Yoon Ahn on the metaverse, desert island essentials, and killer pasta
The AMBUSH designer just debuted her AW22 collection at Milan Fashion Week, but admits it’s ‘more fun to talk about anything but fashion’ – so that’s exactly what we did
Yoon Ahn is a designer with her sights set on the future.
Though fashion is usually pretty slow on the uptake when it comes to new technology, and lurks somewhere in the background as the rest of the world comes around to it, Ahn is preparing to embrace Web3 and take her first steps into the metaverse. Coming in March is a new experience (hush, hush for now) that will propel her label, AMBUSH, well into the digital realm.
But first comes something a lot more tangible – a physical collection, which embedded the brand in the right here, right now. With many things, including a world-enveloping virus, putting plans on hold for IRL runway shows, AW22 saw Ahn finally stage her first runway show at Milan Fashion Week. Taking place on the outskirts of the Italian city on one of the busiest days of the biannual event, the Korean-American designer presented the fruits of the last six months’ labour.
In a cavernous, echoing warehouse at the centre of which stood a glowing, red orb, Ahn sent a series of strong tailored looks around the brushed sand of the catwalk, layering long, sweeping coats with bulky, sharp shoulders over the micro-est of minis and bundling models into enormous shearling jackets. Disco-appropriate dresses, that seemed to pay homage to the chainmail styles intrinsic to Versace and Paco Rabanne, were crafted with metal ‘A’ links, which was a fun touch, while cut-out dresses strung with beaded tassels swished pleasingly as the girls wearing them walked. Finishing touches came via cute heart cut-outs that softened the hard edges of some of the pieces, and uber-high stacked leather boots and heels, not dissimilar to the vertiginous ones Ahn loves to slip on herself.
For someone who’s long been known as something of a secret weapon within fashion, having long collaborated with the likes of Kim Jones on jewellery and accessories for Dior, Ahn’s AW22 proposition was a strong one. But though she’s happy to talk about it when we catch up over the phone shortly ahead of the show, Ahn admits it’s far more fun to talk about anything but when it comes to interviews. So with that in mind, after a quick run-through of inspirations (characters she imagines wearing AMBUSH clothes, FYI), we get down to the important things: like what she’d take to a desert island, 90s UK rave, and the best pasta in Milan.
Hey Yoon! So you’re designing for both real life and the metaverse. Who is the character that you’ve got in mind when you’re designing?
Yoon Ahn: Actually, I would leave that translation up to the people. I don’t want to just define it by, like, ‘this is who she is, that’s who he is’. It’s a lot more vast than that. Let people make up their own minds, you know?
How do you feel when you see your clothes out on the street, when people bring them to life in their own way?
Yoon Ahn: I actually love to watch from a distance – it’s always so cool to see how people are translating my designs and putting their spin on it. Seeing the clothes come to life in all these different ways is amazing to me.
Why did you decide now was the right time for your first IRL show?
Yoon Ahn: I think after a few seasons of making clothes, I feel a lot more comfortable and the direction AMBUSH is going in feels a lot more defined, so it just felt like the right time. And also, with all the Web3 materials we’re building as a brand, there’s a real importance for us to also ground ourselves in the physical world. We’re showing in person and physical form, but also want to translate the collection into a space that a lot of people are a little afraid of right now. I actually find it really exciting, because fashion tends to be quite behind in terms of technology, or they kind of resist it, but I’m way over the opposite end – I really embrace it. Although there’s a lot that I need to learn about the field, I’m no expert in it (laughs). Fashion really has a huge role to play in this new realm we are entering.
“Fashion tends to be quite behind in terms of technology, or they kind of resist it, but I’m way over the opposite end – I really embrace it” – Yoon Ahn
Okay, to go back a little further, when did you first become interested in fashion, and what was the catalyst that made you think ‘I want to work in this industry’?
Yoon Ahn: I guess definitely when I moved to the US. We settled in the suburbs and my first exposure to fashion magazines was a public library. I mean coming from Korea and coming to the US and seeing Vogue for the first time – actually not just Vogue, but lots of big fashion magazines that were available at the library – I kind of realised there’s a big world out there where people express themselves through clothes and look amazing. You can totally transform yourself through fashion, and it has the power to take you places mentally even if you can’t be there physically.
What’s the first piece that you ever made, do you remember?
Yoon Ahn: Oh, I was always making clothes for my Barbies, sewing them their own little custom outfits like lots of designers start out. This was way before I even knew what Vogue was. When I was growing up we didn’t have a lot of money, so it was also just about picking up whatever we could from a thrift store and remaking it, cutting it off, and sewing it, you know, all that stuff. I used to customise a lot of what I found when I was in middle and high school.
What was your style in high school? How did you dress?
Yoon Ahn: It was definitely a mixture, somewhere between grunge and outdoorsy. Polo Sport was massive at my school, and obviously I’m from Seattle which was the epicentre of grunge. As a city it’s pretty grey and rainy, so we also needed to wear a lot of outdoor, protective stuff, like North Face and Patagonia jackets. And I had a lot of fleeces, because they keep you warm, but if they get wet, they dry quickly too. I used to thrift a lot of old Levi’s, a lot of flannel shirts, because where I lived there was a big lumber industry so there were lots of them circulating for crazy cheap money. And I remember one of the first things I really saved up for was my first pair of Dr. Martens.
