How Korea is becoming the epi-centre of the beauty world.

Tamburins beauty concept store, Seoul

Tamburins beauty concept store, Seoul

I have very sensitive skin and have followed a strict moisturising skincare routine since my early teens. My focus has always been on keeping my atopic skin fully hydrated, but as I get older, I am experimenting with additional steps to delay signs of ageing. A good surprise is that I am able to layer additional serums and oils without triggering allergy, as long as I maintain strong hydration. A better surprise yet is that I have seen a very tangible difference, with a brighter skintone and a plumpier face. So a recent trip to Seoul, the skincare-multilayering Mecca was cause for excitement.

A multi-step routine focussed on skin care.

Huxley store, Seoul

Huxley store, Seoul

The 10-step Korean beauty regime has been equally praised and derided for its laborious approach. At the core of the multi-step approach is a skincare philosophy that is anchored in building a tailored daily routine for long-term results. Reward for this long-term approach comes in the form of the proverbial (but hard to translate into English) ‘bouncy’ skin, skin that is plump, looks and feels rested, hence glowing from within. Double-cleansing, with oil then lotion, followed by layering toner, essence, serum (or ampoule as they are called in Korea), eye cream, face oil and finally skintone correcting BB or CC creams, with the occasional sheet mask thrown in, is all intended to deliver the right actives in sequence, letting your skin absorb between each step. Layering also means customisation and choosing the formats and actives which are right for you at a particular time (be it externally-focused like seasons, or internally like stress). A few years ago, Korea gave the world the BB Creams and CC Creams, lightweight tinted moisturisers that evens out skin tone, without covering your skin natural glow. BB Creams are now part of every mainstream beauty line up, everywhere in the world. Whilst Cushion foundation have grown popular, sheet masks seem to be the next mainstream beauty export, which can we seen popping up everywhere outside of Asia, with global brands like Garnier leaning in.

 Korean skin ‘self care’ wooing the world.

Dr Jart flagship store, Seoul

Dr Jart flagship store, Seoul

Everyone now wants in on Korean flawless skin, and the self-care routine focused on skin health and comfort offers a welcome alternative to the heavily doctored make up contouring look. Korean beauty brands and retailers are expanding rapidly abroad, in particular in neighbouring China, and now conquering the rest of the world, one Sephora shelf at a time. Global beauty giants have incorporated Korean-inspired products into their mainstay line-up and we have even seen some Korean-inspired brands bringing beauty specifically to Western consumers, such as French-Korean brand Erborian, now backed by L’Occitane. "K-beauty” is now valued at over USD $15.2bn (here). Korea now has the fastest beauty innovation cycle in the world, with local brands churning out new product concepts in a as little as six weeks. Some Zara-like Korean players with global reach are emerging (Etudes House, Tony Molly and many more). Beauty giant L’Oreal wants in on the action and famously purchased 3CE (here). For Charlotte Cho, the founder of Soko Glam, a U.S.-based online shop for Korean beauty products (here), these beauty products are on the verge of becoming — in addition to electronics and cars — one of Korea’s biggest exports. Last year, for the first time, Korea exported more beauty products ($1.067 billion, according to the Korean Pharmaceutical Traders Association) than it imported ($978 million). So far, in the first half of 2015, according to the Korea Customs Service, the total export value of Korean beauty products to the U.S. was $52 million, a 60 percent increase from last year. America is the third biggest export market for Korean cosmetics companies, after China and Hong Kong. Sephora is now investing in Korean Beauty with dedicated shelves in their US stores and specialised K.Beauty DTC (direct consumers platforms) are popping up everywhere, enabling foreign consumers to decode Korean brands and trends. Just look at nudieglow.com in Australia and sokoglam.com in the US.

 A rich natural beauty heritage in the region.

Huxley store, Seoul

Huxley store, Seoul

There is much speculation that Korea has dethroned France as Beauty thought leader and innovator, and indeed, Korean beauty is well-positioned to continue shaping a global market that demands greater naturality and contemporary “Instagram-like” cool branding. Yet analysis about what shaped Korean beauty leadership is often misleading. Most often touted is Korea’s ancient beauty tradition. The Korean obsession with healthy beautiful skin can indeed be traced back to ancient feudal times, when women worked mostly in agriculture and used natural by-products to look after their skin and remedy the damages of sun exposure. Korean skincare expert Alicia Yoon (here) relates how, during these times, natural ingredients like camellia, mung bean, and rice were popular for the rich antioxidant benefits and hydrating properties, and they would be kept in small celadon tubs in tiny amounts as preservatives weren’t used as much back then. This history of time-tested natural ingredients has been passed down and is still incorporated into today’s beauty formulas. Yet the alleged historical roots of Korean do not differ dramatically from traditional approaches to beauty in neighbouring China and Japan (both having had close ties or territorial claims over the Kingdom of Korea). Common to all is an agricultural heritage that placed a heavy focus on porcelain-white skin as a sign of distinction, accompanied by traditional patriarchal values which kept women’s place firmly in the domestic sphere, indoors. And so it seems the reason for fast rise of Korean beauty is to be found elsewhere.

