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How the Korean Wave took over the Western fashion world

By Rachel Douglass


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Jisoo of Blackpink at Dior's Haute Couture show. Image: Dior

Unless you have been living under a rock, you may have noticed the surge of a not entirely new form of influential figure that has been taking over the world of luxury fashion in the West. While the stars of ‘Hallyu’ or the ‘Korean Wave’ – terms referring to the rise in popularity of South Korean popular culture – have already become regulars at fashion shows, their presence was cemented this most recent season with their abundant attendance across Paris and Milan Fashion Weeks.

It was particularly the appearance of performers in K-Pop – a genre of popular South Korean music that has swept across the world – that garnered much discussion throughout social media and elsewhere, as many of these celebrities rarely make an appearance at such public events. Most commonly referred to as ‘idols’, these stars are sweeping the fashion world with their enormous, and often powerful, fan bases. Their widespread appeal was particularly evident at the entrance of each of the fashion week shows they attended, with the streets outside rammed with screaming fans that showed up in their droves to get even just a glimpse of their favourite star.

Among attendees for the AW23 in Paris were members of the Grammy-nominated group BTS. J-Hope and Jimin appeared at Dior’s show, the former a new Louis Vuitton ambassador and the latter representing Dior, while Suga attended Valentino’s show following his appointment as global ambassador for the brand. Other attendees included Blackpink’s Jisoo, who was present at Christian Dior’s Haute Couture SS23 show, Bigbang’s G-Dragon, who attended Chanel’s Haute Couture show, and, at Saint Laurent menswear, NCT’s Ten, Seventeen’s Jeonghan and Lee Seung-joo, aka Løren.

J-Hope of BTS, Louis Vuitton's global brand ambassador. Image: Louis Vuitton

The acclaim of Hallyu (‘the Korean Wave’) was also apparent in the popularity of Netflix’s Squid Game, which, in 2021, became the streaming platform’s best-performing show – and still is. Similarly, Korean drama programmes – also suitably called K-dramas – are on the rise too, with many of their own stars being thrust into the global limelight. Meanwhile, the mark Hallyu is having on the fashion industry is so influential that it has become a dedicated topic of research at trend forecasting and consumer insights platform Fashion Snoops. The subject has been taken on by Nico Gavino, culture strategist at the firm, who has been studying the phenomenon from its birth to its potential future influence. Speaking to FashionUnited, Gavino shared some insight into his research so far, where he went in depth into the influence and power both the stars themselves and their fan bases hold.

The rise of Korean culture

So where does this fascination with Korean culture stem from? For those looking in, the Hallyu boom has seemingly risen abruptly into the Western public eye. However, this is far from true. The once war-torn country has ascended from economic turmoil through regimes that pushed for modernisation and industrialisation, with a particular focus on cultural production and information technology. “The rise of South Korean influence in Western culture is no accident,” said Gavino. “Over several decades, it has been a priority for South Korea to expand its global influence through the cultural industries.”

E'Dawn at Valentino's Black Tie show, AW23. Image: Valentino

Its influence was only bolstered by the acceleration of social media, which Gavino said “facilitated its meteoric rise”. Through these platforms, a global audience could come into contact with the various forms of Hallyu, from K-dramas on Netflix to K-Pop stars on Instagram. While in the country itself, and others in Southeast Asia - such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand - these stars have indisputable influence and a broad fan base, the early signs of their significance are already present in the West, particularly in the entertainment industry. BTS tied with One Direction as the most-awarded act in the Billboard Music Awards’ Best Duo/Group category last year, while satirical dark comedy thriller Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-Ho, became the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture at the 2020’s Academy Awards, catapulting the director and actors into international stardom.

In order to garner notability in this world, many of these figures, though mostly in K-Pop, have been primed from a young age, with the goal of becoming ‘the best of the best’. Entertainment agencies such as SM Entertainment and HYBE, the firm behind BTS, recruit potential talent from as young as 11 and raise them to become members of boy or girl groups each hoping to capture the hearts of global fans. The successful few who make it in their own right often amass momentous fan bases which dote on them and avidly follow their every move. However, while these groups are regularly and oftentimes unfairly considered hysterical for their actions, they have also been known to use their power for good, taking the opportunity to make substantial donations to charities in the name of their idol or influencing online movements to support other good causes.

