Her Accessories and Streetwear Are All Over Rihanna and Kanye, and Paris’ Runways, Too. In Tokyo, the Dior Homme Jeweller Shares Her Path to Success.
I catch Yoon Ahn exactly one week after the debut of her inaugural jewelry collection for Dior Homme Spring/Summer 2019 at Paris fashion week. She was back in her home base of Tokyo for just eight days and was scheduled to leave for London to start work on next seasons collection the following morning. On this, the sweltering last day of June, we meet in Shibuya, at the AMBUSH Workshop—Yoon’s jewelry turned ready-to-wear label.
Like a growing number of her peers, the 41-year-old designer wasn’t formally trained. She started out making jewelry for fun with her husband Verbal, a member of the Japanese rap group the Teriyaki Boyz who gained popularity in 2005. Back then, rap had yet to become the new pop. Japanese streetwear was mixing with 90s hip-hop style—full-zip Bape hoodies, varsity jackets, stunner shades, baggy denim, and LA Gear high-tops. Their work channeled the “golden era” of rap with whopping gold chains and Slick Rick rings. Picture a thick gold chain with a medallion the shape of Beethoven’s bust, wearing diamond-encrusted shades and a studded leather jacket. Kanye and Pharrell were two of the first American rappers to embrace this scene, spending lots of time in Japan, collaborating with the Teriyaki Boyz, and wearing Yoon and Verbal’s designs. Nostalgic extravagance was in, and thanks in part to perfect timing and high-profile co-signs, the jewelry took off.
Eight years after the birth of AMBUSH jewelry came a full AMBUSH ready-to-wear collection, an LVMH nomination in 2017, a Tokyo fashion week presentation in 2018, and announced last spring, the appointment to jewelry designer for Dior Homme, courtesy of its newly-minted creative director Kim Jones, a long-time friend of Yoon’s.
The AMBUSH Workshop in Shibuya is comprised of two stories, doubling as a retail location on street level, and an office on the second floor. I wander into the retail space and there are at least 10 shoppers inside, two are studying a binder filled with images of AMBUSH jewelry offerings, one is glued to a rack of graphic tees with unicorn and wolf illustrations that read “Euphoric Oblivion” and “Traces to Nowhere." Yoon’s designs are a hybrid of soft and hard. She’ll take a pop can and crush it, turning it into a purse. Or she’ll take a fitted hat with a generic sports insignia and give it an exaggerated romantic brim, creating a sunhat. A lifejacket becomes a puffer jacket, or a matching fleece sweatsuit gets fitted and tailored to become a viable going-out look. There’s a poetic nature in her work that comes not from subtlety, but from grand gestures.
I’m escorted upstairs by a very friendly and unassuming assistant dressed in an outfit that skews more corporate than AMBUSH, into a small but bright lobby. It’s minimally decorated with a table and chairs, and a small rolling rack of AMBUSH clothing in the corner. I’m resisting the urge to touch when Yoon emerges promptly through a white door, calmly sipping on a Starbucks iced tea. In this 40 degree Tokyo heat, staving off my immense jetlag, I’m dripping in sweat and she’s dripping in jewelry—the crystals in her rings making her look Ultra HD like she just stepped out of the screen on a 4K television. On each hand, huge aqua blue and violet purple square crystals encased in gold and silver. There’s more. On almost every finger and knuckle, at least 10 thin diamond bands, two of which have diamond-covered teardrops dangling off of them as if they’re crying. Her long talon nails match, gleaming in a shade of champagne silver.
Yoon grew up in Seattle “before it was hip,” she says. Pre-Starbucks, pre-Amazon, the Seattle that birthed the grunge-era. The overcast sky made it an easy place to get depressed, Yoon says, and she didn’t want anything to do with that. Born in 1977 in Korea, Yoon is the oldest of two—her father in the U.S. Army and her mother a homemaker. Her dad’s job took them to Hawaii and California before they settled in the Seattle suburbs in the 80s. “I was obsessed with Eddie Vedder,” recalled Yoon of her West Coast adolescence, a telling comment that makes sense of the grunge-inspired details often present in her work. “I can appreciate Seattle, but back then I used to hate it so much.” Yoon grew obsessed with New York City and London and the world she saw in the pages of i-D, Vogue, and The Face.
