Stylenanda, the Seoul-based fast-fashion and beauty brand, is a power in the East but remained largely unknown to Westerners until Wednesday, when it was acquired by L’Oréal for an undisclosed sum.
Born on the Internet, the company has united a generation of young, upwardly affluent Asian consumers who clamor for a new type of fashion and beauty that appeals to Millennials.
Founded by 34-year-old Kim So Hee in 2004, the company has in 14 years ballooned from an online merchant of trendy goods to a $150 million annual business that’s spread across beauty, fashion, café and boutique ventures. It is solely distributed in developed Asian nations, its influence existing somewhat within a vacuum, as it is only available to Westerners via e-commerce. L’Oréal has purchased 100 percent of the company, with the sale largely tied to the success of Stylenanda beauty brand 3CE. It represents L’Oréal’s first investment in a K-beauty brand.
Kim will remain on as chief creative officer, but further details of the deal were not revealed, including the purchase price. Last month, the Korean Economic Daily estimated the deal at $375 million, although it was then reported that L’Oréal was acquiring only a 70 percent stake in the label.
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L’Oréal’s consumer products division president Alexis Perakis-Valat said of the acquisition: “We are thrilled to welcome this cool Korean brand in the L’Oréal family. Stylenanda captures Seoul’s vibe, edge and creativity. It is perfectly positioned to nourish the growing appetite for makeup of Millennials in Korea, China and beyond.”
L’Oréal Korea president Yann Le Bourdon added: “With this acquisition, L’Oréal Korea will substantially reinforce its presence in the accessible makeup market. We are very proud to welcome the group’s first Korean beauty brand and contribute to bring Korean beauty and style to the rest of the world.”
Stylenanda’s three distinct pillars — 3CE, a boutique business and an online store — are united by a unique aesthetic that speaks to the K-wave. It largely serves up this trendy, brash kewpie-doll mood at retail prices of less than $100.
In an interview with WWD last month in Seoul, Kim described the various intuitions that have led her to success. She had an early understanding of the power of online imagery and wanted to appeal to the Asian market with a homegrown sensibility. She chose the name Stylenanda, an early-Aughts Korean slang word used to describe a stylish girl, because “at the time, all of the stores had Westernized English names and I wanted to go with a word that was Korean,” she said.
The company — which Kim began while enrolled in business school — was hatched in Seoul’s Dongdaemun district wholesale markets, which she visited regularly to source product for her mother’s lingerie boutique. The young Kim took more of an interest in the markets’ clothes, though, and started to sell a selection online through Korea’s version of eBay, Auction.kr.
“I thought at the time, that at the original entry-level job you only make $800 a month, and I was making $100 a day. So I thought I would be so much more successful than anyone else,” she said.
The auctions took off, with Kim owing their success to model casting, makeup and styling. “I took pictures that conveyed more of a lifestyle,” she said, eventually starting her own e-commerce site in 2005. Two years later, the company grew from peddling wholesale merchandise to manufacturing its own designs, all made in Korea. It also continues to sell merchandise sourced in Dongdaemun.
Across Asia, there is a media-driven obsession with the “Korean girl” archetype, a phenomenon that resembles the “French girl mystique” that often bubbles up in North America. More K-pop concerts are staged annually in Japan than in Korea. Clothing from Dongdaemun market — the same industrious stalls from which Stylenanda was conceived — populates small boutiques throughout Asia. The rate of double-eyelid surgeries — commonplace for Korean pop stars, models and actresses — continues to surge across the continent.
As an all-encompassing purveyor of Korean-made and Korean-conceptualized fashion and grooming, Stylenanda is wildly influential. Combined, the company’s cosmetics and fashion dictate a certain beauty ideal that is promoted across Asia: a wide-eyed porcelain doll slathered in pink makeup, dressed in immaculately trendy clothes — all purchased within the last six months.
Kim herself exemplifies this ideal — on this day dressed in a starched white Jacquemus tunic and teetering atop chalky Maison Margiela boots. “I don’t want to consider myself the founder of Korean fashion, but I was the person who sparked fire in the Korean fashion industry for online business,” she claimed.
