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How June Ambrose Changed the Relationship Between Hip Hop and Fashion Forever

She's spent 30 years making artists like Missy Elliott and brands like Puma stand out, but she's just getting started when it comes to the "Juniverse."
June Ambrose in her Puma designs

June Ambrose in her Puma designs

In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.

If you grew up with an MTV that actually was "music television," June Ambrose's work is likely permanently embedded into your brain. The creative multi-hyphenate, for whom 'stylist' hardly begins to convey her role, is behind many of the most memorable looks in music-video history, from the shiny red suits Mase and Puff Daddy wore in "Mo Money, Mo Problems," to Missy Elliott's vinyl balloon suit in "I Can't Stand the Rain." While polarizing and risky at the time, these looks — often done in collaboration with legendary director Hype Williams — would go on to define the artists who wore them, and the relationship between hip hop and fashion.

Ambrose, who continues to style several of the stars who entrusted her with their images in the '90s, like Puffy and Jay-Z, has never been afraid to take big swings and choose risks over safety. It's how she began styling artists in the first place, and how she continued to advance her career over the past 30 years.

When we chat over Zoom, Ambrose happily shares her age — 50, which seems impossible given both her appearance and her energy. After decades of using her keen senses of marketing, business and style to shape the images and careers of others (she's worked on over 200 music videos), she's now putting more of those efforts towards herself. That includes her recent turn as creative director of Puma, which puts her in the spotlight as she leverages her long-honed skills merging sportswear and fashion to help refresh and elevate the brand in consumers' minds.

The barrier-breaking mother of two (including one very stylish daughter) is just getting started when it comes to expanding the "Juniverse," as she calls it. Read on to find out more about her future goals (like taking the helm of a luxury fashion house), as well as where her love of fashion and artist development began, how she developed her signature aesthetic, the big risk that could've cost her her career, getting big fashion houses to take hip-hop seriously, and her advice for the next generation.

jay z june ambrose puffy

When did you first become interested in fashion?

Totally my adolescence. When I was in kindergarten, I convinced all of the parents to bring their kids dressed up and I was like, 'I'm going to put on a fashion show.' I organized this fashion show parade and we all had to wear our Sunday best. I was very enterprising at a very young age. When I was in elementary, we used to have to cover our books. I was crocheting book covers and making fabric book covers, and selling them to different students. And then I was making crepe paper and custom pencil holder bags. I used to cut up my grandmother's curtains; I'd start at the bottom in the corner, so she wouldn't see. I draped Barbie doll gowns and stuff like that. I would get in so much trouble.

My mom, when she was in the Caribbean, because I was born in the Caribbean, she had a store. She would always go with the buyer for her store to Puerto Rico and shop, and travel around getting fabric, and she had an atelier. We'd make Carnival queens' clothing and stuff like that. When we came to America, she was always big on how we looked and she'd always dress us up for the smallest occasions. I think that was my first memory of just being in fashion, and that you can get people to give you what you want if you look a certain way. I always wanted to dress the part. As a young girl growing up in the South Bronx, I knew that fashion was a language, and it was how people were going to perceive you, so I adopted that weapon really early — how to stand out. I was always quite precocious. I was never shy.

When did you start thinking about it as a potential career?

I went to a performing arts high school. I was in fashion in high school because I studied musical theater, and when I didn't get the part in the theatrical presentation, I took on the costume designer's role. I was always very fascinated with character development: how the actor really responded to costume, how it helped develop the character.

When I found myself [interning] at a record company and working in music, that costume designer mentality, and all of those things that attributed to character development, was artist development, and it helped carve out my lane and contribution in that space. I didn't come in like, 'I'm going to put clothes together.' I was like, 'How do I develop this artistic persona and character in the space?' And especially when you're dealing with so many different personalities that feel like so much of their real life has to do with the artistic personas. I kind of brought the whole idea of how a costume designer would approach a character. [Artists were] like, 'Oh, I never looked at it that way. I can become this person, or I can evolve to this, or I can separate the fact that I grew up in the projects and I could become like a queen or I could become this high-fashion muse.' 

But prior to that, I found myself in financial investment banking in the research department, which really is such an important part of my journey because financial literacy isn't always something that we think about, especially as creatives. But that would play a huge part in how I went after my entrepreneurial endeavors and how I started my own business because I understood the importance of how finance would really play in sustaining a career. Even though I only spent three years there, it still shaped me in so many different ways.

