“Now that I’ve done a few years, I want things to feel more natural and comfortable, I want to feel at home.” Yoon Ahn, co-founder of Ambush, is homebuilding, developing a ‘maison Ambush’ that aligns with the artistic impulse at the heart of the brand she runs with husband, Verbal. A pioneer of collaboration, Ambush stands at the vanguard of a new fashion generation crossing practices and embracing partnerships with the sort of organic mixology most can only manufacture. But with such quick ascension comes an evolving story yet to be fully told.
Now, Ahn finds herself intent on doing just this, filling in the missing pieces to create a contemporary maison fit for their consumers, and themselves. For SS21, this manifested across a collection crafted for comfort, in mind and wear, and an accompanying campaign – the brand’s first – that literally placed the clothing in a domestic setting, albeit one kitted out with stunning Japanese architecture and classic Italian furniture. While online, you’re invited to transcend further, into the ‘Ambush Universe’, a portal of design theory, field studies and 18-carat Ambush artefacts.
Lindsey Okubo: Morning Yoon, I had no idea you spent so much time on the West Coast and Hawaii, I’m from Honolulu so that got me excited.
Yoon Ahn: I love Hawaii, but we haven’t been able to go recently because of the pandemic. I used to go twice a year and stay at Sunset Beach, then drive down to town to hang out, and drive back up.
LO: Can you tell us about your childhood growing up in Seattle?
YA: My parents settled in Seattle because we already had family there. It was the early 90s and Seattle wasn’t as glitzy as it is now that Amazon and Microsoft are there. My neighbourhood was a middle-class suburb but it bordered a trailer park and the woods, so there were differing income brackets and the school I went to mirrored that. I enjoyed it a lot and there was a fun mix of people from skaters to jocks and, from my memory, everyone seemed to get along. Maybe that’s just the way I experienced it but I never really had any issues when it came to race or inclusivity because I really enjoyed being part of these different scenes.
LO: That mix of lifestyles and cultures is really interesting in the context of your work. You’ve previously mentioned that fashion is becoming quite conservative nowadays and I feel like that’s also because everyone has the same references and no one truly wants to be an outsider.
YA: We live in a digital age and I can’t really imagine what it would be like going to school today. I’m sure it’s a totally different scene than in my high school days and Euphoria is like the closest thing for understanding what’s going on. I was exposed to a lot of different scenes but I didn’t commit to one in particular. Having different types of friends kept me open-minded and I understood why they were that way. In my work I have to understand what people want to wear, so I always start to imagine where they’re going, why they’ll be wearing these things and then create this role-play in my head.
LO: With your dad being in the US army, nomadism was a huge part of your early years. Travelling from place to place, there was this cycle of coming and going which raises questions about belonging. You’ve often revisited these ideas and it’s interesting to think about escapism and your affinity for role-play as markers of empathy built into your practice.
YA: I think when I was younger I was driven by what I didn’t like and what I didn’t want to become – I think part of me still is. I don’t want to say I was struggling with identity but at the same time, despite being Korean-American, I didn’t really have a typical Korean-American background. Sometimes that made me feel like I didn’t know where I belonged despite having such a large network of friends. I was trying to find my own area I could just call my own and over the years, my work became that. It’s not the easiest thing, to have to develop your own vision and aesthetics, and the biggest fight has been against myself, because I didn’t go to fashion school and was naive enough to think that I could do it. At first it was about finding people who not only could make jewellery, but were receptive to the ideas that I was bringing to the table, because I was asking them to do something they had never seen before. What I’m doing now is, in a way, like my own biography, and every step along the way has captured what I was going through and what I was thinking during that time. Right before Covid-19 happened, I was thinking a lot about working at Dior [Ahn works with Kim Jones as Dior Men director of Jewellery], which is ironically my first fashion job [laughs]. Working at this French heritage house with the intent of preserving its story while simultaneously furthering it made me think on a bigger scale. Before, I wasn’t thinking that far ahead, it was more of a season-to-season thing. But I realised that I may want to really think about the need to have a longer approach to what I do. Prior to that, I was trying so hard trying to figure out what fashion was in its current moment. Then with SS21, I decided to let go and follow my intuition with what felt comfortable instead of things I felt I should be doing. It’s going to be a new chapter for us because I’m really focusing on building the house, building maison Ambush and asking myself what that looks like. I’m going to start looking at the seasons through that concept, rather than jumping from one point of inspiration to the other.
