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fall 2021

A Star In The Juniverse

What Style Pioneer June Ambrose Has Learned From Exploring New Worlds and Reinventing Herself
Written by: Louis Carr

Google June Ambrose’s name, and you will come up with enough titles to fill all the seats around a conference table: creative director, stylist, costume designer, brand builder, and image maker.


So how does the woman with her fingerprints all over so much of popular culture—working with names like Missy Elliot, P. Diddy, and Jay-Z and brands such as Gucci, Estée Lauder, and, most recently, Puma—describe her world?


It’s hard to pin herself down, she admits. “If I could put a title on what I am, that stunts me creatively or puts me in a box. Entrepreneur is probably the spirit that I’ve had from an early age.”


Ambrose’s creativity was kindled growing up in a single-parent home in the Bronx, a tenement with a fire escape for a backyard. “We couldn’t be on the streets,” she remembers. “You read more, you play with your dolls. I would find myself cutting up curtains, making looks for my Barbie dolls. You learn to be more creative when you don’t have.”


Even then there was an entrepreneurial streak. She would make pencil holders out of crepe paper and sell them at school for a few cents. She would also sell things out of the pantry and arrange fashion shows at school.


Looking back at that time from today’s successful vantage point, she doesn’t consider herself to have been impoverished. “It depends on how you quantify wealth,” she reflects. “From a very early age I understood how valuable being protected is, how valuable having a safe space is” because of her mom’s care and example. “And watching that was the biggest blessing and privilege and honor, and I felt safe and I felt like I didn’t want for nothing.”

A career is the thing you can’t put down. You can’t let go of it, you eat, sleep, drink it.


Forgiving herself
Before launching into the style worlds where she has carved out a reputation for distinctive looks and innovation, Ambrose was an actress and worked in investment banking. There was only one other person of color at the firm, and he worked in the mailroom.


That was when she learned the difference between a job and a career. “I knew I wasn’t a corporate girl,” she says. A job may pay the bills, but “a career is the thing you can’t put down. You can’t let go of it, you eat, sleep, drink it.”


Having said that, she doesn’t dismiss the importance of what you can learn on the way to pursuing your dreams. Her time in the financial arena may not have been a long-term fit, but it helped prepare her for life as an independent business person. “So when I did take off in my career and I started making money, I knew exactly where I should put it, or at least I had the advisors to tell me where I should put it.”


Curiosity is Ambrose’s fuel. “I love collaborating,” she says. “I love growing. I love learning… There’s always someone or something to meet. It’s like you discover something about people every day, because I feel like we grow every day. We evolve every day.”

That openness is evident through her multifaceted career, which according to Vogue has influenced “a generation of designers.” She has helped clients establish their iconic looks, hosted her own television show, and now created a new sneaker line for Puma. Have those twists and turns been a reinvention or an evolution?

“I use both,” she answers. “I’m always like I’m under construction. I always try to reinvent myself because I just feel like you’re as good as your last job. You have to stay relevant, especially in this business. How you evolve is what you’ve gathered along the way.”

Some years back, as she was “reinventing myself and discovering anew who I want to become,” she began writing notes to herself. They were “asking permission to myself to become this person. I go back and I look at them sometimes, just to make sure that I was living up to myself, not anyone else’s expectation, but what I asked myself.” If there are things she hasn’t accomplished, she says, “Forgive me for not completing this. Let’s try again.”

Ambrose credits her mother with instilling in her the quiet fearlessness that has helped her navigate her career. Though she was “precocious” as a kid, her mom didn’t hush her. “As long as I wasn’t speaking in a derogatory way, in a hateful way, my voice mattered,” Ambrose says. “I knew that I could just ask for something and not be afraid of the word no.”

It’s a childhood lesson she tries not to forget, because “as we get older, we become more afraid,” she observes. “We have more responsibility. We have to ‘adult,’ and we’re afraid to make the moves that could affect us in a negative way, because our stakes are higher. There’s no one else to take care of us.

“I ask my young self, just give me the courage. Tell me not to be afraid, like you were back then. And I have to constantly tap into that fearless child who wasn’t afraid to ask and hear no because if you do it good enough, if you work hard enough, you won’t hear as many nos.”

You get back what you put out and the universe tends to reward those who are just kind.

JUNE AMBROSE

Staying grounded

Ambrose credits some of her success to learning patience, being consistent and intentional, and surrounding herself with like-minded people. Despite being part of the music world for a long time, she has never smoked or had a drink in her life.

“In my twenties, when I was growing professionally, growing up, you had to make a lot of decisions of who you wanted to be to fit in. And I realized long ago that actually not fitting was what made me so interesting and unique and desirable. So I chose to be opposite of everything that was around me.”

She is grateful for the many people who gave her an opportunity she was able to make the most of—people like Jay-Z, Sean Combs, and director Hype Williams, for whom she styled the influential 1999 movie Belly.

“But I also put myself in a position where I could be seen,” she says. “And I always tell people, don’t take any environment for granted. You can be wallpaper, but you want to be beautiful wallpaper. Not just visually, but like spiritually, so that you can attract the right kind of art around you.”

