Yoon and Verbal from Ambush talk hip hop, jewellery and the open-heartedness of the Japanese
Japan-based design duo Ambush unleash their latest range of nostalgic bling, writes Tessa Chan
ASK YOON AND VERBAL, the creative team behind design collective Ambush, how long they've been working together and there's a lengthy pause as they count up the years.
Partners in work and life, they're both decked out in oversized gold jewellery from their latest collection. She's serious, composed and rather gorgeous with her black cat-eye make-up and red lipstick. He, once the guerilla bandana and shades are removed, turns out to be the more affable of the two.
"We met in college in Boston. We were dating back then," says Verbal, who's one half of Japanese hip hop group, M-Flo. "Then I came back to Japan; my music career at that time got kinda hectic. I asked her to come with me, but she was working in the States as a designer. So I said, 'what if I made a design company where you design and I kinda run things?'"
They set up Ambush Design in Tokyo in 2002. Yoon began by designing CD covers for Verbal and other artists. When his music career took off, she got involved with his styling too, which soon led to their decision to make their own jewellery.
"We couldn't find the sort of jewellery we wanted at that time, so we got together with a few friends and we started making it," says Yoon.
"I was avid about jewellery - every rapper wants a ring or a chain," says Verbal. "People saw our designs and liked them and started ordering. It took off when Kanye started wearing our stuff. Pharrell noticed, [A Bathing Ape creator] Nigo noticed."
As we talk, products from their Nu Order collection are being pulled out of boxes for display at the Joyce store in Pacific Place: giant gold chain links; solid gold and metal chokers and caps; and a handmade, gold chain-mail hoodie. It's all so over the top it's hard to tell whether they're laughing at, or with, hip hop bling.
"Both," says Verbal.
"We've just been nostalgic about old-school hip hop, listening to it at home and looking at people like Slick Rick and all those guys who used to wear huge jewellery. So we were like, why not?" says Yoon. "That and we're really into Game of Thrones. Everyone just looks so amazing with their armour and everything."
The old school was all about bravado, says Verbal. "People wearing Mercedes logos to say to the world, 'Look, I'm here'. It sent a message out. People were like, hey, why are all these black guys wearing big gold chains? I grew up looking at that stuff.
"And that medieval vibe. It wasn't just about fighting, it was about looking good on the field, you know? With all those feathers and s***, I mean did they really need that? But that's what's cool about it," he says.
Practicality - it's so overrated. And while their statement pieces appeal to musicians, Yoon insists that Ambush is not just for artists.
"People are like, 'Who will wear this kind of stuff?' But we have this strong fan base," says Verbal.
Yoon, who was born in Korea but grew up in the States, does all the design, working with jewellers in Tokyo. Verbal is a third-generation ethnic Korean, but a permanent resident of Japan.
"It's weird because I don't really speak Korean, but I have a Korean passport. We live in Tokyo, but we communicate mainly in English," says Verbal. "I think in English businesswise, but then hang with my friends in Japanese. I feel very comfortable in Tokyo, but I don't really have a home. I'm an alien everywhere, so I can make myself at home anywhere, I guess."
Yoon says she appreciates Japan because "when you do something different, people don't immediately put you down for it. Even if they don't understand, they'll just accept it with a much more open heart. Whereas in the States when you do something different, immediately they'll be like, this is stupid, or different, especially with fashion because everything is so over sexualised.
"Our ideas are kinda left field. We don't have a jewellery background so we just come up with these things that we wanna wear, that we wish were out there, you know?"
They're preparing a new collection to show at Tokyo fashion week in March, and M-flo is about to release its eighth album. Verbal is also a DJ, a producer and, as well as a number of side projects and collaborations, an event organiser.
Do they ever stop working?
"Not really," says Yoon.
"Our conversation revolves around work and our cats," says Verbal. "It's fine, it works for us."
"A lot of it started off as hobbies and became work, the events started off by us just throwing parties," says Yoon. "We've known each other for so long we know what the other is thinking. There are things that I'm not good at, and things that he's not good at and we leave it up to each other. We know each other's strengths."
An Ambush pop-up store will be at Joyce Pacific Place until March 10 alongside other Japanese labels including Sacai, Phenomenon, Toga and Undercover