Korea corners the market on beautyLess than a decade ago, the image of Korean women was that they wore heavy make-up, chunky shoes and knock-off jeans, and dated men in dowdy shirts and shorts. Fast forward to the year 2006, and they are sleek and stylish, in sync with the global fashion theme, and socialize with metrosexuals at DJ parties. Together they have helped turn Korea from a fashion desert to an impressive fashion capital in Asia.
When they finished transforming, the country placed its stars at the pinnacle of the style tower; Korean celebrities’ star power sweeping across the continent and beyond is not news. The result ― Asian beauty nowadays is often defined by images of famous Korean men and women; Lee Young-ae, Choi Ji-woo, Rain, Bae Yong-jun, Ji Jin-hee are all household names throughout Asia. And what do they have in common? They haven’t seemed to age since they debuted years ago, maintaining perfectly rosy skin tones and healthy-looking bodies. They represent what’s going on throughout Korean society, and their images are precisely what beauty-conscious A-listers and wannabe’s in Korea aspire to achieve. Karyn Yun, the director of L’Oreal Korea’s Research & Development Center, agrees: “Note ‘healthy-looking,’ not necessarily ‘healthy’ here ―?That’s a work of art!”
When the made-up look of the ’80s prevailed in Korea, women went for it. Now that the natural look is in, Korean women have drastically transformed their appearance to attain a “near-perfect natural” look, even if the effort may be artificial, medical, cosmetic or whatever. In Seoul’s trendy district of Gangnam, beauty salons and clinics specializing in skincare and plastic surgery outnumber clothing stores and restaurants.
That to-die-for-beauty attitude has caught on beyond Korea. Every ephemeral fashion season, luxury brand representatives search for the newest face in Korean show business to endorse their latest product ― be it a Louis Vuitton store, a Bulgari watch or a Christian Dior compact. Last year, Peter Cheung, Christian Dior’s Asia-Pacific regional marketing director, picked Seoul to unveil Dior’s Asian premier fashion show. Admiring a drove of Korean entertainers in the front row, he said, “They’ve got the talent, the looks and the style that the young generation can immediately identify with.”
Asians are obviously fascinated with what Koreans find beautiful, thanks to hallyu or the Korean wave, and what’s popular in Korea can extend Asia-wide. David-Pierre Jalicon, a French architect, who travels frequently between Taipei and Seoul, said, “If there’s a Korean actor in the plane, there’s a stampede at the Taipei airport. If a Taiwanese actor comes to Korea, nothing happens at Incheon airport. I can see that the cultural influence is from Korea, not the other way around.”
Ms. Yun said, “In Korea, more than 80 percent of people’s interest in beauty has been on the face and the rest is on the body, but in Brazil, for example, it’s the opposite. In Brazil, we ran a study showing that women apply Helena Rubinstein cream all over their bodies.” She added that her lab conducts tests and research for 14 global brands sold under the French group in Korea. These include Lancome, L’Oreal Paris, Biotherm, Vichy and Maybelline.
She also noted a cultural difference in what defines beauty. “Koreans want their skin to be a tone lighter than their own color ― ‘Porcelain’ is what they like best. But, Westerners want to match their face color with their body, so they usually go a tone darker. And Koreans are very sensitive about getting that healthy-looking complexion, and place importance on applying ‘essence.’”
Koreans are known as sophisticated consumers among marketing experts working in the global beauty industry. “In choosing and using products, Korean consumers are sensitive, knowledgeable and goal-oriented. They have certain expectations from a product, and if the expectation is immediately met, then they will stick to the product for a long time,” Ms. Yun said, giving as an example the whitening product Lancome’s Blanc Expert ― a steady best-seller in Korea since it was introduced in 1997.
