How K-beauty conquered the world
Ever since Gangnam Style danced its way into the West by setting a YouTube viewing record, Korean pop culture has been as hot as kimchi. Caroline Hainer seeks out the secret behind K-Beauty, the beauty trend that is literally on the whole world’s lips.
THIS CONTENT IS ALSO AVAILABLE IN INSPIRE ISSUE 54 FROM 2016
In 2014 the British beauty brand Rodial successfully launched an entire skincare series based on the myth of “dragon’s blood”, a sap from a special tree in South America called croton lechleri. Dragon’s blood is said to have been used by South American women for centuries to heal wounds and protect the skin – common claims when marketing beauty products with an exotic natural ingredient.
Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. Who knows? Whatever the case, trying it out will cost you about 150 euros.
This is a telling example of how the beauty industry works. Consumers must surely have a lurking suspicion that a product sounds a bit too good to be true but the hope that it will indeed work appears to be even greater. That’s how it’s been ever since the beauty industry first began.
“Beauty companies love to single out a new miracle ingredient from the rain forest, French countryside or China. You never hear of any revolutionary ingredient being discovered in a lab in New York.”
Neither the industry nor consumers stop hunting for the Next Big Ingredient. Only yesterday it was stem cells; before that it was algae and plankton that would give us the skin of our dreams. And the more exotic and strange an ingredient sounds, the more attractive it seems to be.
So what will be the next big ingredient?
Many people would bet on snail slime. It has been used in South Korea for ages and is said to be both healing and anti-inflammatory. And no other country has been so trendy on the beauty scene over the past five years than South Korea.
To understand why Korean beauty products – or K-Beauty as the trend is called – have conquered the beauty industry recently, we must start by expanding our perspective.
“The Korean wave” is the term used to describe how interest in South Korean popular culture as a whole has grown over the past decade, first through Asia and then globally.
The symbol of this trend is, of course, rapper Psy and his peculiar song Gangnam Style, which in December 2012 became the most-viewed video on YouTube with two billion views. Simply put, we can say that Psy’s distinctive dance step not only opened the world’s eyes to Korean pop music, known as K-Pop, but also firmly put South Korea on the global pop culture map.
Just like Korean pop culture in general, K-Beauty first began expanding in Asia. The average Korean woman uses between 10 and 17 skincare products daily, and Korean TV series often feature product placements and dialogue about beauty and beauty routines. A TV character can casually remark that another character has beautiful skin and ask what products she uses. As Korean TV series became ever more popular in the rest of Asia, so, too, grew interest in Korean women’s strict beauty routines.
The Face of Korean Beauty: With her iconic platinum blond-dyed hair, Korean-born Soo Joo Park is the freshest face in fashion these days. Park, who moved to California as a teenager, worked with Chanel, Max Mara and Tom Ford before she became L’Oréal’s first Asian-American spokesmodel in 2015.
However, the main reason why K-Beauty has become a global hit in the beauty world goes beyond popular culture. What provoked the greatest curiosity and paved the way for commercial success are the animal ingredients traditionally used in South Korea. To Western eyes, they are just strange enough ingredients from a just exotic enough country. A perfect combination in the perpetual hunt for the Next Big Ingredient.
Take, for example, horse oil, which is extracted from horse fat and said to be extremely rehydrating. Or nightingale droppings, which are claimed to make the skin softer and are used in “Geisha Facials” at exclusive spas (Victoria Beckham is said to be a fan, claim the British gossip magazines.) Or that anti-inflammatory snail slime that has become the symbol of the new exotic Korean beauty wave.
“Beauty companies love to single out a new miracle ingredient from the rain forest, French countryside or China,” says the internationally recognised beauty expert Paula Begoun in her podcast Paula’s Choice. “You never hear of any revolutionary ingredient being discovered in a lab in New York.”
Begoun has carved out a career from reviewing beauty products based on their ingredients, and has written the bestseller Don’t Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me. She points out that beauty goes in trends just like everything else.
“Recently it was Japan, with Shiseido and SK-II, that were seen to be skincare geniuses. Now an entire industry agrees it’s South Korea.”
Somehow it is still surprising that South Korea in particular is in fashion right now. The country has no real natural resources of its own. No oil, gas or even minerals. It is also very small – just a third the size of Germany. Electronics and cars have traditionally been South Korea’s -major exports but now beauty products are well on their way to becoming the next big export success. The Korean authorities naturally perceive the export possibilities and take the beauty industry very seriously. In recent years big investments have been made in beauty technology to further promote exports.
The investment has borne fruit. Five years ago there were about 1,200 beauty brands in the country. Today the figure is nearly 9,000 and in 2014 South Korea for the first time exported more beauty products than it imported. The USA is now the third-largest importer of Korean beauty products after China and Hong Kong. Today Korean beauty brands like Drunk Elephant, TonyMoly and Too Cool For School are stocked by major chains like -Sephora and Urban Outfitters in the USA.
" The vast majority of older Korean women buy their products from a dermatologist or beauty therapist. It’s a serious business.”
Alicia Yoon is the founder of the webshop Peach & Lily, which sells and distributes Korean beauty products to the West, especially the USA. She travels regularly to South Korea, where she was born, to hunt out new brands. Her task has become increasingly tough given the market’s expansion and the huge number of new brands that are popping up.
“I always insist on meeting the brand’s chief chemist,” she says. “I want to hear their philosophy and see how their products are made. The vast majority of older Korean women buy their products from a dermatologist or beauty therapist. It’s a serious business.”
Asian bestsellers in Western beauty routine
South Korea is also a good inspiration for the big Western beauty companies, who are keen to see women in the West follow the example of Korean women and start using more skincare products in their beauty routine. Previously the Western routine has involved far fewer products and a “less is more” approach. Over the past decade this attitude has changed at the same rate as the beauty industry has grown.
Today the traditional European beauty brands also have products in their range that are clearly inspired by South Korea. The Korean beauty products that really took off in the West were the BB creams and their successors, the CC creams. These multi-creams, which smooth out the skin’s surface and even out skin tones, grew hugely in the USA and then Europe in about 2013.
Basically all the big brands from Georgio Armani to L’Oréal now have their own BB and CC creams. K-Beauty has even found its way to the Nordic countries. Kicks is the Nordic region’s biggest retail beauty chain and has just launched multi-masks under its own name.
“With K-Beauty, the focus is above all on skincare,” says Caisa Jansson, who is the editor-in-chief of Kicks’ own magazine. “Many brands we stock have released their own versions of Asian bestsellers in the past year, such as night masks. We’re also seeing that essences that are import-ant in the Korean skincare routine are also starting to find their way onto our shelves. Just a few years ago this type of product didn’t exist here in Europe.”
By now most consumers with an interest in beauty products may well have heard of BB creams but might not know of their Korean origins. It’s easier to remember horse oil and nightingale droppings. And somehow that’s also part of the attraction – the possibility of a new, as yet untried miracle ingredient that will give our skin a more youthful glow than ever before.
Maybe it really could be the snail slime?
TEXT CAROLINE HAINER ILLUSTRATION MAGNUS VOLL MATHIASSEN
Beauty on Invercote
AmorePacific is one of the leading players in the South Korean beauty industry. In 2010 it created a subsidiary, Pacific Package, which manufactures packages, bags and special papers for the Asian beauty giant. Since October 2015 Invercote is one of the paperboards used by AmorePacific.
AmorePacific’s increased sales over the past three years.
The size of Pacific Package’s factory in Cheonan.
The number of finished packages that left the factory in 2015.