Designer June Ambrose Is Ready To Send Puma Down The Runway
Her first NYFW show as the brand’s creative director is September 13.
For June Ambrose, life is a sport — and she plays to win. On a call squeezed in shortly before her first New York Fashion Week show as Puma’s creative director, she tells TZR that this is her guiding mantra. The phrase has also appeared in branding for campaigns like Ambrose’s recent High Court collection, and is a fitting philosophy for the mind behind an athletic-wear label. Indeed, if one’s existence is just a game, Ambrose seems poised for victory: She’s widely hailed as a pioneer of bringing high fashion to hip-hop, and has crafted some of music’s most impactful fashion images in recent memory, from Missy Elliott’s groundbreaking The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly) inflated bag fit to the shiny red suits in Mase and Diddy’s Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems video.
While many costume designers build their entire careers behind-the-scenes, Ambrose’s star has always shone too brightly to be sidelined. Beyond just her portfolio of A-list celebrity outfits, projects like the industry insider’s 2012 reality TV show, Styled By June, and 2006 book, Effortless Style — not to mention her own daring yet chic personal wardrobe — have made her a household name. Sure, we have “influencers” setting trends and defining new styles today (and at 899k followers, Ambrose arguably is part of this cadre), but her decades-long career has shaped culture beyond the confines of social media.
Ambrose is always up for a new challenge. So of course she was thrilled to join the Puma family in 2020. She released High Court, the brand’s first women’s basketball collection, in 2021 to much acclaim. The lifestyle line weaves a black, tan, and orange color scheme inspired by the basketball court, channeling the energy of the game into staples like sneakers, bras, pants, and tops. It’s a line meant for sporty types who crave versatility from their athletic-wear. Now, as Ambrose prepares to stage Puma’s first NYFW show in years, she’s ready to take things to the next level.
“I feel like I’m a freshman,” she says. Though Ambrose is a legend in her field and the Puma brand is larger than life, no one is above some game-day jitters ahead of a big debut. But really, it’s more excitement than nerves.
“To quote the great Jay-Z, allow me to reintroduce myself,” Ambrose says with a laugh, referring to her friend and long-time client. “It is a new chapter, and people will say, ‘Oh, you’ve been so successful in this particular space,’ and well, reinventing yourself is one of the most humbling and healthy experiences in life.”
Reinvention is the name of the game in Puma’s upcoming show, dubbed “Futrograde” — a nod to both the old and the new, and the past cycling back around to become current once again. And while the presentation will touch on pop culture history, Ambrose says the last thing the brand needs to do is stage a run-of-the-mill runway — so she’s taken measures to make sure that this one is anything but.
“It’s not like a traditional show where you sit down and you walk away and say, ‘Oh, they were doing south of France meets boating and sportswear!’” Ambrose says. “It’s a layered conversation.” She describes the event as segmented into three sections, an “immersive” overall experience that mixes augmented reality with catwalk moments.
Slated for Sept. 13, the occasion will also be the debut of Ambrose’s first co-branded line with the label, Puma x June Ambrose. Six pieces from the forthcoming collection will be sent down the runway. Then there are four more big collaborators upping the show’s cool factor: Dapper Dan, AC Milan, Palomo, and Koché, who will have a selection of pieces, curated by Ambrose, walk the runway. With such an unusual mix, from the celebrated Harlem designer to the Italian soccer club, it’s hard to predict just what to expect but the result is sure to be a unique experience.
Ambrose’s main goal with the presentation? Taking Puma into the future. And that future — as has been made quite clear by the onslaught of ‘90s and Y2K trend cycles that are more recycles than anything else — is in the past.
“Think about it: no one’s inventing new things; they’re reimagining,” she says. “We’ve reached our cycle of 100 years in a sense of fashion: You’ve seen everything from Victorian sleeves to Palazzo pants, every iteration of eras interpreted so many times over and over again. I think it makes the game that much more fun because you’re challenged to reimagine something that’s kind of been done already.”
Her show isn’t inspired by a specific time period in fashion history, or Puma’s history. Instead it takes a more holistic approach, with elements touching on the styles of the decades throughout the 20th century onward to today, incorporated alongside pieces of Puma’s heritage throughout the years, like their leaping Puma logo and the T7 track-inspired formstrip. Viewers can expect a time warp experience that speaks to a wide range of aesthetics, including the style of historical moments like the Roaring ‘20s as well as pop culture references to iconic model-actress-singer Grace Jones and the works of filmmaker Wes Anderson.
The excitement in Ambrose’s voice as she details how everything will unfold this coming Tuesday night is palpable. One feature she’s particularly thrilled about is tapping into street culture to deliver on the hip-hop-high-fashion blends she’s become known for.
“I was inspired by the disruptive attitude of today’s generation, the unapologetic energy and interpretation of style that you see on the streets now,” she says. “And I think that there’s so much more expression now than there was ever. When I was doing my music videos in the ‘90s, we didn’t have to ask for permission to be disruptive or be rebels. We just did it; it was all we knew. And I kind of took that same attitude and energy with that particular section [of the show].”
When thinking of NYFW and the typical brands that grace its hallowed runways, athletic-wear wasn’t always the norm. In the past decade it’s become an undeniable part of the conversation. “Things just feel different now — the landscape of sportswear and streetwear is so mainstream, so global, so fashion,” Ambrose says. “Every big fashion house is rooted in streetwear and sportswear, they’ve pivoted tremendously if you look cross the board at all the high fashion brands, they’re going after a customer that we already own.” And with their athleisure-loving consumer already in the bag, showing alongside other ultra-luxe high fashion labels is a way for Puma to position itself a little differently and stake their claim to the upper echelons of fashion.
“This show is really about us being included in the conversation outside of just performance sports,” says Ambrose. “When people think about Puma, they know that we’re rooted in performance and style is kind of a secondary conversation. My goal is to bring that [fashion] more to the forefront.”
Ambrose also acknowledges the fact that many buzzy brands have been bending further toward Puma’s aesthetic in recent years than the other way around. So in same ways, success is no harder than adjusting the street style aesthetic she knows so well already to accommodate consumers’ changing tastes.
“Sometimes showing restraint is OK,” she says. “I didn’t feel the need to over-design anything, just leaning it on fine tailoring and beautiful, classic swag. [I’m thinking of the] consumer that we currently have, just leveling them up.” Such an upgrade entails elevating the typical sportswear Puma fans know and love so that the garments feel appropriate for any occasion, on or off court. Since life is a sport, it follows that the pieces should fit right in on any playing field.
Ambrose’s lifelong education in fashion has been more than enough training in outfitting for all places, from the runway, to music videos, to film, to concert. And if the past always comes back around to inform the present and everything is constantly being reinvented with bits and pieces of what’s already been done, Ambrose has all the right stuff to reassemble the elements of the label’s legacy into something that feels both classically Puma and still fresh and exhilarating.
“I’ve been costume designing and creative directing for years, but people recognize and celebrate my styling work not knowing that a lot of it had some really significant layers that were weaved in and that was designing and creative direction,” she says. “It’s really nice to sit in this seat and not have it be confused what my role is. It feels like I’m starting all over again — and it’s an OK feeling!”