Will Korean women, stars and their fans alike, ever care more about their health than their looks? When asked how 30-something Choi Ji-woo maintains her youthful appearance and slim body, Lee Kyung-min, a well-known celebrity makeup artist who works closely with Choi, says the actress spends many hours in the gym. Ms. Lee, who has worked with Korea’s top actresses, including Choi, Kim Nam-ju and Kim Hye-soo, knows how to make faces camera-ready, making sure the skin has the “transparent glow of naturally healthy and youthful skin, without looking made-up.” When Ms. Lee launched her own brand, Vidi Vici, last year, she introduced a kit to help make a face appear smaller, because Koreans care about proportion for everyday photo shoots. Everyday? Yes ― or perhaps every hour. In Korea, you don’t have to be a movie star to be ever ready to be photographed, as anyone can enjoy his or her 15 minutes of fame by exchanging glamorous portraits by mobile phone or e-mail, or by posting their photos on blogs and Web sites. Korea’s wildly popular Cyworld Web sites have already given birth to online stars who receive thousands of hits for their looks and lifestyle.
Image-conscious Koreans don’t stop at just looking good on screen. The current fad is for a lean body and sexy abs. Former super model Lee So-ra currently sells a diet program consisting of fiber supplements, body gel and exercise; celebrities like Ok Ju-hyeon and Choi Yun-young are household names promoting yoga in Korea. “It was outer beauty before, and more and more the focus is becoming inner beauty. Koreans care not just about hair styles, but the healthy texture of their hair in order to look beautiful in a healthy way,” said Ms. Yun, stressing that hair too needs protection from overexposure to the sun.
What’s next in Korea’s beauty regime? “Developed countries ― and Korea too ― are getting older, and anti-aging will be on everyone’s mind. The near future is with a new molecule, Pro-Xylane, discovered by L’Oreal laboratories, which I hope will be used as an active anti-aging agent, say, in a cream,” Ms. Yun said.
Korean Beauty Guru’s List
FOR FACIAL SKIN CARE
Kiehl’s Blue Astringent This best-selling herbal liquid doesn’t strip natural oils off the face, yet gets rid of impurities. Ideal for oily skin types and oil-prone areas and excellent for soothing skin after shaving.
MAC Blot Powder For oily to extremely oily skin, this light powder works like a blotting paper. It doesn’t cake and removes grease more effectively than most powders, especially during the summer.
Mario Badescu Drying Lotion This world-famous pimple treatment, born out of a New York spa (www.mariobadescu.com), has a cult-like following. The pink solution cures unsightly pimples and whiteheads overnight.
Ainhoa Luxury Diamond This relatively unknown brand from Spain contains sparkling diamond powder as one of its ingredients. The essence enhances skin tone with caviar concentrate and diamond powder.
L’Oreal’s White Perfect Peel Home peeling has become a routine among the beauty-conscious around the world. The latest entry this year is this White Perfect Peel, containing lactic acid. The post-peeling cream with vitamin C can brighten the skin almost instantly, while evening out skin tone.
Glyquin XM This is one of the most popular skin bleaching creams to erase persistent facial spots or skin discoloration caused by sun damage. Containing 4 percent hydroquinone and alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) with sun screen SPF 15, the cream is one of the strongest potions commercially available. Treatment should be limited to small areas only for a limited duration, for an overdose can cause skin irritation.
Decleor Aromessence Essential Balm This wonderfully fragrant balm dissolves into the skin to sooth, purify and brighten dull and tired skin overnight. It is a truly multi-functional essence to cure all minor problems.
Shu Uemura Green Tea Cleansing Oil This is a one-step, no fuss, cleansing product that lightly exfoliates, isn’t harsh on the skin, and doesn’t leave unnecessary residue after cleansing. It works for waterproof mascara, matte lipstick and heavy-duty sunscreen.
Fresh V-tonic Soap This freshly scented, pure vegetable soap is a multi-purpose cleanser for face and body.
Yves Saint Laurant Touche Eclat This stick-type concealer is great for touch-ups under eyes, around nose and lips and anywhere else and to add a natural shimmer to brighten the face all day.
Cle de Peau Concealer Recommended by top makeup artist Jeanine Lobell, the creator of Stila, Shiseido guarantees its product will cover any flaws in the skin.
