It was a time of cobalt blues, bright yellows, parachute pants and LL Cool J wore a hat that put FUBU on the map. Music and fashion were just beginning to fuse in the early 90s and product placement was exploding all over the clothing industry– that’s when June Ambrose first placed herself in the market. As celebrity stylist, designer, author, television personality and all around fashion guru, you’ve more than likely encountered June’s work somewhere in the media. Best known as the woman who put rapper Sean Combs in his signature sleek suit back when he was simply known as “Puff Daddy,” June is now the “style architect of the music industry.” But it wasn’t long ago that you would have found her chained to a desk, knee deep in finance stock and portfolios. Without a degree or even experience in the fashion industry, June not only made a career switch, she crafted a whole new one. This month, June sat down with Dress for Success to explain just how she did it.
Fresh out of high school, June secured a lucrative position at an investment banking firm. After 2 ½ years buried in the research department, she carried out every parent’s nightmare, quitting her 9-5 for an internship at a record label. With no frame of reference, June’s only direction was her intuition and unwavering self-confidence.
“I needed something that made me want to get up every day. I didn’t have a plan, I just knew I was willing. I was willing to take the risk of saying I can do it, even when I didn’t know how I was going to do it and that was the sales pitch,” June explains.
Little did she know, she’d soon be on the other end of the sales pitch and sought after by numerous celebrities including her original muse, Sean Combs. Starting behind the scenes as a talent director at Uptown MCA Records, Combs searched for ways to brand himself to the public. Here, June watched as he flipped through French Vogue, for inspiration to elevate his image. Recognizing the desire for high fashion in this rising urban music scene, she quickly and strategically inserted herself.
And creative she is. Working with everyone from the Backstreet Boys to Mariah Carey and Dave Matthews; June recognized the space for herself and her future clients, seeing both the music and fashion markets as one artistic platform. “At the time, the designers didn’t see the opportunity,” she says. “Why should they put their clothes on these kids that they thought couldn’t afford it?”
June not only saw the opportunity, she made her own. “What do you need? What do I have? How can we help each other?” June recites for us the voice in her head guiding her from intern to entrepreneur.
Although the transition from investment banking to celebrity fashion mogul may appear seamless now, every career switch comes with its own set of challenges and June’s experience was no different. Before she became the go-to celebrity stylist, June was costume designer for music videos. Constantly pushing the boundaries from a very young age, she remembers cutting up her grandmother’s curtains to create her own looks. She never realized her childhood hobby could become an actual skill until she faced breaking into an industry without any contacts or credibility in her back pocket. Forced to be resourceful, June explains bluntly, “When the designer’s wouldn’t let me in, I designed the clothes myself.”
June’s first big break came when she styled rising hip-hop artist at the time, Missy Elliott, in an inflatable black patent leather suit for her hit single video, “The Rain.” A full-figured woman with an un-conventional style, June explains, “Missy Elliott was coming into the most provocative time for women in hip hop where it was all about sex and rock and roll, and I had to design a look for her that was obtainable and provocative in her way.”
The outfit broke down barriers to a whole new demographic for designers—elevating hip hop culture with a little haute couture.
In addition to navigating a new market, June also struggled with her personal finances. Shortly after quitting her position at the firm and taking on a few freelance styling jobs, June quickly lost track of her spending. “Imagine getting $1,500 for two days and you’re thinking ‘oh my god, this is more than I made for the week,’” she says. But as the money rolled in, so did the credit card bills and eventually the bank seized her account. “You think it’s always going to come and so you’re spending and spending—that was a change of pace in life that I wasn’t prepared for,” June tells us.
Determined to get back on track and pursue her new passion, June looked to her mother who raised her to struggle and persevere gracefully. A single parent in Antigua, June was 3 years-old when her mother immigrated the family to the Bronx, NY. In the Caribbean, June’s mother was a costume designer and owned a store where she produced clothing for various carnival celebrations across the islands. When they arrived in New York City, she no longer had the market or resources to support her business and took a position in retail. Later, she also made a drastic change–switching from fashion to nursing, desiring a steadier income and flexible schedule to spend time with her kids.
“In the midst of all the struggling, she would always take us out of our environment. We’d take weekend trips to other boroughs, Coney Island, Midtown and visit places like CBS Studios and the United Nations,” says June. “Every weekend it was an adventure and because of that, I was able to see what else was out there. “
June recalls living paycheck-to-paycheck, watching her mother budget, old-school style, writing down rent and living expenses on a piece of paper, and putting money away in jar. “There were times she was worried, but she would never let us see that and that stayed with me,” says June.
Like mother, like daughter. To this day, June’s best marketing tool is still her consistent, positive self-image, which also comes from her mother’s belief that good faith will always open opportunities. “It was almost like osmosis—watching her be good to others and herself allowed us to want to be good to her,” she says.
Carrying that advice into both her professional and personal life, June is now able to balance a high- powered career in the spotlight with raising her three kids. June has even created online support community based around this philosophy, calling it her “Rock Mom Chronicles.” Here she posts candid photos of herself and her family, as well as inspirational quotes and muses that she shares with a circular community of moms who simultaneously give and receive support.
The same principles apply when June works with clients, it all comes back to what you’re projecting. Whether it’s being a model for other moms, her clients or her children, June is in the business of role playing— knowing that the power to elevate herself allows her to elevate others.