The artist behind the Korean faceLee Kyung-min’s big breakthrough as a makeup artist came about a decade before the Korean pop wave swept the Asian continent. While the heavily made-up look of the gaudy 1980s prevailed in Korea, Ms. Lee introduced a clean modern look ― with bright red lipstick and a porcelain skin finish ― to the shockingly beautiful Korean actress Choi Su-ji, a star of TV dramas.
That year, in 1993, the advertising campaign of Evas, a Korean cosmetics brand, and the actress received a prestigious Korean advertising industry award. A question rippled through the minds of Korean women nationwide: Who did the makeup?
When she started working on photo shoots in a humble studio in the Chungmuro district in the mid-1980s, she was still studying fine art in college, and Korea’s beauty industry was in its nascent stages.
“It was a time when actresses still did their own makeup and prepared their wardrobes by themselves,” recalls Ms. Lee, sitting in the top floor of the La Foret building, her own beauty empire in Seoul’s posh Cheongdam-dong district. “Back then behind the stage were so-called ‘makeup technicians’ who worked on special effects, but there were no positions specializing in making someone look more beautiful.”
Ms. Lee says the working environment was quite different, without the computer technology common these days.
“We couldn’t eat, sleep or rest unless we were told to do so,” she says. “What could have taken a day would take one week; everyone on the set endured grueling hours and labor just to produce an image that made the director satisfied. And then I got paid 30,000 won at the end of the day.”
Stars, students and ordinary women lined up for Ms. Lee, and her career took off. Ms. Lee now heads LKM Cosmetics Inc., which includes a makeup institute and salon division. She is a household name in beauty-conscious Korean women’s lives.
Behind the paparazzi images of Korean actresses, there is always something to do with Ms. Lee’s sweeping brush strokes. Big stars like Kim Nam-ju, Um Jeong-hwa, Lee So-ra, Oh Yeon-su, Shin Ae-ra and Han Ye-seul can be overheard in Ms. Lee’s office and salon. These actresses look like they haven’t aged since their debut; they have a perfect youthful glow to their skin, and they are stunningly charming.
“I had long predicted that Korean culture, especially Korean women, would be a leading force in Asia and in the world in the near future,” says Ms. Lee. “I know I wanted to do something all Asians could relate to, which was to have an international Korean cosmetics brand.”
With her latest cosmetics line, Vidi Vici, Ms. Lee hopes Korean women’s beauty can go international. “For the past few decades, we Asian women have benefited from Western standards of beauty, with its emphasis on strong features and colors,” she says, “but what Asian women wanted through makeup was something different from Western women.”
She says a good comparison is when the same color ink is put on a sheet of white paper and yellow paper; the overall effect is dramatically different. “One of the top priorities for most Asian women is to have their faces appear smaller,” Ms. Lee says.
Before launching the brand at her flagship store in Apgujeong-dong last month, Ms. Lee spent the past five years attending cosmetics shows and finding the right partners. All of her 135 products are manufactured in factories in France, Germany, Italy and the United States.
Working around the clock with Ms. Lee is an American product developer, Christine Baardseth, who helps not only in developing new products but also coordinating communication between Ms. Lee and manufacturers. Ms. Lee also created a partnership with CTK Cosmetics based in Seoul for the brand’s packaging and funding.
The director of Vidi Vici, Chung In-yong, who heads CTK Cosmetics, says the brand started off with 3 billion won ($3 million) and 16 staffers working in marketing, public relations, sales and management, design, customer service and product development.
“The brand is small but has a strong concept, which we believe will last long term,” Mr. Chung says. “Instead of starting as a sub-brand of a large company, we thought it’s better to do one main brand with a small company. Formerly small brands like Aveda or Bobbi Brown are still going strong even after joining a big company. Sub-brands with no character are prone to get canceled or blend into other brands in the world’s fiercely competitive market.”
Mr. Chung says Vidi Vici is focused in its first year on spreading its reputation through word of mouth, and he plans to open stores in major department stores this fall, followed by overseas markets.
“It’s about time that Korean consumers choose, not big names, but the brand that works for them,” Mr. Chung says. “It has been unfavorable for Korean companies to compete in the market, and the Korean government should support selling the image of Korea and Korean designers and their products overseas.”
In this glossy and glamorous “looks-matter” industry, what sets this artist apart from the rest turned out to be, surprisingly, invisible: confidence in her appearance.
“Beauty starts with confidence,” Ms. Lee. “If you’re not confident, then you can’t be perceived as beautiful. When I want someone to look different from the rest, all I declare is, ‘Trust me.’ The embodiment of my passion and philosophy, ‘Vidi Vici’ comes from my favorite motto: ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’ by Julius Caesar.”
by Ines Cho