- Words Isabelle Cassidy
We entered the June-iverse to discuss being the only woman in the room; designing for Mariah Carey; and how she’s changing the face of sportswear with a new PUMA collaboration.
Iconic is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the fashion industry, but when discussing June Ambrose, it’s one that’s hard to avoid. Probably best-known for her styling and designing for hip-hop videos in the 90s, Ambrose created Missy Elliott’s patent leather blow-up bodysuit in “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”; Diddy’s suit in “Mo Money Mo Problems” and Busta Rhymes’ kaftan in “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See”. With a career spanning almost 30 years as a stylist, costume designer, author, creative director, influencer, and TV host, June’s recent appointment as creative director of PUMA Hoops sees her bring this wealth of experience to the brand’s new collection.
Meeting on a rainy London day, June greets me with warmth and generosity. She explains the concept of her collaboration: to produce sportswear that celebrates all women and their day-to-day lives. Her enthusiasm for the pieces is infectious, showing me the ‘Hope’ hoodie, ‘Love’ Leggings, and ‘Unity’ crop top that seem aptly named for their reflection of the positivity June exudes. Having been disrupting norms in the fashion world for decades through a commitment to fairness and kindness, her success is not surprising when you understand the power of June’s personal convictions. Often working closely with her daughter, Summer, there is a sense that June’s confidence is shared amongst those around her. Jay-Z is on her long-time client list, and she’s often credited as one of the first stylists to bring the two spheres of hip-hip and high fashion together. I’m interested to know how someone can thrive in such a wide variety of fields, and discover what pushes June Ambrose to keep moving onto the next area of discovery.
After exploring the collection, I sat down with June to discuss her new role and learn how her long career in the fashion industry has led her here. She tells me what she’s gained from being the only woman in the room; designing for the likes of Missy Elliot and Mariah Carey; and why she feels she can change the face of sportswear.
What would you say you are proudest about the collection?
I think the breakaway pants and the quad jacket. I’m proud of the fact I’m trying to create something that really has a tone of voice for the brand, and not just for me. With or without me, it really celebrates women in our space. I think overall, I’m just proud of the community of women that have gathered together to say: “We support this, we get it”, like-minded women; men who are allies; guys wearing our pieces. You see guys wearing faux fur, guys in the rugby sets, guys in the t-shirts: there’s a gender-neutrality in the overall conversation. Also, we’re starting a conversation where people know this is PUMA and doesn’t feel like a collaboration, it belongs to the brand, and they own this moment.
Before you started working with PUMA what was your relationship like with the brand, and what made you want to work with them?
I’ve always admired the brand’s relationship with hip-hop, in the early days of hip-hop, I definitely admired the work that Jay [Jay-Z] was doing with the men’s basketball space and the energy that he was bringing to it. I like being the female voice of reason, feeling like I’m always the only girl in the room and I felt like I had something to contribute. That was my relationship, as a consumer and as a fan. I love the classics. For me, it’s all about the classics and I love the fact that I got to play with them.
I feel like you can definitely see that reflected in the collection, the classic shapes and ideas are there, but elevated.
Oh, I like that. I wanted to disrupt the basics, the little things, and give the consumer a reason to want to buy it in such a crowded space. Asking why you need this, what’s attracted you to it, and allow it to really make you take some risks and be a little bit more experimental. If you’ve never worked colour before and colour-blocking is intimidating to you, I’ve introduced you to it in a fearless way.
I was just saying I feel like people in the UK, on this side of the pond, are a little less conformist and don’t care as much, which is nice. Whereas New York is very scripted. I feel like in London it’s about how you style it – fashion is mute without style – and you guys do that very well.
Okay, so I have a trend specific question. You’ve been working in styling and designing since the early 90s – in terms of R&B and hip-hop styling, do you feel like you’ve seen styles that used to be exclusive to counterculture come back around and fully enter the mainstream?
I mean fashion first: no one’s reinventing anything really, it always comes back around. I’ve been almost 30 years in the business, as a costume designer, character developer, stylist, creative director. We planted a lot of seeds in the late 90s, early 2000s, that really afford some of the references we see now. I feel part of that contribution in a very significant way. It’s the reason why we took the risks we did.
[A Missy Elliot song plays through the speaker on the other side of the room and June tells me she worked on the video.]
It’s about ground-breaking moments like this, having those moments where you saw hip-hop not as hip-hop, but you saw it as art. I never approached hip-hop culture as if it was a genre of music that was forbidden to do things that weren’t creative, or unapologetic. I always approached it from a place of elevation, a place of imagination. I was infinitely curious; I love inventing things. That’s why Missy Elliot’s blow-up suit happened; why Puff [Daddy] in his shiny suit with Mase happened; why Nas in the pink suit happened; why Busta Rhymes in Lamé robes and turbans happened. The list could go on of some of the things I had the audacity to design and do. I think it’s because of that that artists are now so metrosexual; the collaborations with high fashion designers – we woke that dragon – we didn’t ask for permission to borrow clothes; atelier started in the streets of New York.
I’m sure you’ve heard this quote a lot – but in 2011 Swizz Beatz said this about you:
“She took guys who were only used to wearing Timberland boots and baggy jeans, and put them in cuff links and Tom Ford suits.”
You’re frequently credited with bringing high fashion and hip-hop and R&B together – why did you feel like these were two spheres that needed to be brought together? Did anything inspire you to make those styling decisions?
I always thought, people love beautiful things. I think people of colour are very naturally expressive, it’s all about swag. I’ve worked with artists outside of the hip-hop genre, but there’s something about black culture that feels very tribal. It’s something about hip-hop culture. It’s a cypher, like community, poets, and storytellers. I knew that I could tell stories through fashion, and tell stories through style – that’s what style is, right?