I was by no means a corporate girl, though. But luckily, I kind of tucked away in the research department. I didn't have to follow all the dress code rules. I got written up a couple times. It was combat boots and pencil skirts. And I would dye my hair like four different colors.

So how did you make the leap into music and styling musicians?

Everyone, because I went to performing arts school, kind of stayed in the creative space, and a good friend of mine was working in the marketing department [at Uptown MCA Records], and that's how I got into it. I was able to be infinitely curious, and find my way, and ask questions, and seize every opportunity that presented itself because I was paying attention. I think that's super important, I was like, 'I could do that. Give me give a shot. Is this what you need? I have the experience in this. This is what I did over here. Maybe you can give me a shot to kind of introduce this concept over here.'

Starting off in the marketing department really gave me a firm understanding of the creative-meets-the-consumer, and how the label was trying to connect with that consumer and attract that consumer, or sell that record, or get the record played on radio, or how do we package this artist. It was not about just what they were wearing, but giving context and developing something that could grow the fan base. Especially when you start up in a particular genre of music — and I was in Black music: rhythm and blues, hip hop, all of that. When people talked about hip-hop music, they were like, 'Oh, it's just gangster music.' It wasn't rock 'n roll.

Genres were a big thing. I was very curious about how different genres and cultures were being perceived, and I wanted to disrupt that and change that narrative. And I knew that we had the power to do that, the same way I had the power to do it when I was a young girl, to be able to use my look as a conversation kick-off, I figured that same antidote could really work well in this space, too; when you start to collaborate with certain directors who had vision, and when all the design fashion houses didn't know what this was and weren't interested in lending.…

But I think the best experience for me was the naysayers or the no's, because it really forced me to tap into my competency as a costumer and be able to design and develop particular costumes and pieces, or understanding how to deal with a period piece within a particular music video concept, or building something that was futuristic. I would've just been a stylist, because if I was just able to get the clothes and borrow them, and shop them, and put them together, then story-tell through the eyes of the designer, then I wouldn't necessarily have had to construct and build. If [fashion houses] were willing to partner initially, then I would've just done that, but they weren't. So I built my own atelier, I sourced my own fabrics, and started creating and storytelling through my lens and tapped into that superpower, which was really great.

Missy Elliott at the 2003 VMAs.

Missy Elliott at the 2003 VMAs.

So you were navigating around brands being too protective of their image. How have you seen that change?

Protective is good word, but back then, 20-something years ago, it wasn't protective. It was classism. It was racism. Now they can say, 'protective.' Before, they were just like, 'No. Who? What? They're from where? I've never heard of them.' 

But I didn't take the attitude like, 'I don't need to ever collaborate with you.' I was just trying to shape the narrative so that we could get to a place where we could collaborate. I knew that they had resources that we didn't have. I knew that they had the ability and the bigger financial backing to make it more of a global conversation. I just wanted to get their attention, and we did. So once we were able to do that, I definitely doubled back. I designed Jay-Z's first suit that he ever wore in a music video, but it doesn't mean I didn't go back to Giorgio Armani and ask to borrow something.

And why Giorgio Armani? Here was an artist that wasn't initially a Tom Ford, strong shoulder kind of suit guy, but could understand a really relaxed, easy, Miami Vice kind of vibe. And because we were slowly evolving into this character and structure, it made sense. And also because it was Italian, we started opening the conversation between the Italian houses and this guy who grew up in Marcy Projects.

And then there's so many artists that came after. You think about what happened with Salt-N-Pepa and Chanel, and all of those collaborations, because they started to understand. We'd also have the disposable incomes to buy certain things. We didn't have to borrow, but we could buy. And then when, as [fashion houses] started to see that, they were like, 'Oh, my god. This is great. I love how they interpreted that.' 

Some of the music videos had such great ideas. I remember designing a plastic-covered nylon suit for Puffy and Mace. And Dolce & Gabbana did it the next season on the runway, you saw plastic-covered nylon. Missy Elliott did a whole plaid golf look for the MTV Awards one year. Then you saw Dior doing plaid with cleats.

So little things that I was like doing, that felt super costume-y and eccentric, was couture for many fashion houses. I think after them seeing that kind of collaboration that we created on our own, they didn't have a choice but to engage us, because the consumers were looking for the product.

And look where it's led us now: You have ad campaigns with hip-hop artists from the South, you have front rows that are filled with the Pharrells and the Nicki Minajs. You have big design fashion houses flying in artists from all over the world, and doing capsule collections, and all this stuff. It's because of the seeds that we planted in the '90s, that really educated those Europeans about the buying power this consumer had. I think once they got a whiff of that, they just had to get on board, to be honest.