The Korean doctrine of export-led economic growth.

What is so particular to Korea to explain the country’s ability to generate pan-Asian and even global trends, from electronics to entertainment and most lately, beauty? Modern Korea has developed in reaction to its colonial past. Sandwiched between two superpowers, China and Japan, dwarfed in landmass and population size, Korea has been intent on building economic and financial independence since the end of the Korean war in the 1950s.  This lead to the establishment of a doctrine of export-oriented industrialisation, started with President Park Chung Hee in the 1960s. Faced with imposing neighbours, Korea’s survival was contingent on its ability to withstand economic shocks through aggressive courting of foreign markets, with the simple tenet of “when in doubt, export” (here).  This first led to the establishment of Chaebols, huge industrial conglomerates such as Samsung, LG, and Hyundai-Kia, which have been prodded by the government to constantly evolve and adapt to global consumer markets. A government push in design and branding after the economic crisis of 1998 has enabled the emergence of Korean leading brands. For Martin Roll, “The Korean brands are doing the exact same thing to Japanese brands now, what the Japanese brands did to US brands during the 1960s and 1970s. Samsung and LG have been the forerunners in creating world class brands in the consumer electronics industry. In the recent annual 2017 ranking by Interbrand of the world’s top 100 brands, Samsung was listed as the 6th brand in the world with brand value of USD 56.2 billion. LG has transformed itself from a manufacturer of cheap products to a brand of repute. Hyundai and Kia brands are creating a similar revolution in the car industry. Hyundai, which was once the source of jokes in the US industry due to its horrible quality, is now touted as one of best quality cars in the market and is competing head on with the Japanese giants Toyota and Nissan” (here).

From technology to popular culture, the Korean Wave.

The economic crisis of 1997-98 hit Korea hard and put a serious dent into the country’s international reputation, hence also prompting the Korean government to diversify its source of exports and generate revenue beyond traditional manufacturing. Korean authorities turned to packaging and exporting popular culture and content, as a means to diversify its portfolio and recover its standing. Martin Roll highlights how the incoming president Kim Dae-Jung and the Korean head of global PR agency Edelman co-authored a book “Korea: On Course – and Open for Business” aimed at global investors. “President Kim Dae-Jung pushed for information technology and popular culture as the two key drivers for the future Korea. Technology would create new industries above the traditional manufacturing Korea has been dependent on since it rose out of poverty and industrialized, and popular culture could become an important export product worth billions of dollars – while it would help rebrand Korea”. Korean exports of music and TV series have exploded thanks to access to well-funded government structures, helping to decode regional and international tastes and engineer many styles from girl bands to hip hop to TV novellas. This so-called Korean Wave or hallyu  is earmarked to reach 10bn USD globally by 2019,  actively supported by a 500 mio USD investment from The Korea Department of culture.

Where Korean pop culture and Beauty brands intersect to enable a manufactured beauty ideal.

Huxley store, Seoul

Huxley store, Seoul

At the core of the K.pop industry are carefully-positioned, picture perfect celebrities. The Korean Wave in entertainment and media has given the country a much bigger platform from which to sell its wares. In an entertainment machine that values pretty faces followed by millions of fans, beauty product integration became an obvious next step, popularising both Korean beauty standards and the routines and brands that enable them. The obsession with celebrity culture is not specific to Korea, but what sets Korea apart is its recent ability to manufacture an all-encompassing celebrity culture. Korea’s tumultuous colonial past has exposed the country to multiple influences from neighbouring Japan and China, as well as the United States, whilst creating a a strong collective need for emancipation, both in terms of particular ethnicity standards and societal and individual progress. For Sang Min Whang, a psychologist whose research is focused on the identity of Korean people, “Korean society is marked by a strong trend-seeking behaviour, which is quite typical of colonised peoples. In less than a century South Korea has experienced Japanese colonialism, from 1910 to 1945, and US military occupation following the Second World War. As the country underwent rapid modernisation and industrialisation, it looked towards western values. This was followed by big political shifts, going from military rule to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s (here). In that context, the Korean celebrity machine manufactures an ideal Korean ethnic beauty standard, that is widely emulated by using beauty products and an very widespread reliance on cosmetic surgery procedures. Na Jinkyung, a professor of psychology who specialises in comparing eastern and western cultures, points to South Koreans' inherent collectivism as an underlying factor. "There is a widely accepted social standard in terms of beauty," says Na. "South Koreans will choose to alter themselves -- such as through surgery, which we call secondary control -- in order to fit with their environment. South Koreans derive self-worth from the acceptance of others, in contrast to the western focus on [creating one's own] self-esteem."

