Seoul Search­ing

Thanks to soaring sales for home-grown fash­ion and beauty brands, Seoul is chal­leng­ing Tokyo for the crown of Asian style cap­i­tal. Melissa Twigg trav­els to the land of K-pop to find out just how all-en­com­pass­ing the Korean wave is

Hong Kong Tatler - - December -

We travel to the land of K-pop to see if Seoul really has the goods to steal the Asian-style-cap­i­tal crown from Tokyo

asia has al­ways been trend driven. in the 1990s, it was all about hong Kong ac­tion films; in the 2000s, we were lis­ten­ing to Ja­panese mu­sic. but the south Korean wave (or

hal­lyu, as it’s Known there) feels all en­com­pass­ing by com­par­i­son. it’s not Just about a genre of mu­sic or film or tele­vi­sion; it’s about buy­ing into an en­tirely Korean aes­thetic and way of life.

It all be­gan with K-pop. Psy and his catchy 2012 pop ditty Gang­nam Style blazed the cul­tural trail, fill­ing dance­floors around the world. Then came tele­vi­sion—shows such as Boys over Flow­ers and My Love from An­other Star had sky-high rat­ings across Asia. Since then, wave af­ter wave of film, tele­vi­sion and mu­sic has flooded the re­gional mar­ket, sweep­ing the charts in China, Ja­pan and South­east Asia. Even the West has wo­ken up to the fact that the Korean wave is about more than just Psy, as il­lus­trated by the 100,000 fans who at­tended Los An­ge­les’ re­cent Kcon, a Korean cul­tural con­ven­tion de­scribed by the Los An­ge­les Times as, “The year’s most sig­nif­i­cant con­cert for one of the world’s most fas­ci­nat­ing mu­sic and cul­tural scenes.”

Back home, the ado­ra­tion of K-pop stars trans­lated into an ob­ses­sion with recre­at­ing their doll-like ap­pear­ances. Seoul has long been the plas­tic surgery cap­i­tal of the world but fans were de­mand­ing more than eye­lid surgery and fillers—they now wanted their faces re­mod­elled with Kim Tae-hee’s nose or Lee Min-jung’s chin. The “bagel girl” look—a voluptuous body with a school­girl face—is all the rage thanks to lustedafter stars such as Shin Min-a and Shin Se-kyung.

For those un­will­ing to go un­der the knife, Korean beauty brands opened a plethora of colour­ful shopfronts in Seoul’s Myeong­dong dis­trict offering myr­iad prod­ucts in brightly coloured wrap­ping. The nov­elty pack­ag­ing and in­no­va­tive de­signs at­tract mil­lions of buy­ers from Main­land China, who surge down the nar­row streets jostling each other to get their hands on the lat­est cult prod­ucts—eye­brow lin­ers by Clio, mask sheets by Tosowoong, nail oils by Uka and jelly eye shadow by Mi­zon, to name but a few.

Es­tab­lished Korean beauty brands also saw their sales soar. “K-pop was an in­cred­i­ble boost to the beauty in­dus­try,” says Kather­ine Cha, the brand man­ager for Amorepa­cific. “If a star men­tions a prod­uct on so­cial me­dia or in an in­ter­view, it’ll be sold out in hours. Al­though I think it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that K-pop is not the only rea­son why Korean beauty brands are so big. Korean women have al­ways been more in­ter­ested in their skin­care regime than women from most other coun­tries. There is a very high value placed on ap­pear­ance here. To be pretty is a most im­por­tant thing.”

Chu clearly ad­heres to th­ese Korean stan­dards of suc­cess: she is flaw­lessly beau­ti­ful, with in­tri­cate nail art on her fin­gers, blood red lips and, al­though I’d put her in her mid-30s, I can’t dis­cern a sin­gle line or blem­ish on her porce­lain-white skin. How­ever, she’s hardly un­usual in this city of phys­i­cal per­fec­tion­ists. Walk­ing the streets of Seoul, I no­tice a dis­pro­por­tion­ately high per­cent­age of ex­tremely good-look­ing men and women. Yes, most ma­jor world cap­i­tals at­tract fash­ion­able, well-groomed res­i­dents, but in Seoul there is a uni­for­mity and ubiq­uity of beauty that I have rarely seen.

“I think it all comes back to the war and the dif­fi­cul­ties of the past,” says Bon­nie Lee, the founder and cre­ative di­rec­tor of fash­ion brand Suecomma Bon­nie, which has 52 bou­tiques in Korea and 40 else­where in Asia. “Af­ter our war, we were one of the poor­est na­tions on earth and to­day we are one of the rich­est. We have been taught to al­ways strive to be the best ver­sions of our­selves and to never ac­cept any­thing less than great­ness. And this ap­plies to our ap­pear­ance as much as it does to our busi­nesses. Just be­cause you aren’t born rich or beau­ti­ful doesn’t mean you can’t be­come those things with some ef­fort and per­se­ver­ance. And I think the fash­ion and beauty in­dus­tries are cen­tral to the con­stant quest for self-im­prove­ment.”

The Korean fash­ion in­dus­try was a slow burner com­pared to its beauty coun­ter­part, but it is now quickly pick­ing up speed. “K-pop is all about a head-to-toe look so it makes sense that both phe­nom­ena are equally pop­u­lar. Beauty paved the way, but I think fash­ion will do just as well if not bet­ter than the make-up brands as it’s even more cre­ative—look at the imag­i­na­tive de­signs by Be­yond Closet and KYE for ex­am­ple,” says YC Lee, a Seoul-born buyer at Lane Craw­ford, who re­cently over­saw the depart­ment store’s ac­claimed Korea Col­lab­o­ra­tion in Hong Kong. “The in­ter­na­tional pub­lic trust our beauty prod­ucts and know they are well made, which means that when they’re buy­ing clothes, they look at some­thing with a made-in-korea tag dif­fer­ently from a made-in-china one.”