I think everyone remembers their first pair of Docs! How would you describe your style now?
Yoon Ahn: There’s still a lot of tomboyish-ness to it. I think because I grew up wearing a lot of boys’ stuff, I still feel super comfortable picking out men’s clothes and making them my own. I mix a lot of menswear with womenswear. I could wear the biggest men’s coat and then, if I feel like it, I’ll put on heels to change the proportions to something interesting and new. So my look is kind of like sexy tomboy, I guess.
How do you define luxury, and what is your biggest one?
Yoon Ahn: I mean real luxury in the modern sense is something that you can’t buy with money – things like time, and memories, and things that are not quite tangible, but have value to that one person. Real luxury to me is not being bound by anything – you’re totally free and have all the time in the world to enjoy the things that you like.
Okay, a slightly different direction. If you were trapped on a desert island, what one luxury item would you want to bring with you?
Yoon Ahn: Depends on how long I’m going to be stuck on it. If I involuntarily end up on a desert island, I definitely want a cell phone as a satellite connection so I can call someone to come pick me up and give them the GPS of where I am.
An unexpected but great and logical answer. Are you a morning or a night person?
Yoon Ahn: Definitely morning. When I’m in Tokyo, I usually get up around 4am because I love quiet time in the morning. My brain is so clear. I love reading and watching things in those early hours because I feel like I can pay attention. I used to be a night person. I used to go out so much, and stay awake until the sun came up, and manage to go to work the next day, and then one day it just flipped. I realised I love being up and ready for the day when the city is so quiet.
Have you read, watched, or seen anything recently that’s really inspired you?
Yoon Ahn: I actually just saw Kanye’s documentary on Netflix. I think it’s a three-part series but they only have one up now, they haven’t released the other two parts. Man, it just shows if you believe in yourself you can really go to space and Kanye is a living reflection of that. I think it’s easy to dismiss him for his public displays and what has been happening recently, but it’s refreshing to go back and see where he came from – this truly humble background.
When do you feel the most creative and how do you get into the zone creatively?
Yoon Ahn: When things surprise me, actually. I get bored when I start to see the formula and the patterns. I’m kind of like that. I actually enjoy finding answers – looking and researching and figuring things out. So I tend to kind of throw myself in a place where I’m not familiar with things and that’s where I get most creative. That uncomfortableness actually really inspires me.
Say if you were going to go back in time ten years – what piece of advice would you give your younger yourself?
Yoon Ahn: Buy Bitcoin!
Yeah, I think I might tell myself the same.
Yoon Ahn: Seriously! I think schools really need to teach kids how to be more financially smart. You know what I’m saying? Like, if I knew that years ago, I wouldn’t even be speaking to you right now. I’d be on a private island somewhere in the sun. Actually that’s a lie – I love what I do, so I guess I’d still be doing it (laughs). But yeah, I wish someone had told me to invest in crypto.
You’re famously big into music. What have you been listening to recently? And what did you listen to while coming up with the collection this season?
Yoon Ahn: Actually, I’ve been doing a little bit of digging on the late 80s and early 90s UK rave scene. So my friends Toby (from Cav Empt) and Fraser (from Nike) are both from the UK and sent through a bunch of playlists to listen to, and just keep dropping knowledge on me. They lived through that era, so they’re telling me all about what it was like.
“I’m not the type of person who likes to drive myself crazy. There was a time when I used to push myself to stay up all night until I came up with something, but I realised how much that messes up my brain – I’d just be fried” – Yoon Ahn
Are you the kind of designer who can switch off and take a break, or do you find it hard, like many creatives do, to disconnect?
Yoon Ahn: I try! I’m good at taking micro breaks. I’m not the type of person who likes to drive myself crazy. There was a time when I used to push myself to stay up all night until I came up with something, but I realised how much that messes up my brain – I’d just be fried. So now, I try to let it sleep when I feel like it needs it (laughs). Another micro break is that I love to eat. I think after a long day at work, you have to have a great meal. It’s kind of like rewarding your body and reminding yourself you’ve done a great job.
What’s your go-to food-wise? Do you have a fave restaurant?
Yoon Ahn: Actually a lot of stuff, depending on what mood I am in. I mean, Milan is not the easiest yet, because I’ve only gotten to know a few restaurants and I’m just kind of playing Russian roulette on UberEATS. Hit or miss. So far, we found a pretty good Chinese delivery, so I’ve ordered that three times or more. And there’s a restaurant that I actually am obsessed with, Giacomo.
Oh Giacomo is the best!
Yoon Ahn: So good. I went like three days in a row. That place is like the bomb. The pasta, everything’s the bomb.
What’s the most fun thing about working in fashion? And what’s the least fun thing about working in fashion?
Yoon Ahn: One thing is the constant change. You know, we have to come up with new ideas every season, so you see surges of ideas from everybody every season. But I think that’s also the downside. Time expectation from the industry to come up with something new in such a short time means there’s a lot of pressure. If you look at music, like, imagine having to come up with a new album every three or four months? I think about collections in that way, actually. You have to come up with the structure, the concept, the flow from beginning to end, actually putting it out. It’s a double-edged sword.