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Reimagining a Beloved Bag Through the Eyes of Yoon Ahn

By Terence Poh

Yoon Ahn’s renditions of the Serpenti bag are based on the intensely neoncoloured tree python.
 
Courtesy of Bulgari
Yoon Ahn’s renditions of the Serpenti bag are based on the intensely neoncoloured tree python.

The Korean-American designer Yoon Ahn belongs to an ascendant group of Asian women in today’s fashion industry, joining the likes of Sacai’s Chitose Abe and following in the footsteps of pioneering female designers such as Anna Sui, Vera Wang and Kimora Lee Simmons. Based in Tokyo, her streetwear label Ambush often collaborates with top fashion brands such as Louis Vuitton, Off-White, Sacai and Rimowa. She has also been commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art to exhibit in a fashion retrospective alongside historic brands such as Nike, Chanel and Cartier — the last of which Ahn partnered with to reimagine its iconic Love bracelet. In 2018, she was appointed by the creative director Kim Jones to lead jewellery design for Dior Men.

Now, the 42-year-old is adding more shine to her portfolio as the latest designer tapped by Bulgari for its “Serpenti Through the Eyes of” collaborative series, which reimagines its signature Serpenti bag. Creative alumni of the project include Alexander Wang and Nicholas Kirkwood, who each had reinterpreted the bag through their individual visions while retaining the distinct serpent head emblematic of the Italian house. “I’ve never really designed bags before, so this was a new experience for me,” she tells me via a Zoom session one August evening, as she comes off a day spent getting ready for a release in September for her own brand. “It was interesting to learn about Bulgari and see how I could bring a new story while respecting its heritage and DNA.”

Courtesy of BulgariAhn’s sketch of the ornamental Miniaudière illustrates its sculptural details.
Ahn’s sketch of the ornamental Miniaudière illustrates its sculptural details.

The genesis of this collaboration can be traced back to 2018. Ahn received recognition from Bulgari Japan at the Aurora Awards, a yearly event celebrating the country’s female power players in different industries. “After that, the Bulgari HQ contacted me to see if I wanted to do this collaboration because they were looking for a woman designer to work with,” she says. “And that’s how the conversation started.”

To officially begin the collaboration, she was invited to Rome, where Bulgari is headquartered, to visit the factory where artisans produce the fine jewellery. Then, in Florence, she was introduced to the makers behind the bags. “I saw how passionately every staff member worked and how much they’re enjoying what they’re making, and that really fuelled me,” she says. “I was like, okay — I want  to make sure they can also enjoy and be proud of the things that we will do together.”

Following the meetings in Italy, “we talked a lot and got pretty hands-on about how we wanted to do things,” says Ahn. The starting point, besides the prototype brief, was a snake, “and I’ve never really paid attention to snakes so much,” she says. Research into characteristics of the reptile and what serpents meant in different cultures led her to the tree python, which would ultimately inspire the collection. Occurring naturally in vivid shades of green and often with blue and yellow secondary tones, this species coils up and hangs on tree branches when sedentary, forming what is best described as a neon green croissant.

Courtesy of BulgariA detachable strap allows the mini clutch to be slung over the shoulder.
A detachable strap allows the mini clutch to be slung over the shoulder.

“They were surprised that the snakes were in that bright blue and bright green, so they thought that I was proposing these photoshopped images,” she says. “So, in a good way, the Bulgari team was also reminded that there’s so much beauty in snakes that they can explore as well.”

This resulted in Ahn’s three iterations for the series: the Serpenti shoulder bag, Serpenti belt bag and Serpenti Minaudière. Covered in Nappa leather and infused with solid colours — either black, bright blue, purple or bright green — each piece is made to be carried and styled several ways, with removable elements like a strap or a belt. The shoulder bag is a tactile delight with its smooth, soft quilted body and a curved top handle texturised to mimic reptilian skin. The Minaudière, a mini heart-shaped clutch flanked with tassels, offered in black leather or aluminium, has an ornamental design which brings to mind a sculptural piece of jewellery. The collection also includes a range of accessories in the same neon palette, like a heart-shaped coin case, three card holders stamped with a collaborative logo, and a three-coil Serpenti leather bracelet with a metallic snake head and tail.

 

In an interview with T in 2019, Yoon Ahn talks about connecting her cultural dots, and how her new Ambush Workshop 2 in Shibuya is all about celebrating the handmade.

 

 

Ahn designed the collection with versatility in mind, and unsurprisingly so, due to her always intuitive approach. The first step to any new collection is to “feel it out and see what I vibe with,” she tells me. “I usually like to keep things very organic; I don’t pre-plan.” A degree of pandering to trends is virtually standard practice in the fashion industry today, but rather than designing products to suit fleeting tastes, she explains that her intention is to see “how people are going to react to and interpret things.”

Completed around last fall, this project became a question of when and how the capsule was going to be released as pandemic woes came into the picture. But just as Ahn chalks up the virtual lack of obstacles to Bulgari’s trust in her which afforded her great creative freedom, that same trust has made a 4 September 2020 launch possible in uncertain times. “We’re always in communication, over WhatsApp and everything,” says Ahn, “so everything was really smooth.”

“It’s already August, and we only have four months left,” Ahn tells me in closing. She also shares about projects she has lined up for every remaining month and her excitement about this Serpenti capsule kicking off. It’s clear that, for Ahn, this collaboration has influenced her vision for Ambush’s future. Visiting the headquarters and the factories allowed her to witness the way Italian artisans work and exposed her to the historic Italian excellence in manufacturing leather goods — so culturally different from the Japanese ways she is accustomed to. “I want to build my brand where everybody who works here can have that kind of passion towards everything that we make,” she says. “That’s something that I want to really apply to what we do.”