On December 11th, the Nike x AMBUSH NBA collection became available to global markets. The collection represents the first time a female designer has partnered with Nike and the NBA, with Yoon Ahn – the brains behind AMBUSH – creating a capsule for basketball and fashion fans alike. “I wanted girls to have something to wear while they cheer on their favorite teams,” says the Seoul-born, Seattle-raised creative director when she dials into Zoom from her adopted home, Tokyo. When she launched her label in the early-2000s, Ahn was only four years out of Boston University, where she graduated with a degree in graphic design. Designing album art for multiple artists and jewelry for her husband, Japanese rapper Verbal, to wear on stage would eventually push Ahn to global fame, as international stars took note and began sporting her designs to events. Revisiting iconic sportswear – think snap-off pants and the classic Nike Dunk – and channeling influences from 1990s hip-hop and Japanese motocross culture, the Nike x AMBUSH NBA collection is a testament to Ahn’s signature remix of aesthetic codes. Basketball games may be off-limits to live audiences for the foreseeable future, but “if this collection leads to people taking an interest in basketball,” says Ahn, “then I think we achieved what we set out to do.”
In previous interviews you’ve spoken about feeling grateful for limits because they give you a framework to work within. Did this project – a collaboration between three entities – offer limits that were productive to navigate? How did they affect your approach to design?
It’s my first time working with the NBA, so I wanted to bring a cool and energetic attitude, while keeping the AMBUSH signature – bringing a fresh perspective to styling and play. Honestly, the NBA is not territory that I am really familiar with – I’m gonna keep it real. I mean, I watch games on TV, but I don’t play basketball. When Nike asked me to do this project, I was like, “What could I bring to the table?” I personally like challenges – I like going into an area I’m not familiar with so that I can actually learn something. Because I’m less familiar with basketball, I felt like I could bring a different perspective than someone who knows it really well.
It sounds like you were approaching this collection from the audience’s perspective, rather than from a player’s point of view.
I was asking myself what archetypes of women you might see courtside. I didn’t base my designs on any specific people, but depending on how you put this small capsule together, you can really let your personality shine. That ties into the story we wanted to tell with the campaign we shot. It’s me playing a bunch of different roles, to show that different personalities can come together around basketball, just like they can around fashion. I want girls to have fun with these pieces, while promoting the idea of empowerment through sports. But the teams were the fun side of the story. It is a game, after all, so you need to have two opponents. Since we were thinking about America, we decided to do East Coast versus West Coast – LA versus New York – so we picked the Lakers and the Nets. We thought those were the perfect teams to bring our vision together.
You mention the East Coast/West Coast rivalry, which throws it back to the hip-hop culture of the 1990s – and also situates the collection around the emergence of what we now call “street style.”
Girls really owned masculine energy in the 90s, and they made it so sexy. If you think about a lot of R&B singers in the 90s, they were taking baggy men’s clothes and coordinating them in these new ways. I got a lot of inspiration from that. From a fashion angle, I just thought it was a fun time to bring back the snap-off pants and show off that larger-than-life attitude.
AMBUSH is known for graphic statements and sculptural accessories. How does your background in graphic design apply to your practice?
I like streamlined edges, and that’s how many AMBUSH accessories became so graphic looking. But I’m softening up more, trying a more fluid approach to design by working with my hands first, not with graphic lines. For Nike, items have to be performance-oriented, so I try to stay within the guidelines while having fun and playing.
You have a knack for reinvention and reinterpretation, especially when it comes to classic codes and silhouettes. For this collection, you reimagined the Nike Dunk, blending motocross elements inspired by Japanese subcultures. Why was it important to incorporate those aesthetic elements?
The Dunk design process kicked off as part of the Tokyo Olympic collection. I wanted to send a love letter to the city, and to Japan more broadly. I drew inspiration from subcultures like Japanese Bosozoku bikes and Decotora truck culture, which are so unique to this place. I extended different elements to make the silhouette exaggerated, as if the shoe is in motion.
You’ve designed jewelry at Dior Men, collaborated headphones with Beats by Dr. Dre, evolved a long relationship with Nike, and now worked with the NBA – projects that speak to a range of audiences, which must mean navigating a lot of contrasts. Even the name “AMBUSH” denotes surprise, something totally unexpected. Now that streetwear, once a radical opposition to the fashion establishment, has become ingrained in luxury, how do you continue to push its meaning forward?
Collaborating is supposed to be fun, so I try things that I otherwise couldn’t do with AMBUSH alone. Every story I tell is an extension of who I am, what I saw growing up, or the things that I enjoy. Maybe it registers as surprising, because people aren’t expecting those things from me, but that’s just me. I’m just going to tell my side of the story. But I’m not going to do anything just for the sake of shocking people, I think doing that misses my intention.
You’re a designer, but you’re also a businesswoman. Is there an element of wanting to inspire women in leadership roles off the court as well?
For me, it’s more about Nike and the NBA story. Nike has been working really hard to shed light on female athletes across sports and cultures. Nike being committed to this, and to the younger generation as well – if I can bring my story to it, and if I can create pieces to help them express themselves creatively, then I feel like I’m working with them to empower a new generation of girls. And that’s what I want to do.