“We’re entering a very interesting stage where we’re overloaded with information and it’s like, can we really pay attention to all these stories?”
LO: Again, there’s this resonance with ideas of what home really is. What conversations are you having about how you continue to grow your own self-awareness in such an outward-facing industry?
YA: I just want to keep things more organic and more intuitive than before and start to put elements together the way I do in my head. Previously, I think I was working by processing creativity instead of acting on my own because I was still discovering and learning. When you’re immature in a certain profession, you’re always asking yourself, “What is the right thing to do?” because you think that’s how you should approach things. But now that I’ve done a few years, I want things to feel more natural and comfortable, I want to feel at home. I ask myself, “What can I bring into the lives of my customers that they can feel comfortable in, so they can go on being themselves?” I want them to wear the clothes versus the other way around. Apple is a good example of really good product design, it’s so simplified, so easy to understand and it can seamlessly become part of your world. I think fashion can definitely take on that kind of approach and I’m more interested in that now rather than just being loud for the sake of it.
“I think naturally there’s meaning and story attached to jewellery but it becomes about how much the story gets told over and over again between different people. Like a fairytale, it begins to transcend time.”
LO: You’ve previously said that fashion is pop culture now, and fashion really has become a social signifier, a marker of ‘cool’. I love the word instinctual that you used because obviously style is instinctual, but it also hinges on a certain kind of freedom. What role does freedom and self-honesty play in the Ambush of the future?
YA: To compare fashion and music – there are so many genres and so many artists within that genre, yet they’re all different, depending on who the artist is and what their process is. Ambush feels like it’s in a stage of jazz music right now because I’m doing things in an impromptu fashion, where my feelings dictate right off the bat instead of mechanically. It’s a little different from electronic music where you just get the sample and layer and layer and layer. With jazz, sometimes you don’t know where things are going but there’s beauty in that as well. Randomly during quarantine, I re-watched all the Wong Kar- wai films again. I’ve always loved him but when I watched them again I realised that sometimes with his work, there’s no specific theme. When you look at American cinema, it’s so formulaic, but with him, it feels like there’s a story, but there isn’t. What makes it so beautiful is the way he strings these moments together within the span of the movie. I think our collections can be like that too, we don’t have to have one specific theme as long as each piece can cohesively coexist.
“In my work I have to understand what people want to wear, so I always start to imagine where they’re going, why they’ll be wearing these things and then create this role-play in my head.”
LO: Ambush is rooted in jewellery, which unites luxury and longevity – to what extent would you say longevity relates to resilience?
YA: I think naturally there’s meaning and story attached to jewellery but it becomes about how much the story gets told over and over again between different people. Like a fairytale, it begins to transcend time. Comparing that to fashion, if the story of a specific collection resonates with people and continues to be spoken about, then we begin to see some longevity there, but it’s often a rare occurrence. We’re entering a very interesting stage where we’re overloaded with information and it’s like, can we really pay attention to all these stories? Only time can tell. Because I can’t foresee what’s going to happen, all you can do as a designer is do your thing, tell your story. For me, that’s why everything needs to become more personal, it has to become more unique to you as the individual. The ability to do so is the real luxury because I can’t tell the same story as those massive fashion houses, I don’t have that history, but I’m building the history of Ambush now from almost nothing. I just want to make sure that everything I tell is very true to us and that in retrospect, everything we did meant something to us. If that connects with customers, that’s all we can really ask for.