When you look at a Tiffany campaign with a Jay-Z and Beyonce, this is huge. You go from being on just Source magazine covers and only urban covers, to the covers of Vanity Fair, the cover of Vogue, the cover of Fortune, Forbes. We knew that we were quite worthy of being part of the same conversation that someone who was brought into wealth was. We worked for it, you were indoctrinated into it. That doesn't mean that either of us is less worthy of it. That's how you build generational wealth, by knowing that you are worthy of not asking for permission, and just doing the work.

How did you develop the look or aesthetic you've become known for?

The whole gender-fluidity thing, I was doing that in the '90s, and not because I invented it, but because when I looked at Boy George and Bootsy Collins, and Furious Five and Flash, they were dressed very feminine. They were wearing women's blouses. When you look at rock stars and stuff like that. I was like, 'Why is it just Bon Jovi that can wear tight leather pants?'

I was known for a couple things: I would put women's frames on men. I would really play around with feminine silhouettes on men. Busta Rhymes, I had him in a turban made out of lamé, and a long robe out of lamé with matching Timberlands, and that was super, super feminine, and corseted vests and stuff like that. I loved shiny, so people knew when they saw something shiny that I had my hands in it. When they saw big glasses, they knew I had my hand in it. If it was some eccentric costume, they knew that I had my hands in it.

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It was always about a juxtaposition of what's swag and what disruption I could cause to the most couture moment, whether it was a Gucci fur coat with a Paco Rabanne gown... Mixing urban and high fashion couture was kind of my thing. I also liked also bringing luxury fabrics to sportswear silhouettes: leather jogging suits, leather baseball shirts, suede. When you think about my role at Puma, it kind of all makes sense that I've come full circle and I want to bring this fashion-y energy to the sportswear space. 

Ambrose's basketball collection for Puma

Ambrose's basketball collection for Puma

How did you amass new clients throughout your career?

I always say that, 'One client leads you to another client.' I was always kind of like, 'Just give me a shot. If I don't deliver, then that's it. Walk away. But if I do deliver, stick with me.' I guess it was like anyone who was looking to get an investment in a startup, so I approach everything like, 'Invest in me. Give me a shot.' And then I knew that every moment that I had an opportunity, whether it be small or big, that I needed it to lead me to the next. My first job was this artist who had a single deal, and he wasn't even at the record company that I was interning at. 

I didn't start off assisting anyone. I have my doctorates in costume design and styling, because I learned on the job and that was my education: reading lots of books on costume design and film, and asking a lot of questions, being infinitely curious.

Coming from corporate, I understood that it was not just about my creativity, but I had to be a business person first. I learned the hard way; I was taken advantage of initially. I had struggles where people didn't want to pay after I did the work, and I had to adjust my sale and not be distracted by the things that knocked me down, but it was how I got up and how I made every step a part of the dance.

I didn't go to an agency to be repped. I started my own agency. I took every intern that I had, and I trained them and developed them, I raised them. And then I employed them and I made them part of my agency. And then when they got to keying jobs, I'd then rep them as an agency. I understood business opportunities and then made it my own

As someone passionate about training and mentoring, what advice would you give someone interested in a career like yours?

I would say trust your gut, and try to educate yourself on the fundamental things of being a freelancer first. Understand the business aspect of it so that you can approach it like a CEO. When you work with a client, know that it's a collaborative experience, even when you have to drive the car and render most of it, still you should always make the client feel like it's a collaborative experience, because at the end of the day, even if I have to drive the entire narrative and come up with the whole concept, the person has to deliver it. That makes it a collaborative experience.

Knowing that you're solely responsible for the outcome of everything, give yourself grace. Pace yourself. Don't take on too much at once, because every job that you get is going to really reflect back on your integrity, your performance. You want to leave every relationship intact. You want to come into it strong and leave strong. And the only way you can do that is being honest, and transparent, and present, and pay attention to what's happening in the moment.

And no one's going to give you anything. You can't sit around and assume you're going to be asked to do something. Sometimes you have to ask for it. And sometimes you'll get 'no,' but it doesn't mean that you're not worthy of the opportunity. It just means it's not your turn. It means continue to fight for what you know that you're capable of doing.