But more than a representative of Korean culture, Stylenanda has become a culture unto itself. The brand’s Instagram account, with 1.1 million followers, makes a celebrity of its models — who have been known to incite movie-star-like frenzy when spotted on the streets of Shanghai and have on occasion become tabloid blog fodder by dating male K-pop stars.
The cosmetics venture 3CE, which Kim started on a whim, began with only a few lipstick shades in 2009. It has since rapidly grown to encompass 75 percent of the company’s overall sales, with the majority of its consumers under the age of 30. Now a full-fledged line of color cosmetics, skin and bath care, it has become something of a Glossier for Asia.
The brand’s jewel-like tubes of lip gloss — packaged like small accessories — have become Millennial and Gen Z status symbols, blanketing stores from Seoul to Kuala Lumpur. They are sold at Sephora shops in Singapore and on the beauty floor at Isetan. Take a midmorning walk through residential neighborhoods in Tokyo and it would not be uncommon to see a schoolgirl applying her makeup with a hand mirror bearing the company’s block logo.
Kim couched Stylenanda and 3CE’s success on intuition rather than strategy. All of the designs she sells are based on “femininity that is directional, trendy and stylish. It has to be bright and bold and very unique.” The idea to start 3CE came from her lifestyle approach to merchandising: “When we did the look book I thought, ‘We cannot just do clothes, we have to do hair and makeup on the models. So one day I thought, ‘Oh I should just open makeup,’” she said.
“It is the same for how I started clothing — I didn’t have a concept but wanted to deliver needs for a specific, new customer. I wanted to make the cosmetic brand that I would want to put on my face, with the colors I would want to wear.”
The L’Oréal acquisition follows a bidding war by multiple potential investors. L Catterton also reportedly expressed interest, and at one point was allegedly in talks to acquire a minority stake.
While 3CE is often retailed independently of Stylenanda clothes, Kim still sees the company as a holistic venture: “I don’t see it as clothing or makeup, I think of it as a whole thing. It’s a lifestyle. I don’t know the difference between beauty and fashion — it’s a single package you have to put on. You cannot just dress nice without any makeup or you can have fantastic makeup and have bad fashion.”
Now overseeing 500 employees, Kim said she encourages a democratic environment that replicates the “fun” atmosphere common in Western start-ups.
“When I run the business meetings, I don’t only discuss with top executives. It’s an open discussion that even the people in their early 20s can participate in. I let entry-level employees speak freely and get a lot of ideas from them that I often incorporate in the business.”
This jovial atmosphere is integral to Stylenanda’s retail strategy as well. While e-commerce comprises a 27 percent share of company sales, the Stylenanda boutiques offer an immersive experience that help fuel digital rapport.
“I don’t consider women buying clothes and picking out makeup as work — it’s a form of playing around. I think that is one of the keys to our stores’ success. I created an atmosphere where people actually want to come play and put on makeup — to come as an after-school activity. I put a lot of focus on that,” Kim said.
These engineered playhouses take the form of cheeky hotels or pool clubs. The company’s Tokyo shop on Harajuku’s Takeshita Dori is an upbeat pink palace of Korean fashion. In Seoul’s Myeongdong neighborhood — a nexus for cosmetic shopping and duty-free tourism — it has built a store tailor-made for Instagram. The multifloor complex is heavy on mirrors with bright wall colors, flattering lighting and café treats that include lattes topped with halos of cotton candy.
“When I first created an off-line store, I really tried to find out what is the identity of Stylenanda off-line. I was thinking to myself – we have different sizes, but I only want one size out. We set a price point that is like picking up clothes from Zara but [because of the merchandising] it feels like you are buying it from a boutique store,” Kim said. A source noted that in line with her business savvy, Kim purchases the properties on which her stores are situated rather than renting them.
While L’Oréal signals the beginning of a new chapter for Stylenanda, Kim believes the company “hasn’t really started.” While she met with WWD prior to the acquisition, Kim shied from discussing additional details as the deal was in the works. She did note, though, that she thinks the business can at least quadruple in size — if not reach the billion-dollar mark.
“We haven’t really gone deep into the Chinese, European or U.S. market. We are looking to get into a distribution deal so we can grow even bigger,” she said. “The big brands like Chanel are in department stores, duty-free shops, local stores — when we get a real distribution channel, we can surely match or get even bigger.”