Jacques Dessange Cernes’ Expert The world-renowned hair designer came up with a cool formula for concealing flaws and moisturizing undereye circles. This light cream contains green tea extract and is sold only through beauty salons and stores.
L’Oreal Volume Shocking Mascara The mascara war never ceases between L’Oreal and Lancome. L’Oreal’s latest Volume Shocking Mascara is, like its predecessor, a two-step mascara, and its comb, not brush, can give you all the eye-awakening drama a face needs. Be sure to use a good makeup remover to take the product off.
Max Factor 2000 Waterproof Mascara Originally part of a stage make-up line, this mascara gives high-impact volume to your lashes and stays put. At a drug store price, it is very affordable.
FOR CHEEKS AND LIPS
Stila Sports Stick All Over Color & Benefit Body So Fine Most products designed to help add healthy glow to the skin are liquid, making them difficult to apply. Stila’s roll-on is ideal for adding a flush of healthy color to cheeks, lips and anywhere needed at anytime as it can fit in a small purse. For a luscious shine on face and body, add a dab of Benefit’s Body So Fine Cream.
Mac & Nars Blushes Beauty experts go for Mac and Nars for their accurate and lasting colors designed for a range of skin colors and types. When applying, professionals opt for brush sets by Mac, Bobbi Brown or Shu Uemura. Look for sable brushes for cheeks and eyes.
Guerlain & Laura Mercier Bronzers Bronzers for that sun-kissed look are essential for cruises and summer seasons. Beauty editors’ favorites are from Guerlain and Laura Mercier. The latest entry is the Tom Ford Estee Lauder Collection. Its Cheek Glow, especially the shade called “St. Tropez,” is a must-have for trendy jet setters.
Bobbi Brown Lip Gloss & Lancome Juicy Tube Check out the latest, never-fail colors of two all-time hit gloss brands. Unlike their challengers, they glide on easily but don’t run or rub off easily, while the color, gloss and scent are all about “perfect” fashion.
Kiehl’s Lip Balm This is a year-around must-have for all. Handy to tote around, the fragrance-free balm quickly absorbs to treat dry or chapped lips, and that’s not just lip service.
FOR BODY CARE
Bobbi Brown Beach Body Oil SPF 15 This lightly scented moisturizer and sun screen is designed for summertime and leisure activities. The skin remains moisturized without looking or feeling sticky. This is a spray-on to be packed in your weekend bag.
La Roche-Posay SPF 60 This light, grease-free lotion can protect against cellular damage to the skin from not only the sun, but also from harmful rays emitted by halogen lamps. Its patented active ingredient, “Mexoryl SX,” blocks UVB and UVA rays in the environment that can penetrate glass.
Kiehl’s Ultra Moisturizing Eye Stick This moisturizing stick with SPF 30 is for the eyes. It glides on smoothly and is specially-made for sun protection around the sensitive eye and lip area. It comes in a portable lipstick-like case and can be reapplied throughout the active day.
Aveda To maintain healthy-looking hair with good texture and a lustrous shine, or bring your asset back to life, trust Aveda products, formerly a cult brand, and now owned by the venerable Estee Lauder Group. To rejuvenate dull, overworked hair, spritz Styling Curessence for both restoring and styling. For daily wash, use Shampure, which is so nourishing you don’t even need a conditioner. For scalp maintenance, try the refreshing Rosemary Mint shampoo. For weekly cleansing or after swimming, try the Detoxifying Shampoo. To prolong an old perm or revive your natural curls, the protein-based Be Curly can rejuvenate curls and the Brilliant Medium Hold Hair Spray makes sure they’ll shine into the wee hours. Check out the latest Pure Abundance series that can add glamorous volume to your hair.
Frizz Ease Hair Serum by John Frieda To work against humidity for frizzy or very curly hair, this silicon-based serum does a great job of calming down the frizz factor without weighing down your hair. It is widely available in drug stores in the United States or on sale over the Internet.
by Ines Cho
Additional reporting by Cho Jae-eun