K.Beauty is repackaging Korea’s extreme obsession with appearance as a social norm.

Im Soo-hyang stars in a Korean drama called “My ID is Gangnam Beauty,” about a young woman who has plastic surgery and grapples with image issues. CreditJean Chung for The New York Times

Im Soo-hyang stars in a Korean drama called “My ID is Gangnam Beauty,” about a young woman who has plastic surgery and grapples with image issues. CreditJean Chung for The New York Times

The Korea obsession with beauty is extreme, because beyond reinforcing the Korean ethnicity, the reemergence of traditional (and sometimes superstitious) approaches to Beauty link physical appearance to self-worth and morals. For researcher Valérie Gelézeau , “In Korea, where an appropriate appearance is not only a question of etiquette and respect for others, but also the expression of an inner state that could even be called a moral and spiritual state. The alliance between the body, the heart and the spirit, and the fact that the body is considered to be the primary interface between the group and the self, gives the face and the physical appearance such crucial importance” (here). The combined Korean obsession with Beauty and export-led growth means that Korea has been able to create innovation and breakthroughs in the Cosmetics industry (as well as cosmetic surgery), which are now finding a worldwide market. The Korean government is now turning its focus to supporting the blooming Korean beauty industry to go global with significant government funding and support. For example, the Korean International Trade Association (KITA), a nonprofit group that helps small-to-medium-size Korean companies break into the U.S. market by introducing them to American retailers and distributors. It also coaches them on pricing, the amount of stock they need to have to sell in the U.S., and how to package their products to appeal to buyers abroad (here).

 A shift to greater naturality, both in portrayal and products.

Artist Ji Yeo invites strangers to draw on her body in New York City as part of an art exhibition.

Artist Ji Yeo invites strangers to draw on her body in New York City as part of an art exhibition.

Such intense pressure on appearance certainly impact Korean men, but Korean women have been most impacted in a society that is still deeply patriarchal and where looks impact women job prospects, financial independence and romantic relationships. In the wake of #metoo, some Korean women are starting to rebel and take action. The “Escape the corset” movement shows women ditching some or all of their previously extensive beauty routine and embrace their natural look (here). Even Korean beauty brands are starting to notice and adapt, with both simpler routines and more inclusive advertising. The aptly-named “skipcare” offers multi-tasking products for a less time-intensive routine. In one step that could help ease the image burden on Korean women, the Seoul government last month announced it would phase out plastic surgery advertisements in subway stations by 2022 (here).

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In this context, the latest and hippest beauty brands I spotted in Seoul are focussing on clean and natural products, released in drops and with elaborate in-store theatre. Their marketing is eschewing perfectly-pretty faces and focussing on the experience and ingredients. The brand Huxley are creating contemporary beauty with a pared back approach to formulation and designs, and I can personally vouch for their products. Formulated with organic prickly pear from Morocco, they are sensational in texture and efficacy (here). It would not be long until Gentle Monster, the Korean ultimate immersive art & shopping experience that happens to sell eyewear, gets into the beauty game. The company recently launched their Tamburins concept, which offers a handful of beauty products designed in collaborations with artists in a unique(here).


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Both are offering a more grown-up and inclusive take on beauty, which is I expect we will see a lot more of in the coming months and years. Korean consumers are also starting to demand clean and green skincare – possibly even more so than international consumers, thinking of the sheer amount of products being applied daily. The app HwaHae provides audits for every major product, with detailed data on ingredients, the safety level, and aggregation of consumer reviews (here). I am currently working with Korean contract manufacturers and indeed noticing that they are increasingly engaged in clean beauty formulation and certainly responding well to our very specific clean formulation requirements. I believe that Korea’s strength in product concepts, fast innovation cycles and emerging focus on clean and green beauty will further push the beauty world centre of gravity to Korea, with no clear competition in the region from Japan or Korea. In other words, K.Beauty is on the cusp of taking over the beauty world.