Why K-pop rules fashion week

Written by Robert Williams

This article was originally published by The Business of Fashion, an editorial partner of CNN Style.

Outside Prada’s menswear show in Milan earlier this month, the street was filled with screaming fans, most of whom appeared to address Korean pop group Enhypen, who were at the event. Worshipers at times sang along to the boy band’s hits.

“These Italian kids are actually learning Korean!” Perfect magazine editor-in-chief Brian Yambao exclaimed as he got into a car after the show.

A few years ago, such a sight would have been rare: most shows attracted only small groups of fans, spotted to spot the arriving celebrities. But as South Korean pop music becomes an increasingly global obsession, and as luxury megabrands sign more and more deals with its top stars, fanatical young followers of K-pop groups have become a fixture.

The phenomenon shows no signs of slowing down: in the past week alone, appearances by Korean stars including EXO’s Kai in Gucci, Enhypen in Prada and J-Hope (of supergroup BTS) in Louis Vuitton have helped light up social media with men’s fashion weekly content. On Monday, Dior announced it had signed a partnership with BTS member Jimin – who is due to attend the show on Friday – while Valentino cemented a deal with the group’s rapper Suga. (BTS, as a group, is currently on hiatus until “around 2025” due to members’ military service).

Even notoriously low-key “stealth wealth” house Bottega Veneta is currently in talks to secure a menswear deal with a member of BTS, according to sources close to the brand and the group. And in recent womenswear seasons, Blackpink members Lisa (Celine ambassador), Jisoo (in Dior) and Jenny (in Chanel) have attracted ever-larger crowds of fans while generating valuable online buzz.

Jisoo wearing Dior during Paris Fashion Week on September 27, 2022 in Paris, France. credit: Jeremy Moeller/Getty Images

The rise of K-Pop supergroups – whose influence swept Asia in the 2010s before catching fire in Europe and America – has coincided with Korean cultural breakthroughs in other media, such as the streaming sensation Squid Game and hit films such as Parasite and Minari. The audience of Korean talent, long prized by brands for the almost fanatical level of engagement of their followers on social media, has only grown in recent years domestically and abroad.

“We’re at this tipping point where Korean influence is at the epicenter of the cultural zeitgeist,” said Alison Bringe, chief marketing officer at fashion consultancy Launchmetrics. “Brands are looking for ways to activate on a global level and Korean talent provides that.”

South Korean talents became the most important celebrity voices to drive media exposure during fashion week, with social media posts by or about them generating a whopping 41 percent of celebrity and influencer buzz for the Milan womenswear season fall-winter 2021, according to Launchmetrics. That share may have risen to 50 percent at the recent Milan Men’s Fashion Week, according to estimates by fashion agency Karla Otto and marketing consultancy Lefty.

The influence of Korean stars online may even surpass the most famous, digital-savvy Western talents: for example, a partnership between Kim Kardashian and Dolce & Gabbana, for which the reality star and mega-influencer helped to “curate” and style the brand’s September 2022 show d. garnered $4.6 million worth of headlines and online visibility, according to Launchmetrics. Blackpink star Jisoo made a $7 million splash at the Dior show in Paris that same season, though, mostly just by showing up.

From South Korea to the world

Last year, South Korea was a bright spot for luxury brands among Asian markets as sales jumped to a record. A recent Morgan Stanley report found that the market has grown roughly 40 percent from pre-pandemic levels in 2019. South Korean citizens are now the world’s biggest spenders on luxury goods per capita and “on a number of leading brands , such as Prada, Moncler, Bottega Veneta or Burberry, we believe Korean nationals now account for 10 percent or more of their total retail sales,” wrote analyst Edward Auben.

But the increased pace of luxury partnerships with Korean talent is not only due to their growing importance in the star’s domestic market.

In China, K-pop supergroups are so popular that the Chinese government has tried to clamp down on what it considers “irrational” behavior by members of K-pop fan clubs, such as buying many copies of an album to sell juice for a favorite act . K-pop artists are also very popular in the small but fast-growing Southeast Asian market. Overall, Asian consumers – and the stars most likely to reach them – are likely to remain in focus this year as growth is expected to slow sharply in the US and Europe, which fuel the luxury industry after the pandemic ends .

Out of range

The appeal of working K-pop stars goes beyond their range: performers are rigorously trained and closely monitored by a strict system of studios that create, control and fiercely protect their images. This means they carry minimal risk to the reputation of the brands they work with.

According to fashion executives involved in the recent wave of K-Pop partnerships, deals with these stars are also seen as good investments because of the more “prescriptive” influence they have with audiences. Many are less shy than Western artists about specifically recommending brands or products to fans. In turn, their fans often see buying the products endorsed by the stars as a way to show love for their favorite artists.

Kai and Francois-Henri Pinault are seen at the Gucci show during Milan Men's Fashion Week on January 13, 2023 in Milan, Italy.

Kai and Francois-Henri Pinault are seen at the Gucci show during Milan Men’s Fashion Week on January 13, 2023 in Milan, Italy. credit: Daniele Venturelli/Getty Images

Still, industry sources say the deals aren’t just about boosting sales. K-Pop stars are often expressive stylists, willing to experiment with fashion as a way to stand out within their respective supergroups. This makes them exciting partners for brands and designers looking to create memorable and exciting fashion moments.

Suga “has a deep understanding of fashion,” a Valentino spokesperson said, and has become a “key inspiration and reference point” for designer Pierpaolo Piccioli this year.

At fashion week, brands seem happy to stoke the fire of local K-pop fanatics who show up at their events. Dior even sent out a statement last Thursday confirming that Jimin will be attending their upcoming menswear runway. The show “is an opportunity to celebrate Dior’s relationship with the member of the 21st century pop icon BTS,” the brand said.

Read more stories from The business of fashion here.

Top Image Caption: ENHYPEN attends the Prada Menswear Fashion Show on January 15, 2023 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Jacopo M. Raule/Getty Images for Prada)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *