Personal Uniform

Yoon Ahn on Her Deeply Personal, Genre-Defying Style

The Ambush cofounder and Dior Men jewelry director instinctively samples clothing of all kinds. “I don’t have a specific look,” she says. “It’s just me.”

In the mid-aughts, Tokyo’s club scene liberated Yoon Ahn. She’d recently moved to Japan with her boyfriend, Young-Kee Yu (better known by his stage name, Verbal), a rap-loving marketing major she met at church near Boston University, their alma mater. The clubs she discovered in Tokyo fascinated her. Uniting everyone from hip-hop heads to rockabilly kids, they were judgment-free places of stylistic experimentation. Ahn decorated her clothes with studs and made jewelry from found objects. Her hair color changed every month. “That’s when I started to enjoy wearing clothes, because it wasn’t about rules anymore,” she says. “Fashion is fashion at the end of the day. It’s just about self-expression.”

No one talks about Ahn’s exceptional style, because it’s so self-evident. The self-taught designer, who runs the LVMH Prize–nominated ready-to-wear brand Ambush with her now-husband Yu and is the jewelry director for Dior Men, samples looks as skillfully as Yu samples words. She’ll pair black-and-white patchwork leather pants from Ambush’s spring 2020 collection with a vintage Hermès bag, a menswear piece, and something from the Western-themed Japanese label Kapital. She wears her own jewelry, which formed the core of Ambush at its 2008 launch and now comprises shiny statement pieces that immortalize objects from a party animal’s purse, like a lighter or crushed beer can. There’s little time to style her bleached-and-toned hair, so it’s usually tied or slicked back, revealing her striking features. Ahn’s selfies are magnetic; even T-shirts look different on her.

Shopping, which Ahn does online 99 percent of the time, is less a leisure activity than a perpetual treasure hunt. Nobody tells her where to look. She scopes out digital storefronts until her internal metal detector goes off, and she knows in an instant if something is right for her.

Because her style is based on intuition, and draws from so many sources, Ahn turns exasperated when asked to describe it. “I don’t have a specific look,” she says. “It’s just me.” Her style doesn’t really translate to anyone else, though that hasn’t stopped fans—Kanye West, Kim Jones, and Virgil Abloh among them—from seeking out her fashion savvy. Famous families—the Hadids, the Kardashians, the Jenners—all want to wear Ahn’s clothes. At the start of the year, Farfetch’s New Guards Group, the Italian parent company of Off-White and Heron Preston, acquired a majority stake in Ambush. Paola Antonelli, a senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, commissioned Ahn to reimagine the Cartier Love bracelet for her 2017 exhibition “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” In February, following collaborations in 2019 with Gentle Monster, Rimowa, and Converse, Ahn released a Minnie Mouse–themed line for Uniqlo and teased a fluorescent Nike capsule collection, out in July, for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Even growing up, Ahn never stuck to one genre. She was born in South Korea, but her father’s job in the U.S. Army took the family to Hawaii, California, and, finally, Seattle, where Ahn spent most of her youth. Her family’s middle-class neighborhood bordered public housing. Half her classmates lived in trailer parks and shopped at Goodwill, showing up to school in flannel and ripped jeans with Gore-Tex jackets to block the rain. Ahn took notice, incorporating bits of grunge into her wardrobe (and, later, into Ambush).

She worked part time at the public library, where she discovered the fashion world by poring over international titles like the Face and i-D. “That was when the downtown New York scene was big,” Ahn says. “I was like, Okay, this is how these girls dress. I didn’t have the ability to buy anything, but I was fascinated.” Those magazines led her to study graphic design in college, which then led her to Tokyo, where she lives today.

Japan is a fitting place for Ahn to continue experimenting. “Fashion is an imported culture in this country,” she says. “People get obsessed with something they see overseas and put their own spin on it. It isn’t about being politically correct.” In testing out clothing she’s seen in the wild, Ahn has discovered herself. “I feel like there’s a part of me that belongs in each of those looks.”

(Images courtesy Yoon Ahn)

This story appears in the March issue of Surface. To experience the complete issue subscribe here.

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