brain was a little bit too radical for them.”
Ahn knows that she sticks out in the dude-heavy fashion business. Early on, she noted how Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo turned sticking out into a career. “She’s an Asian woman who went to Paris in the early ’80s, and then she kind of took it by storm by being herself, not adapting to the Parisian way of doing things. Even in Japan, she was, like, the trailblazer.” Ahn says that, even now, men downplay her business acumen because she works 12-hour days in heels or full makeup (her IG is basically a Fenty Beauty stan account) and nail art. She’s learned to shrug it off, knowing full well that she’s got the chops to be where she is. “No matter what industry you’re in, your output has to be louder than your persona... As creators, we have to make sure that what we put out is so strong that it either works or it doesn’t. I think that’s where you should put your pride.”
Working with BBC had given Ahn a paid, hands-on education on production chains, branding, sales, and building company culture. At the same time, she was prepping for the 2008 launch of AMBUSH® as a product line. The club girl with the too-sexy ideas and hip-hop jewelry learned to scale the business steadily, even if it meant that she and Verbal had to take phone orders or haggle with manufacturers themselves. Ahn credits her Korean-American parents, who brought her family to the U.S. when she was a kid, with setting an example. “They worked their asses off,” she says. “That’s the environment that I grew up in. I think that’s why I’m able to work really hard without complaining.”
"NO MATTER WHAT INDUSTRY YOU’RE IN, YOUR OUTPUT HAS TO BE LOUDER THAN YOUR PERSONA... THAT’S WHERE YOU SHOULD PUT YOUR PRIDE.”
Early on, AMBUSH® stuck to accessories, knowing the market and the supply chain well enough to make margins. Ahn had been designing and styling pieces of clothing here and there since arriving in Japan but didn’t yet have insight into how to scale production into a viable business. Within two years of launching its unisex apparel line in 2015, AMBUSH® was a finalist for a prestigious LVMH prize. That’s a major rise for any designer but a meteoric one for a woman-led business rooted in streetwear. “I didn’t go to fashion school. I never had a proper fashion job, like at a maison house, before. My training was BBC, Ice Cream, and Bape.”
The historic Dior Men appointment might seem like a way for the legendary house to glom onto streetwear. Fashion’s traditionalists have especially balked at the rise of creatives without fashion school bona fides. But Dior Men artistic director Kim Jones has recognized and championed Ahn’s talent since his previous post at Louis Vuitton, first launching an AMBUSH® collaboration with the brand in 2012. “I’m blessed. I’m thankful,” she says. “I’ve been friends with Kim for a really long time, and he always wanted to do a [Yoon solo] collaboration, even when he was at LV, but the timing didn’t work out. And then he told me, when he was about to leave LV, ‘No matter which house I go to, I want you to come do the jewelry with me.’”
The co-sign has forced stodgy gatekeepers to put some respect on Ahn’s name. “You can sense it—the attitude, everything,” she says. “They take me more seriously, what I do and all this stuff. It makes you think of the power of the brand name when it gets to people like Dior and Nike and all those things. It definitely has power to really shift people’s minds.”
When we talk, Ahn’s busy prepping for Paris Fashion Week, where she’ll show her second jewelry collection for Dior Men. Just before the runway show, she’ll work on the rollout of the second online drop for the fashion house’s Spring/Summer 2019 line and oversee the final touches on a sunglass collaboration with Korean brand Gentle Monster. She’d been playing Tyler, the Creator’s IGOR nonstop while working—she says music dictates her mood when she creates—but lately, in the upstairs workshop of the AMBUSH® store, she’s been bumping ambient nature sounds from YouTube. The hours-long audio of rain or the white noise from airplane flights turn the minimalist space into a tunnel of focus in the middle of bustling Shibuya.
Though her list of potential collaborators keeps stretching, Ahn deliberates over each, choosing partnerships that help her learn more of the business or expand creatively. Does it give her access to resources or consumers she can’t reach with AMBUSH®? Can they make something truly unique? Even with all the opportunities that AMBUSH®’s success has opened, enough for her work to become a subtly pervasive force within fashion and culture, there’s a huge gulf between where AMBUSH® is today and those generational, mind-shifting brands that are now calling on her.
Ahn is working on closing that gap in a way that makes sense for how she sees the future.
“Soon, I definitely want more physical shops in different cities so I can have more direct content and direct contact with customers,” she says. “In the long run, I definitely want this company to become a creative hub where it’s not just apparel—it’s a place where we can go into different areas and coexist together in different industries. I’m definitely interested in food. I’m definitely interested in beauty, as well. I’m just interested in so many different things. Not that I’m going to go hands-on in everything.”
As if she knows any other way.