Always ask yourself, 'What makes you so special? What is it about you?' I would always ask myself that. And as an adult now, I ask my young self for permission to be as fearless as I was then. Be that person now. All of my mistakes honestly shaped and made me who I am today, but it was because I was so brave and brazen. It's the reason why things happened for me. So I always tap back into that as an adult when I feel like, 'Oh, god, I have so much to lose.' Be that fearless girl. Be curious because that's what keeps your creative energy alive. 

Can you give an example of a time earlier in your career when you did something very bold, or you were brave, or just didn't ask permission and it paid off?

I've had so many of those moments... when I worked with Puffy for the first time, I wanted to do a shiny suit. And he wanted matte leather because it felt safe. And I was like, 'Fuck being safe. Take some risk. If it doesn't work, then blacklist me.' I put everything on it. I was like, 'Never hire me. Tell everybody that I suck.' That was a huge risk. It's still early in my career, but it was my first time working with him. And if I didn't nail that, then I wouldn't have had the whole Bad Boy roster.

Sometimes, like when you advance money, you're taking huge risk. It was like, 'This job is not getting greenlit fast enough and I want to really get ahead of it.' I've been in positions like that, where you have to leverage your credit or something like that, because you really want the job to happen. Those things are risky, but they pay off because you get a head start, and you blow it out the water, and phones just start ringing. And everybody knows that you're the go-to. You become the Olivia Pope of that world.

Like Macy Gray. 'She's 6'1". She's a woman. She has size 13 men's shoes. What do you do?' I became that girl. What do you do with Missy Elliott? Women in hiphop, at that time, it was all about being objectified. It was all about sexualization. But here comes this really shy, timid, plus-size, petite woman from Virginia. I became that girl who they came to to write the prescription and collaborate.

Hype Williams was the director that leaned on me — I was his go-to in those big ideas. You take the risks, and you trust your gut, you listen to your instinct, and you trust your expertise. Because I had did the research, I knew that red suit it was it. I knew that my DP would do this. I knew that my director was going to shoot it this way. I knew what the end result was before we shot it.

So having that bit of knowledge and speaking from a place of authority, I think is also very important. I do that now with my role at Puma, because I'm doing my research. I'm diving into who that customer is. I'm tapping into my AI, my authentic intelligence, and listening to that consumer and paying attention, who she is, what she wants, what drives her, from a real holistic place. And I think that's the job, is to really be able to do that when you're creating clothes.

What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?

I think seeing how some of the images that I've created over the years impact culture, seeing how the seeds that I planted years ago are reaping. What we see now today are descendants of that, which is really nice. Seeing consumers in stuff that I've designed is really rewarding, and seeing how they interpret it, and seeing how it makes them feel empowered, and fabulous, and fashionable.

I was in Nordstrom yesterday and I saw this really cool girl with her baby in the High Court leggings. It was just kind of nice to see it in the real world, because it was so bold. That was a very risky first launch, a women's basketball collection in a space that the brand didn't really know who the customer was yet.

With Puma, was this creative director sort of role something that you always wanted to do?

I held this role before with Missy Elliott and Adidas, so this is not my first time at the rodeo. And creative direction is something I'd kind of done throughout my career and leading the narratives and shaping them for different artists, with designing, and collaborating and stuff.

But this specifically is special, because I think there's such a great opportunity with Puma to really make my mark and being able to shape that narrative for the brand again, as them being not just performance-based, but also in the style space. It just feels like the next chapter of my life in a way.

It's not to say that I won't end up at a big fashion house down the line, but this is, I think, the reintroduction of me playing this role for a sports brand, because no one remembers the first one. It wasn't a thing when I brought Missy to Adidas. It's a thing now. She was one of the first collaborations.

Aside from maybe spending time at a big fashion house at some point, do you any other career goals, things you haven't done yet that you can share?

I have two kids that I brought into the world. I think about what my legacy would be. I'm an author. I've done television. I've done consumer goods, and continue to do the things that feed into people's lifestyle and bring that 'June joy' to everyone that have I've touched.

How is that? Is it through multimedia platforms? Is it through the 'Juniverse'? What does that look like? So the goal to really be able to be very engaged with consumers as we move into this new way we consume consumer goods, from the beauty to the fashion, to the food and fitness. I believe I have the ability to speak to all of those narratives in a very holistic lifestyle way. And the goal is to be able to really touch all of those categories.

I don't know if I've been in an interview where I've said it, because I don't want to talk about anything until I actually, physically do it, but sometimes there's some real power in saying what you want and what you know that you're going to do.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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