PHoto credit: Pieter Henket
June Ambrose Redefined Hip-Hop Fashion. Now She Wants Her Own Fashion House
From hip-hop fashion to PUMA, June Ambrose has injected her distinct vision into so many parts of the fashion industry — and there’s still so much more she wants to do.
June Ambrose has me meet her and her team on the 55th floor of the One Vanderbilt building. Inside the building’s Centurion Lounge is Ambrose, the 51-year-old lauded style legend decked out in a white HommeGirls shirt from Neiman Marcus, a mini skirt, and striking black heeled boots. Surrounding us is a mixture of artwork that is methodically placed throughout the main dining room, as well as sweeping views of Manhattan.
Ambrose, who has an A-list clientele that includes JAY-Z, Mary J. Blige, Missy Elliott and countless others, is a few days removed from the launch of her second co-branded PUMA women’s collection. Though she’s most famously known as a hip-hop stylist, PUMA is taking up a lot of time on her super-busy calendar these days, with the stylist being appointed as a creative director for the brand in 2020.
Since her appointment at PUMA, she has hit the ground running with the global brand. In 2020, she launched the brand’s women’s basketball division, with a collection called “High Court” following in 2021. The collection, as described by Ambrose, was for “women wanting to operate at a very high level,” and was tremendously received, so much so that she was then able to launch collections with female basketball athletes like Skylar Diggins and Brianna Stewart, as well as basketball sneaker collections, too. In September last year, she helmed PUMA’s return to New York Fashion Week, with the collection having over 40 looks. Each of her drops have included sporty pieces that can be fused into a working woman’s wardrobe. For instance, her latest “Keeping Score” collection, which dropped back in March, was carried by a deep blue varsity jacket with green and white detailing, along with a tracksuit and long-sleeved zip shirt.
“I recognize [PUMA] as an opportunity, and we didn't really speak through one lens,” she said. "’Life was a sport and we played to win’ was the lens and the narrative that we formed.”
Photo credit: Pieter Henket
Speaking through fashion isn’t new for Ambrose. She cut her teeth during the formative years of her styling career in the ‘90s, when she created looks for iconic videos like Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” and The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems.” For the former, she was the brains behind the Michelin Man-inspired trash bag look worn by Elliott. For the latter, she was responsible for the head-turning shiny red suits worn by Diddy and Mase. With these monumental gigs and countless others under her belt (including being the costume designer for Hype Williams’ Belly), Ambrose continued to inject her energy into the hip-hop fashion space, creating some of the most memorable looks in ‘90s hip-hop fashion in the process. Now, with the work she’s doing with PUMA (along with still styling some of hip-hop’s greats, as was the case with Diddy’s notable suit and cape he wore at the 2023 Met Gala), Ambrose continues to expand on her fashion legacy, all while being a successful entrepreneur, too.
“I've always been enamored with how you can story-tell with fashion. I think that is what kind of was an outlet for me, creatively,” she said. “It also became how I was able to tell my story before I even opened my mouth.”
Okayplayer spoke with Ambrose about the origin of her style career, her ideas on entrepreneurship, and what she believes her legacy is.
Can you tell me about your earliest fashion memories?
June Ambrose: I've always loved fashion since I was a little girl. It wasn't just like Sunday. Every day was Sunday for me. Like, church Sunday outfits. I wanted to wear those to school. My mom prided herself in caring for us in a way. Made sure we were impeccably dressed. I would cut up my grandmother's curtains and make clothes for my Barbie dolls and stuff. That's how obsessed I was with fashion.
What were your largest inspirations?
In terms of inspiration, I love nostalgia. I loved Parliament-Funkadelic and Michael Jackson at the time. Anything that was retro and old school, I loved. I loved Byzantine art. I loved kings and queens. That was very fascinating. I loved African tribes. I was always looking for things that told stories. Theatrical things.
I would see inspiration [everywhere]. I would people watch. I would get on the train and go down to the city. I was just enamored by everyone outside of my neighborhood.
Did you have any other stylish people you looked up to in your younger years?
My mother's step-grandmother — who was my mother's age, actually — was very fabulous. Also, my mother. When she came to America, she worked at a retail store and then she went into nursing. But we came first. She was a very simple woman. Never wore makeup, but just naturally beautiful.
How was high school influential as a part of your journey with style?
I was a theatrical major. When I got into my sophomore year, you could start electives. So, my electives were costume design. So, whoever you didn't cast in the role, you would go into the costume design department. By the time I got to senior year, I was able to costume design pieces, which was great because it wasn't just about acting. For me, it was very important to understand how the character was developed. It helped me to connect more with becoming the character. You build the character, then you really can appreciate how to become it.
Photo credit: Pieter Henket
What to you about your background in costume design poured seamlessly into styling?
