Verbal and Yoon: Tokyo’s ultimate fashion power couple
It’s hard to work out who is truly a celebrity style leader in Tokyo when we are inundated with winners of the unfortunate “The Best Jeanist,” “The Glasses Best Dresser” and “The Best Thongist” awards (OK, we made the last one up).
But the unique stylings of MC Verbal, founder and lead MC of hip-hop groups M-flo and Teriyaki Boyz, and his designer wife Yoon have spawned an underground fashion craze that is garnering so much attention there may soon be an honest-to-god “Best Verbalist” award.
Ambushing the fashion world
Verbal has been known as a talented MC, DJ and music producer for the past decade and Yoon is traditionally a graphic artist. But together they are the force behind design company Ambush® and undoubtedly Tokyo’s ultimate fashion power couple.
Their hip-hop-meets-rock aesthetic with touches of kitsch in vivid Mattel toy-like colors have seen them featured in global Louis Vuitton and Doc Martens campaigns and their style was profiled in the New York Times among many other fashion rags.
“It’s great that we are being recognized because when you’re famous and you have a fashion brand, it’s inevitably going to be taken the wrong way,” says Verbal.
He and Yoon, speaking in their stylish Shibuya-based atelier, are no strangers to misconceptions.
Wiping dirt off their shoulders
Verbal is Japan-born of South Korean descent and Yoon was born in South Korea and raised in the United States. The two started dating while at University in Boston, MA, just before Verbal debuted in the music business.
The celebrity engine in Japan is notorious for image control, but Verbal made sure he kept it real from the beginning.
“They told me that I shouldn’t really say that I’m Korean and that if anyone asked, I would reply that I was single. But I said to them, ‘Look, I am Korean, and I’m getting married and that’s the way it is’. Now I’m at peace with it and I’m glad that I don’t have anything to hide,” says Verbal.
To provide Yoon with an outlet for her graphic design talents, Verbal started his company Ambush Design in 2002 where she designed CD albums.
“But I was at home a lot because I didn’t really know the culture here and couldn’t speak Japanese,” says Yoon. But her influence on Verbal’s now iconic style was starting to take effect.
One day, Verbal came home from a photo shoot and showed Yoon the preliminary pictures. Yoon says, “I said to him, ‘Why are you wearing this tracksuit and rapper clothes just because you rap? You don’t even like this stuff!” Verbal laughs as he reminisces. “Well, I was new to the industry and I just wore what they told me to, you know.”
Yoon then encouraged him to wear what he liked, and Verbal soon became an artist that went jimae, or without a hired stylist.
Putting it on the line
Their fashion chops were honed when they established a couture jewelry line called Antonio Murphy & Astro in 2004, a time when bling was the height of chic.
They started to get orders from major artists such as Kanye West who was drawn to a giant Michael Jackson pendant that Verbal was wearing.
“It’s actually difficult to talk about music with someone like [Kanye], but fashion allowed us to open up some dialog,” says Verbal.
A second line called Ambush was established in 2008 and signature pieces such as a fluorescent “pow” and metal eyeball barbell rings flew off the shelves.
They have done collaborations with A Bathing Ape, Topman and watch maker Georg Jenson and are invited to exhibit around the world, including uber-chic boutique Colette in Paris.
The company is completely self-produced with Verbal and Yoon designing, and the pieces are handcrafted in Tokyo.
Freedom from the agency
They are aware of counting their blessings. “Of course we are lucky because [Verbal] is famous,” says Yoon.
Verbal adds, “And sometimes I think it would be great to have investors sometimes. But our way works because we are fluid and also very approachable. My management is very open and lets me go to any event I want, unlike a lot of celebrities who are bound by appearance fees and contracts. So we will go to Trump Room in Shibuya and maybe only 10 kids will be able to fit in, but that’s cool to us.”
Yoon nods, adding, “Because the way the kids dress in these places gives us inspiration, too.”
Verbal and Yoon are now on many style watch lists, especially after Verbal was named the “most fashionable guy in Japan” by venerable fashion critic Don Konishi on TV. Influential fashion blogs such as Tokyo Dandy have also begun chronicling their style.
Creative tour de force
While music and fashion have always been inherently intertwined, Verbal says it wasn’t until this year that all of their efforts have culminated.
“I’ve been going a thousand miles per hour for 10 years. Now we can go to Paris to do a trunk show together during the day and DJ at night, so it’s great," says Verbal.
They are now also in advertising, working as the creative forces behind events for brands such as Zippo and Vitamin Water, and they are only limited by the number of hours in a day.
Verbal chuckles, “I’ve been so busy I haven’t been in the studio making music as much lately, so I’ve got the record company breathing down my back. That’s a whole other story.”