Sung-Joo Kim, founder, chairperson and chief visionary officer of Sungjoo Group and MCM Holding AG became the first Korean to purchase a heritage European luxury brand when she acquired the German leather-goods brand MCM in 2005.
At that time, the brand was doing $60 million to $70 million in annual sales worldwide. Ten years after Kim’s acquisition, MCM was seeing revenue figures of $600 million from over 500 points of sale in more than 40 counties.
Her story is indicative, not just of the worldwide trend for globalization as more people move between countries and cultures, but also of the changing nature of internationalization. According to Kim, whereas historically Asian people have been the ones internationalizing themselves by becoming more Westernized, today this internationalization works both ways — from East to West, as well as West to East.
“I grew up in Korea until college, when I went to America and started to learn English in the late Seventies. Apart from language, there was a totally different way of thinking,” she said “At that time it was about adopting Western behavior, the beauty ideals were Western — blonde hair, tall and slim — the internationalization was about Asian people becoming more Western.”
After returning to Korea and refusing a marriage arranged by her parents, Kim found it wasn’t feasible for her to stay in her homeland and returned to New York, where she started her career in fashion retail at Bloomingdale’s.
In 1990, she once again returned to Korea and opened her own fashion retail company, bringing international luxury brands such as Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent to the Korean market.
“When I was working with Gucci in the early Nineties, at that time a lot of the color scheme was brown, khaki, whatever, I would tell them that our Asian customers like red but they wouldn’t listen — now Gucci and everybody is doing red,” Kim said.
“Asian features require bright strong colors as contrast, if I wear beige, you don’t even see me. The sizes have also changed to fit Asians better, we are short, and petite and we pay attention to details, embellishments.”
These days, according to Kim, it’s common for brands to cater designs to Asian tastes. As consumer power has shifted, so have design norms, and eventually standards of beauty also follow suit.
“Since 2008 the consumer center for luxury has moved from West to East and more than half of the world’s population in the world lives in Asia,” Kim explained.
“I have seen the whole shift. Now the consumer power has changed to Asia, and in particular China, so has the style shifted and even the advertising and the look of the models on the catwalk. Before globalization meant Westernization, now it more and more means Easternization.”