LO: And there’s a level of trust and openness that comes with that. In terms of your own personality, do you trust others and open up easily?
YA: With certain things, for sure. But I keep my personal life and certain views that have nothing to do with the brand separate. What I do choose to share is not just my work, but what I’m interested in and who inspires me. I’m not the most outgoing person, I’m better with small groups of people versus going live on social media and chatting for hours, but something I learned on social media is that if you don’t tell it first, someone else is going to make something up and then that becomes the truth. People sometimes want what’s entertaining more than the truth. I started to take more ownership and use my website to create the Ambush universe, capturing the world of my thoughts and inspiration. It’s not a tool for selling anything, it’s more a way to reintroduce the archives I made a few years ago and share the things that inspire me because that’s part of what we do and who we are.
LO: On that same note, which artists have helped you understand your own practice better?
YA: There are a lot – I’m interested in so many different things. One moment I’ll be really into camera gear and spend weeks going around to all these parts of Tokyo looking for vintage camera parts and becoming a total nerd about it. It’s really fun to me because it has nothing to do with fashion but at the same time, it does. By going down this rabbit hole, I’m able to understand the beauty of photography and why it means so much to our industry, just by being nerdy about it. Surprisingly, that’s where a lot of ideas come from and just because I work in the fashion industry, I don’t only look at fashion channels. Right now, because I’m working with the concept of rebuilding the house, I’m actually looking at a lot of mid-century furniture designers and houses. Their designs were so pure they still feel modern, even 60 or 70 years later. It made me really think about how I could begin to purify what I make so that it can also look modern 50 years from now. It’s not so much the artists themselves that are inspiring me, but the movements as a whole, their thinking processes, their approach to design and how they caused a shift in the industry. You should never discourage your natural instincts and interests because that natural curiosity as a designer is something you really need to preserve. I think that’s how you keep your mind and mental state young, by just letting things enter your worldview.
“Ambush feels like it’s in a stage of jazz music right now because I’m doing things in an impromptu fashion, my feelings dictate right off the bat.”
LO: You’re someone who has championed collaboration from the beginning but now we’ve seen it become hype, which sometimes becomes the reason to collaborate, instead of a genuine desire to create something new. Where does the balance sit when clearly fashion is still a business?
YA: Definitely, fashion is business at the end of the day and I think openness is more important than ever because we don’t live in the days of the old guard, where the old houses ruled everything and told people exactly what to buy and wear. Today consumers have more power and we have to listen to them, watch how things move and witness this power shift. Fashion used to be a class thing but now it’s for everyone, everything is so accessible. Having said that, you need to be flexible. It’s no longer just about having a wholesale account. You not only need to have a clear understanding of your message, but you need to have even stronger products because there’s already enough stuff out there. You decide what you want to do with what you built and what you’re building. I want to be a leader in that and that’s why I’m interested in reading so many different things. If I can learn something from a tech company, I try to apply it. That openness is going to be even more important going forward as it’s going to require designers to start thinking differently. Building your business is a design in itself.
LO: How important is it for you to speak about your work? Artists can sometimes feel this resistance towards having to explain themselves because that’s often the entire point of creating something in the first place, to feel understood through their work.
YA: It depends, I’m also not the most articulate person when it comes to verbalising my thoughts. It’s easier for me to just make something and then show what I made. But I’m realising that I do need to communicate in order to give context and explain the meaning behind these things. However, sometimes I feel like it’s just rather straightforward because the making of it was so instinctive. Rather than me having to explain, I’d like people to tell me how they feel about it. If I cooked up some dish, I’d just want you to taste it. I don’t need to explain the dish, if it tastes good, it’s good. I think fashion can be that direct.
all clothing and accessories by AMBUSH SS21 model LERA ABOVA at OUI; hair SACHI YAMASHITA at ASG PARIS; make-up THOMAS LORENZ at HOME AGENCY; photography assistants CLEMENS KLENK and SARA W.