After high school, instead of heading to New York or London, she ended up at Boston University to study graphic design, a move that turned out to be pivotal in her life. It was here, in the late 90s, that she met her husband Verbal at church. “Christianity and going to church is big in Korean culture, and I grew up in a Christian family,” says Yoon. “So when I went to Boston I was looking for a church and that's where we met.” This chance meeting—call it God’s plan, or the law of attraction—would become a pattern in Yoon’s life. It was 2003 when she made the jump to Tokyo, and things kept clicking. Kanye wore their AMBUSH ‘POW!’ pendant—an XL diamond rendering of the classic comic book speech bubble— and suddenly they were fielding calls from international fashion buyers. She also met Virgil through Kanye, back when both guys were interns at Fendi. Kanye introduced her to Kim Jones too around this time, backstage at a Teriyaki Boyz show. This was ten years ago. Pre-YEEZY, pre-Virgil mania, pre-Kim Jones at Louis Vuitton.
"FASHION IS POP CULTURE NOW, SO YOU HAVE TO BE THE JUGGLER, IN THE FRONT."
Paris men’s fashion week Spring/Summer 2018 was historic for the aforementioned group. Kim Jones presented his inaugural collection for Dior Homme with Yoon, Virgil Abloh held the most hyped fashion show of the year for Louis Vuitton, and Kanye West showed up to support. Friends for a decade that are all finding themselves on top at the same time. Like the Antwerp Six for the insta-generation. Together, they’re redefining what a designer can be and simultaneously sparking a massive cultural debate. Is it simply friendship, or design codependency? Would the new breed of fashion designer/creative director be successful on their own, without a hyped crew to back them up? “As a designer today you have to be the best marketing person, the best PR person, you have to do everything,” says Yoon. “It's not about designing anymore, because there's more expectation on you than ever before. Fashion is pop culture now, so you have to be the juggler, in the front.”
With her appointment to Dior Homme Jewelry designer, Yoon balances two jobs and is responsible for twice the amount of output, a reality that she admits worries her without preoccupying her. Her working relationship with Kim Jones is particularly fruitful because of their long-term friendship. “He sets the tone for the collection and what he wants to do, and it's my job to come up with ideas to complement the directions he's taking.”
Much has been written about high fashion’s current changing of the guard, and Yoon is undeniably a key player in this new luxury establishment, but surprisingly, early into our conversation, she expresses that she isn’t sure of that herself. “I don't know if I'm a key player or not. I'm not trying to be that person, but I do feel responsible, in a way, now that I've been given this platform to exercise my philosophy.”
When we meet she’s wearing the AMBUSH tee that says “Euphoric Oblivion” but it’s tucked into a pink pleated skirt so that only the word “Euphoric” is visible. There’s a fluidity to the way she styles her own designs, accentuating their meaning. Her fans follow her lead, call it aspirational-Yoon. It becomes obvious to me why she's referred to by her brand, Yoon AMBUSH, instead of Yoon Ahn. Her selfies are magnetic, too. KiraKira, the faux sparkle app, even looks different on her—it’s shining out of her eyes. Bella and Gigi Hadid, Simi and Haze, the Kardashians, and the Jenners all want to wear her clothes. They want to be friends with her too. “I’m obsessed with you,” Bella comments on a selfie that Yoon posted in June, depicting herself and her cat both glowing like cosmic deities.
Yoon’s early days of peacocking on the Tokyo club circuit have primed her for the realities of the industry. “Sometimes, when people don't know you, they judge you by what you post, and how you seem to appear. That's why you also need to understand that surface is surface. Once someone opens that lid, they're going to be seeking depth. I might look a certain way on social media. I'm a girl, at the end of the day, and I like to have long weaves and wear lipstick, but I make sure I work my ass off, and my results are there. Everything in life is a balance. Especially as a creator, you need to lead with results.”
When AMBUSH held their first presentation at Tokyo fashion week in March of this year, the crowd was indicative of Yoon’s natural ability to draw like-minded people into her world, especially in a city like Tokyo where fashion industry elites don’t usually make time for up-and-comers. “All these different people from different industries came out. Chitose from Sacai, to Jun from Undercover, to Hiroshi Fujiwara, to J-Pop idols, to Kiko Mizuhara. I don't think there was an event where all those types of people gathered in one place before, and I think that surprised a lot of people, too. That's a reflection of who we are. We’re not just one specific scene.” Yoon proves that non-traditional design credentials are no longer a barrier to entry, even in the most conservative of arenas.
Seven days before our interview, Yoon was jogging down the Dior runway in Paris in pink sequinned Comme des Garçons Homme Plus shorts hand-in-hand with Kim Jones. While she might not be sure of her place in the new canon of luxury design, she’s embracing her newfound responsibilities. “It’s weird, all those people that I used to read about in i-D, Vogue, and The Face—I'm working with them now. I didn't imagine that. Now that I'm a little bit older and wiser, I'm really starting to believe [in] the law of attraction thing. That if you want it so much and work towards it, it does come to you.”
Interview by Romany Williams for SSENSE