Some fashion designers want to talk to you about the Michelin-starred caviar restaurant they just tried, or the vacation destination that has a yearlong guest backlog—you know, the one they just jetted back from? Yoon Ahn wants to talk about robotics. “Those guys, Boston Dynamics, that build robots?” she says, as if that will elicit some glimmer of recognition from me, her far-from-robot-fluent interlocutor. “I’ve been obsessing over them. They were trying to build this robot with new technologies, but I guess it wasn’t working out. So they went back to nature, and they started implementing things they were finding in insects and animals.” For Ahn, it represented a realization that technology has its limits. “It made me think, ‘All the answers that we need already exist on this planet, right? The more technology that’s developed—how are we going to make it more human?’”
This turn in the conversation is as unexpected as a robot suddenly gaining sentience, but the detour comes about because we’re talking about the fall 2019 collection for her line, Ambush. The clothes have a futurist-meets-survivalist bent—ripstop nylon, quilted vests, cargo pants, carabiner clips worn as earrings—kind of like the outfit you’d wear to go on a hike in 2035. The initial concept came from a viewing of the David Bowie film The Man Who Fell to Earth, which she understatedly describes as “a weird movie.” The conceit is that Bowie, perfectly cast as an alien, comes to Earth when his planet runs out of water. “But he ends up getting involved in earthly bad things, like alcohol and sex and drugs, so he never goes back,” she summarizes. For Ahn, a collection often starts with this kind of pop culture–assisted push. Some designers, she says, “physically go to places to get inspired. I wish I could do that, but I don’t really have the time, so when I get obsessed with certain artists or certain movies, I try to draw ideas from those places. Also, I’m a city girl, so I look at those things as my mental escape.”
In fact, the Korean-born Ahn calls two cities home, splitting her time between Tokyo and Paris, where she works as the design director of jewelry for Dior Men. Despite the fact that she’s sidewalk-bound, she has an affinity for nature, perhaps because she spent part of her formative years in the Pacific Northwest (she relocated to Tokyo in 2003). She thinks a lot about the fate of the planet. The movie also got her thinking about artificial intelligence and outer space, prompting her to wonder, “Where are we heading? How are we communicating with people?”
This train of thought accelerated last year when she took in “Scary Beauty,” an “android opera” by the composer Keiichiro Shibuya, featuring an AI conductor and a human orchestra. “The humanoid was not programmed to lead them to make perfect music,” she says. “They built that humanoid to react to the human sounds and then kind of naturally direct them. So you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. And when I was watching that, I was blown away.”
These might seem like ideas far outside the realm of fashion. Yet this same kind of interaction—technology mingling with nature in an improvised way, to unexpected effect—could describe Ahn’s preferred style of creation. Ambush began as an ad lib of sorts. Her husband, the rapper (and now entertainment executive) Verbal, who’s also of Korean descent, needed to look cool onstage. “We had issues with stylists bringing in stuff that wasn’t really him or what he liked,” so the two decided, “Let’s just do it ourselves.” With no formal design training (Ahn was then working as a graphic designer), they began making jewelry in collaboration with designer friends and started giving pieces to other friends, one of whom was Kanye West. From there, “it just kind of spread naturally,” abetted by the Tokyo club scene, Ahn says. This was pre-Instagram, when “you had to go to those places to flaunt your outfits. I learned the art of peacocking,” she says. Ahn’s personal style, which is bleeding-edge cool—platinum hair with a moat of intentional roots, colorful swaths of makeup (Fenty Beauty is one of her go-tos), weapon-like nails, and tons of jewelry—informed the overall look. Eventually, they added ready-to-wear to the line, and Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and Beyoncé started sporting their wares. Ambush has a Converse collaboration coming out this month; other recent linkups include Nike and Gentle Monster.
Ahn describes her work at Dior as “respecting [Dior Homme artistic director] Kim [Jones]’s direction, and then also keeping, and re-creating, the code of the house: ‘How can I create something new, so that we can bring fresh air and energy?’ ” Whereas with Ambush, “we’re building it still. For me, it’s more important to try different things, to see what’s ‘us.’”
The line is often described as streetwear, but she finds that term to be “a bit overused. When people look at something casual, they just call it streetwear,” she says. “I think that’s quite misleading, because streetwear first came from the culture and from the streets. There’s an identity to it, so I don’t want people to look at something that we produced as something casual and think, ‘Casual equals streetwear.’ ”
There may be another reason she pushes back against the term: She seems to have a temperamental aversion to being categorized. That unpredictability comes out again when the conversation turns to music, and she starts talking about white noise. “Recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of nature sounds,” she says. “On YouTube, there are so many six- to eight-hour mixes of people recording in the rain forest, on the beach. Someone did it on an airplane. For some reason, I find it kind of interesting.”
I suggest that, perhaps, the nature sounds are a throwback to her upbringing in the Pacific Northwest, the rugged terrain that has shaped her design identity as well. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s subconscious,” she allows. “I want to be in nature but I can’t, so I’m drawn to these things.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of ELLE.