The de­sire to dif­fer­en­ti­ate Korea from China was raised nu­mer­ous times in in­ter­views dur­ing my time in Seoul. “When I went to Cen­tral Saint Martins [in Lon­don] 10 years ago, half the peo­ple I met only as­so­ci­ated

Korea with China and the war, and now they’re all email­ing me say­ing they want to come out to Seoul for in­spi­ra­tion and say­ing how lucky I am to live in such a vi­brant city,” says Jin­woo Choi, who with de­sign part­ner Yeon­joo Koo cre­ated J Koo, a fash­ion brand that dresses stars such as T-ara, K.will and the Tasty duo, and which has been iden­ti­fied by Amer­i­can Vogue as one of five Asian brands to watch. “Peo­ple know that we Kore­ans have high-qual­ity prod­ucts that aren’t mass-pro­duced like they are in China— and be­cause such a high pre­mium is placed on cre­ativ­ity here, they’re go­ing to be orig­i­nals, not knock-offs.”

Later that af­ter­noon I meet Woo Youngmi, known in the fash­ion in­dus­try as Madame Woo, at her sleek three-storey Gang­nam bou­tique. Her Wooy­oungmi menswear la­bel is one of Korea’s most re­spected ex­ports—and Woo her­self is ef­fort­lessly chic in a pair of her own black men’s trousers and blazer. It’s the day be­fore Seoul Fash­ion Week and she’s hold­ing a launch party with Mr Porter, and the in­tim­i­dat­ingly glam­orous in­ter­na­tional crowd she has in­vited il­lus­trates just how far Korean fash­ion has come in the past few years.

Woo founded her brand, then called Solid Homme, in 1988 in a coun­try com­pletely un­recog­nis­able from its mod­ern-day in­car­na­tion. “Korea in the 1970s and ’80s had no fash­ion in­dus­try at all. It hardly had any in­dus­tries to be hon­est. Up un­til the 1990s, I would say that we were barely liv­ing in a de­vel­oped coun­try. Open­ing a fash­ion brand in those cir­cum­stances was prob­a­bly not very clever,” she says.

To­day, her thriv­ing busi­ness is split be­tween Paris and Seoul, em­ploys nearly 100 staff (in­clud­ing her daugh­ter, Katie Chung) and gen­er­ates about US$30 mil­lion in rev­enue a year. “Twenty years ago, I had to be bet­ter than the rest be­cause I came from a rel­a­tively un­known coun­try,” she says. “Now peo­ple come to a Wooy­oungmi show ex­pect­ing some­thing typ­i­cally Korean and cre­ative and I some­times think, ‘Look at the brand for what it is, not just for where it came from.’ But that’s a good prob­lem to have. I’m proud of my coun­try.”

Korea’s love af­fair with the West is now be­ing re­cip­ro­cated. In­ter­na­tional brands have sud­denly wo­ken up to the in­flu­ence K-pop has on the rest of Asia and what that means for their sales. Chanel held its 2015 cruise col­lec­tion in Seoul in May; Chris­tian Dior opened a six-storey flag­ship store in Gang­nam (the big­gest Dior store in Asia) in June; Lancôme and Dior have formed part­ner­ships with Korean beauty brands to de­velop their prod­ucts, and me­dia gi­ant Condé Nast is hold­ing its next in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence in Seoul in March.

LVMH has gone one step fur­ther than them all. Ear­lier this year, the French con­glom­er­ate bought US$80 mil­lion worth of shares in YG En­ter­tain­ment, a ma­jor K-pop agency that has signed acts in­clud­ing Psy, Big Bang and Tablo and ac­tors such as Cha Se­ung-won and Im Ye-jin. This is a bold move but un­doubt­edly a savvy one as prod­uct place­ment in K-pop shows means big re­turns—ear­lier this year, a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes fea­tured on My Love From An­other Star sold out around Asia in less than a week.

Whether the Korean wave is here to stay or goes the way of most fads re­mains to be seen. In all like­li­hood, Seoul’s doll-like idols will some day lose their ador­ing fans to a new craze. How­ever, fash­ion and beauty brands don’t need pop stars to sur­vive; they need strong prod­ucts and tal­ented de­sign­ers. Luck­ily, the cre­ative en­ergy com­ing out of Seoul is more ex­cit­ing than any­thing Asia has seen since the birth of the ma­jor Ja­panese fash­ion brands in the 1990s. So un­til Main­land China de­cides to roar with eco­nomic and cre­ative might, South Korea might be con­vinc­ing us to dress Gang­nam style for quite some time to come.

de­sign time Above: Yeon­joo Koo and Jin­woo Choi, the de­sign­ers be­hind J Koo. Be­low, clock­wise from top: Bag and bracelets by Chanel; shoes by Suecomma Bon­nie; Amorepa­cific Time Re­sponse Eye Re­newal Creme. Op­po­site page: Bon­nie Lee from Suecomma Bon­nie

the new black Above: Woo Youngmi and daugh­ter Katie Chung. Op­po­site page, clock­wise from top left: Wooy­oungmi au­tumn/win­ter 2016; J Koo au­tumn/win­ter 2016; Wooy­oungmi; J Koo

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