Well, it's collaborative, right? I always put [the artist’s] vision first. I think that's always important — even when you're collaborating — is to be respectful of the art. When you're working with artists, it's not about what's trending or what you think. You will have to render your professional opinion and put forward what they hired you to do. At the end of the day, you remove yourself from it. I think it allows you to put them first. For me, the subject always came first. The art comes second.
A part of your journey included a stint in finance. Can you tell me how that chapter prepared you for advocating for yourself to get compensated appropriately for your work?
It's never easy to talk about money. There was a lot of trial and error if I'm being honest. But you also recognize when you do come from a corporate structure that you [should] build your business with that same mentality. You understand the importance of understanding that you are no longer getting a paycheck, and that you have to structure your life differently. Even though you're in a creative space, that doesn't mean you shouldn't build your business. You're the CEO of your life.
Can you tell me how you feel about entrepreneurship and working for yourself?
It is the boldest thing you can ever do, to go into business for yourself. You have to have the mentality for it, too. People freelance and they're really excited and having fun. But then when the responsibility of life hits you — and the responsibility of the person, client, and all the different things they need from you and ask of you — and you think it's about you and you start to respond like it's about you, it's very short-lived. So, I'm proud to sit here and say, "Next year, we'll make 30 years." I've been incorporated since 1994. I learned something new every day. I'm still learning.
What skills do you feel like you had that helped you throughout your career?
I was always quite precocious and I had to lean in on my confidence. That led me to be somewhat intimidating. But it also gave the client the security and assurance that I knew what I was doing. I think that's the magic that the person on the other side doesn't smell the blood, because those are the sharks.
Did you ever have moments where you felt like you wanted to walk away from it all and quit?
No. There's moments that I felt exhausted, hurt. Shit happens. I've been through some moments. But I didn't have a choice what I had set out to do. I was committed. I constantly gave myself grace because what we were trying to do is impossible most of the time. It was hard. Also, coming up in a male dominated industry where women were constantly being objectified, were not taken seriously or not having a seat at the table, you had to stand on something. What I stood on was the foundation of knowing that I was worthy, that I was capable, that I had morals and my moral compass never wavered, or I didn't have to compromise who I was for money. That was really important. When you can look at yourself in the mirror at the end of the day, and know that your intentions are good…and there's a sense of self-respect, then you're heading down the right track.
What lessons did you learn from the Bronx?
It taught me how to be really street savvy — to be aware, hungry, ambitious. Those things are priceless. I didn't have a traumatic childhood. I'm not damaged, and I think that is such a gift. It's easy to damage people, young people especially, because we just want to protect them, and sometimes in protecting them we over editorialize. So, I try to take note constantly: "What would I ask my young self for permission?" I think about what my mom would do, what my mom did. She's my playbook.
Photo credit: Pieter Henket
Let’s talk about PUMA and your role there as creative director. You’re injecting your energy and breathing life into the basketball division there.
We were launching women's basketball. Men's had tremendous success. Obviously, you have JAY-Z at the helm of something, and you have partners that are culturally influential in so many ways. It was a brotherhood. Emory Jones was responsible for bringing him to the table, and I was kind of the “Roc girl” in the building in a sense. But the experience at PUMA is great. The responsibility is, I recognize that it could be as culture shifting as what I was doing in the early part of my career, and how I was able to change that energy, that narrative, and kind of amplify those voices.
Things are happening and we're part of that conversation. That's really all we wanted to be with PUMA, was part of the conversation, part of the narrative. When I was asked to do the fashion show for PUMA, we wanted to be part of the fashion narrative, style lens, streetwear. We wanted to be respected or considered in the streetwear space, and in the elevated, select fashion, sportswear space. How do you do that? You show up to New York Fashion Week and put on a big show. Balls out, brazen.
I want to end our conversation with the topic of legacy. What do you feel is your legacy?
My work will be my legacy. That will outlive me. You may remember how I made you feel, but you probably won't remember my face. But you remember the art, the contribution. That, to me, was always my focus. That I was able to shift culture, change the narrative, and do something that was impactful. That we could now look back at 20 and almost 30 years later, and know that we were part of creating opportunity in the lane. All of these stylists have careers because of the grandeur of the impact that the work had in the '90s, and the music video world, and culture itself. That celebration of that work is why they even knew this was a career.
A part of my legacy will be that I pioneered this particular culture and genre of talented individuals and creative beings. I made it my mission to insert them in a space that wasn't designed for them. And before that, we designed our own space. That's the only reason why we were even able to collaborate with any of these [fashion houses]. I want to remind people of how worthy we were.
There'll be other iterations of those chapters. We're starting to see these appointments in these big fashion houses. That's one of the chapters, but it's not the end of the story. Because once we start building our own fashion houses and we create our own legacy brands…I want that to be part of my legacy. That I was able to create an opportunity and a house that was bigger than me. The idea and conversation that employed and gave people the courage to think that they have the right to sit in that space.