As fashion month continues its inexorable roll around the world, the fresh faces sitting in the front rows may not necessarily be those of Hollywood starlets or American pop princesses.
This story first appeared in the September 10, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
In recent years, an increasing number of Korean celebrities — members of the cultural juggernaut known as Korean Wave, K-Wave or Hallyu — are becoming a visible presence in the fashion world.
This hasn’t escaped the attention of the industry’s big players. L Capital Asia, the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-backed investment fund, is even rumored to have bought shares in YG Entertainment Corp., the South Korean management agency of Korean star Psy. The fund confirmed it was looking into the company, but insisted that no deal has been sealed.
Already in New York, there have been appearances from K-Pop girl group stars, including Hyuna from 4Minute at Rebecca Minkoff, and CL from 2NE1 (pronounced “twennyone”) — also part of the YG Entertainment stable — who attended Gareth Pugh, the Harper’s Bazaar party, Hood by Air and was expected to appear front-row at Jeremy Scott today.
Euny Hong, a Korean-American author whose recently released book “The Birth of Korean Cool” charts the journey of Korean culture around the world, expects to see more from the girls of 2NE1 at fashion shows worldwide this season, as well as their counterparts from Girls Generation and the cast of “My Love From Another Star,” a highly successful TV drama.
“Particularly look out for the singer G-Dragon, the way that he dresses is already influential and will only become more influential. He’s like an Elton John or Ziggy Stardust figure,” Hong said.
G-Dragon and Taeyang of boy band Big Bang fame have both been spotted at Kenzo shows in Paris in the past, and the brand’s creative director, Humberto Leon, has long been a fan of what he calls the “great individual taste and style” of Korean celebrities.
“It’s definitely very daring what they wear, but they are also able to have fun with it. What [K-Wave celebrities] are really good at is mixing different genres of clothing. I think they really understand what streetwear is,” he said.
According to Hong, Korea’s cultural exports have been deliberately (and aggressively) pushed by the Korean government’s well-funded Ministry of Culture, and having an impact on the fashion world was always part of their plan.
“Korea’s decision to become a world leader in fashion is part of a package deal to become world leaders in popular culture. They always wanted to do film and television and so forth, but fashion was always on the list,” she said. “Everything follows the money and as long as the Korean government keeps throwing money at it, the Korean Wave will continue.”
The K-Wave, which first hit Korea’s neighbors in China, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan a decade ago, saw the export of K-Pop music, soap operas and films beyond Korea for the first time. This regional influence exploded worldwide with the unexpected appearance of Psy and his “Gangnam Style” in 2012. In its aftermath, fashion houses the world over are taking notice of the aura of cool emanating from Korea.
“Not that long ago, Asia was regarded as a purely consumer market, but not as a trendsetting region. Now I think we are realizing that Asia is bringing a lot of good stuff to the table,” business and brand strategist Martin Roll said.
Cindy Hahn, executive director of New York’s Concept Korea show, which showcases emerging Korean designers, has seen plenty of big fashion names embracing the nation’s celebrities. “Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada — these big brands invite Korean celebrities to their main shows because by inviting Korean celebrities to fashion weeks in Milan and Paris, they are using that celebrity power and influence,” she said, adding that she believes the trend will lead to Western consumers embracing Korean fashion and design.
“Korean celebrities, a long time ago, they only liked the famous American and European brands, but young Korean designers are now leveraging the success from being featured in the dramas and being worn by Korean celebrities.”
As well as its cool factor, there is also a commercial element to the introduction of K-Wave stars to fashion’s front rows.
With fashion and luxury brands competing for big-spending Asian — and particularly Chinese — consumers, many are looking for any advantage they can get.
“K-Pop has huge pulling power in Asia. The Chinese market especially exuberantly follows K-Pop artists and their style as they have an enormous interest in what artists wear and actively purchase those products,” Korean designer Juun.J, who Korean celeb fans include both Taeyang and G-Dragon, said.
“[Being affiliated with Korean celebrities is] a way for fashion houses to show they are in touch with the Asian market, and the diverse faces of Asia — with Chinese models fronting brands, and Korean celebrities attending fashion shows, for example,” Roll added.
Even with the emergence of Korean celebrities as influencers on the global fashion scene, it remains to be seen whether K-Wave can possibly have the same impact in the West as it has enjoyed in the rest of Asia — where shared cultural values and beauty ideals resonate.
“I doubt the Korean Wave will ever really translate to the U.S. in a big way,” Euny Hong said, though she believes it might have a brighter future in Western Europe.
Roll, meanwhile, sees Korean celebrity culture and fashion following brand successes, such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai into Western consciousness. “I think it’s the natural next step. It will take time, I don’t necessarily think it will resonate immediately; it’s something that will happen over time. I think the potential worldwide is huge, because the K-Wave hasn’t really arrived in Europe and the U.S. yet — but it will.”
Leon, who at his trendsetting multibrand store Opening Ceremony put a focus on Korean designers for a year in 2012, agreed. “Their global appeal has grown,” he said, adding: “Bands such as Big Bang are able to sell out Madison Square Garden, so I would say, yes, they have [what it takes].”