I think the idea of wanting something that was regal, and expensive, and shiny, and glossy was just naturally what I felt we were worthy of. I wasn’t afraid to take it, create it, make it flip it, and reverse it. I’ve been taking sportswear and designing it in luxury fabrics for years. I was the creative director for one of the first collaborative sportswear deals with Missy Elliott, so this is not a new space for me. I guess I could say I’ve been in the shadows all these years, doing the work.
And do you feel like all those previous roles and experiences will influence this one at PUMA?
Absolutely. I came in as the unknown underdog, no one knew what it was going to be until I got to work. I was quite brazen, really direct about the culture I wanted to create, and how I wanted us to feel when we were working. It wasn’t the corporate, traditional way of how they put together sportswear – I was disrupting the norm a lot, because I want to have fun. I left corporate America almost 30 years ago, not to knock the idea that structure is good – I’ve been incorporated since 1984 and CEO of my own company. I know what it’s like to run a business and be corporate.
But I think in fashion space, creatives need to be happy, and they need to feel seen, and they need to feel part of the conversation process and put everybody to work. Everyone in the room’s opinion matters. After I did my work, doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t ask the intern sitting in the room, what do you think? And whether I use that information or not, it still matters, because that person’s a consumer. That’s the kind of connectivity that you want. And how do you do that? By setting the tone, and that was the tone.
I’ve heard you in other interviews express similar ideas about making people around you feel safe, which is so refreshing in the fashion industry…
I never saw myself as a fashion person and I think that’s what made me so different from editorial stylists, or people who take themselves really seriously, I don’t. I don’t claim to know everything- I’m perfectly imperfect – I think all of my greatest mistakes actually turn out to be brilliant moments. It’s only a mistake if the other person doesn’t get what you were trying to say.
The idea of what we do is so personal, like a doctor: you go to see your doctor and I’m giving out clinical, constructive, information. You have to feel that you can be vulnerable with me, you have to feel like you can trust me, I have to be the authority and be sure. I have to take the journey with you and we’re gonna have to be collaborative. I always use the physician analogy because a good doctor listens. If you stop and just listen, you can learn so much more and can create something that’s so much more authentic. There’s a person in front of you that has a human heartbeat, a pulse, that translates everything. So, it’s never been about me, it’s been about the storytelling.
And how is the idea of this collection being functional and serving as many women as possible important to you?
Inclusivity has always been important to me, especially when I was the only woman in the room. Whether there were girls that look like me, or simply being the only woman in the room. I’ve dealt with the dynamics of all of that throughout my career. Inclusivity is key, the ‘average’ person, the ‘average’ woman: what does that mean, in whose eyes?
I approached everything with the idea that we all have different sized breasts; we all have different size hips; some are petite; some are tall; some skinny; some are full; some are curvy. That’s what makes us so magical because we’re so uniquely structured. However your body ends up turning out, it’s yours, you own it, it’s your house, you live in it. It’s more about how I make that person feel when they put something on.
And I guess with the collection you wanted to make sure the pieces were working for all these different bodies?
When we shot this campaign, we shot women of all sizes. When we did fittings, I wanted to have multiple fit sizes, because I really wanted to know: could this be something that felt inclusive, not just because we knocked it up in the size. Asking ‘does it actually physically look good on someone this size?’, and that was important.
Do you think working as a stylist for so long helped you understand women’s bodies and how clothing fits on them?
Yeah, and I’ve also had to construct and design pieces for those different body types. Mariah [Carey] was a very voluptuous woman; and I remember design[ing] a dress that really accentuated her. One of the best dressed moments of her career was a dress I designed for her, for the World Movie Awards. I remember really focusing on wanting to show off her attributes, but not having to refocus where her sexiness was coming from. It was always the cleavage, but I wanted the clavicles to be the cleavage – and the shoulder became her sexual point.
So, when you construct garments with different body types, you really want to try to identify what makes this woman feel and tell that story. The beauty is that you can do that through design and style.
I watched an interview with you where you said “You grow young, you don’t grow old” which I absolutely loved – knowing everything you’ve learnt over your career, what advice would you give young people wanting to work in the fashion industry?
To be relentless, to be curious – infinitely curious. Trust your instincts and learn as much as you can, so that you can speak from a place of knowledge. Have the experiences, do the research. Be clinical when you need to be clinical, but be sympathetic, honest, and hardworking. It takes complete commitment and dedication and passion. And I think it’s never about the money.
Yeah, it’s about the money. You can get the money and not be happy, so I would never do jobs that I didn’t feel good about. I would actually interview artists before we actually worked together, they thought they were interviewing me, and I was interviewing them.
Do you think the idea of “growing young” will push you to keep achieving and exploring new areas in your career and in your role at PUMA?
I’m always keeping my ear to the street: I believe in reinventing myself – I get bored. I’m always looking for ways to continue to feel the thrill and continue to be exciting. I like feeling like I’m starting all over again. I like the idea of working on changing that narrative, how I was once known – to how I will be remembered.
I’m at the second half of my life and this is when you really focus it on your legacy. And the first part was making my mark. My contribution in the culture has been quite significant – working on over two hundred music videos – but there’s so many more layers to me, and I can’t leave it at that. I’m already bored with what I did in the 90s. What am I going to change next? Maybe it’s the face of sportswear, and how sports were seen as lifestyle.
Now, my life is a sport and everyone that’s playing in the June-iverse gets to feel as sporty, and young, and free, and liberated as I do.
June Ambrose’s collection with PUMA Hoops is available now here.