BigBang's G-Dragon at Chanel's Haute Couture SS23 show. Image: Chanel

The power of the fan base

And their power has not gone unnoticed. The past few years have seen many luxury brands quickly snap up various K-stars as their ambassadors in an attempt to appeal to this often young and influential audience. Concerning K-Pop, luxury jeweller Tiffany & Co. named Blackpink’s Rosé and BTS’ Jimin as representatives, Burberry tapped three members from the freshly launched NewJeans group, BigBang’s Taeyang was announced as ambassador for Givenchy, and China-born K-Pop star Jackson Wang joined Louis Vuitton. Meanwhile, in the K-drama world, Song HyeKyo represents Fendi, LeeMinHo is the ambassador for Louis Vuitton, and Ji ChangWook was selected as Calvin Klein’s first Korean global model. But how do these individuals contribute to creating buying customers?

Jimin of BTS at Dior Homme FW23. Image: Dior

“The consumer base that brands can reach with Korean celebrities is two-fold,” Gavino noted. South Korean consumers, for one, have recently been named as the world’s biggest luxury spenders, with the segment rapidly growing in the country, where purchasing power continues to rise alongside their taste in luxury brands. Meanwhile, global Hallyu consumers are a really diverse group, with a broad range of demographics that is not specific to one generation. While older fans are often able to readily purchase items spotted on their favourite idol, Gavino noted: “For the young Hallyu fans who may not have the buying power to be luxury customers just yet, seeing their idols sitting front row at a runway presentation or seeing actors wearing pieces in their favourite K-drama plants a seed for the brand. There is a certain trust and aspiration that binds the relationship between super fans and celebrities, and this is particularly strong when it comes to Korean stars.”

To give an idea of this influence, take another member of BTS Jungkook – who notably has not signed any brand deals yet. The youngest of the group, and the voice behind the FIFA 2022 World Cup song ‘Dreamers’, has been dubbed by fans as the ‘Sold Out King’ due to his unintentional power to sell out products he has been seen using, wearing and consuming. In the past, he has sported items by the likes of Louis Vuitton, Prada and Balenciaga with many of these pieces swiftly disappearing off the racks – sometimes within minutes of his appearance – while still exceeding prices of 1,500 dollars. His influence has left fans wondering which brand, if any, will attempt to snap up the singer in an ambassadorship, akin to many of his band mates.

Gavino added: “A lot of luxury brands have their eyes on the Asian market, so this strategy is partially a move to capture the attention of consumers in the region. However, it’s not just that. Pop culture is increasingly global and Korean celebrities are the superstars of a new generation. When luxury brands work with South Korean idols and actors, they’re not just speaking to South Korean consumers, but also the Hallyu fans in every corner of the globe.”

What the future holds for Hallyu

Jackson Wang of Got7 at Louis Vuitton Men's AW23 show. Image: Louis Vuitton

It is this factor that Gavino believes will be integral to the longevity of Hallyu, with pop culture being increasingly decentralised thanks to the internet. He added: “For over 20 years, Korean media has gradually made its way through niche corners of the internet into the global mainstream. I don’t see the Korean wave as a fad, but rather an evolution of pop culture and the media landscape. South Korea’s entrance into the limelight is one of many signals that pop culture is no longer centralised. While today’s fashion trends often move at hyper-speed, cultural trends don’t move the same. They often have greater longevity and continue to evolve rather than die out completely.”

While the trend of K-Pop stars becoming ambassadors for luxury giants is not likely to slow down anytime soon, the Hallyu influence also has the potential to advance into the wider fashion industry. In Gavino’s eyes, this could be through an increased dialogue between South Korea and the West, possibly resulting in more Korean design influence in luxury fashion. Like the K-beauty movement – a trend revolving around Korean beauty brands which made its global mark in 2011 and is now forecast to be worth 21.8 billion dollars by 2026 – Gavino believes Korean aesthetics could also make their way into other forms of fashion, art and design, not just in relation to consumer tastes, but also the increased popularity of South Korean brands.

So Hallyu is clearly something that shouldn’t be ignored. Its irrefutable impact is only in its early days, and its current rapid growth still leaves room for uncharted development that can be defined by brands themselves. Gavino concluded: “I don’t think brands should wait until these stars are just as influential in the West to start paying attention. It’s important to start cultivating your relationship with global Hallyu consumers early. The future consumer will come from a generation that has grown up with K-pop at the top of the charts and K-dramas on the home page of their favourite streaming services.”

Image: Tiffany & Co.; Tiffany Lock campaign featuring Blackpink’s Rosé
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