Despite having worked with some of the biggest names around, Ambrose remains solidly grounded, with a reputation for being nice and natural. “You can lose your way in this industry,” she observes. “Self-awareness is super key. When I work with clients, I like to show up as me so they can see me and not what they think I should be… you stay grounded by recognizing that it’s such a privilege and an honor to do what you do. I recognize that anyone that works with me, they’re not obligated to. I always feel like you get back what you put out and the universe tends to reward those who are just kind.”

Talent is important, of course, but “your personality holds value. It’s your calling card… They have to want to spend time with you. And that is my superpower: I like me. It breaks my heart when people aren’t nice.”

That tender spot dates back to childhood. Whenever she heard a siren in the street she would start crying because she was sure someone was dying somewhere out there. “I would freak out because an ambulance or a police car meant that someone was in trouble, someone needed help. I’m still that person. I really do care how someone feels or how they’re affected by the power of words. Where someone is inflicting harm onto someone, I feel it.”

Ambrose received some unlikely life-shaping advice when she went on a tour of the CBS Studios in New York City, as a child. She tugged the sleeve of one of the people there and asked, “How do I become a star?” The man’s answer—“No one can make you a star. You just have to be one.”—might have crushed other kids, but not Ambrose. She said thank you and told him confidently, “I am a star.”

Smiling at the memory, Ambrose says: “Listen, being a star is not just being in front of the camera, it’s not just being a musician. It’s being able to light up a room, to light up a space, be seen in a beautiful way… And that bit of advice was so important.”

She would add to that piece of wisdom someone else’s counsel, that you should look the part. “You know, if you want to attract certain things, you want somebody to pay you a million dollars, well, look a million dollars,” she says. That doesn’t mean go out and buy a bunch of expensive clothes, “but do everything you can do to really preserve the vessel, to polish it… I’ve seen people coming out of tenements and projects: fresh haircut, clean face, clothes pressed… Look the part. Don’t let the environment dictate your life.

Trusting yourself

Having shared some of the advice that made a big difference in her life, Ambrose offers a caution to young people unsure who to listen to. “Be careful who you take advice from. Sometimes, you take advice from somebody who hasn’t even walked in any shoes.” And at the end of the day, no matter what someone may tell you, go with your gut.

“Even if you’re wrong, the experience is going to take you a long way,” she says. “Advice is great, but you’ve got to sometimes trust your instincts and trust yourself.” Forget the idea of a textbook answer, she adds, because “our lives are not a textbook; the textbook is still being written.”

Can she balance home and work life with so many responsibilities? “I don’t even know what that looks like,” she admits. “I’m content with the fact that I’m enough to my family. They get me. They know all of my shortcomings, they’re very gracious, and the things that I excel at, they celebrate me. And for that, I’m very grateful.”

Part of successfully navigating everything so well has been learning to parent with her husband, Marc Chamblin. Having grown up in a single-parent home, she had to “learn that dynamic” and become comfortable with asking for help, which has “made me a better partner, a better person.” Communication has been a key.

“You only feel guilty when you haven’t had the conversation,” she says. “If I’m honest and transparent with you, and I’m saying to you, ‘It breaks my heart that I’m not here, I love you. I want to be there with you, but you know where mommy is,’ there’s a difference.”

Having said that, when you can be there, be all there, she goes on. “You only feel guilty when you’re not fully there when you have committed the time to do that. So when I’m committed to mothering and parenting, I’m there. So there’s no guilt— but when I’m not there, I don’t feel guilty. Because, I do the work, I do my part and I spend a lot of time with my kids.”

In fact, Ambrose’s career has meant she has been able to take her two children along with her at times. She recalls breastfeeding her son while in Mexico for the video shoot for Jay-Z’s “’03 Bonnie & Clyde.” “I would bring them to the office,” she recalls. “They would do their homework there.”

The secret to managing that kind of approach is “you have got to produce your life,” she says. “You are the CEO of your home and you have got to run it like a business, then you’ve got to run some of it like a hospital—giving them oxygen when they need oxygen.”

And then she is unapologetic in declaring she puts herself first at times. “I know parents don’t like to say that, moms especially, but if I don’t come first, how do I take care of everybody else?” she explains. That means some much-needed alone time.

“I have to have my soak. I like to cook,” she says. “But I love doing things with my family. I love making a meal. I love them enjoying it. I love movie night. I love all of these things that are so important to just a balanced lifestyle. And I’ve also learned to cut it off, work: stop and have quality family time. I didn’t know how to do that for a very long time.”

JUNE AMBROSE: My WayMaker
My mom was my north star; she still is, even though she’s transitioned over. She was a single mom working tirelessly, never complaining, just doing the work to take care of her girls and protect them. I felt safe and I felt like I don’t want for nothing. And now, I owe that to her, to be successful, because of what she sacrificed for that. So I feel like if I fail to live my full potential, then I’m doing her hard work a disservice.

From an interview with Louis Carr