K-beauty continues to gain ground in the West: Enthusiasts extol the virtues of the products, but say brands should consider skin color

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K-beauty continues to gain ground in the West: Enthusiasts extol the virtues of the products, but say brands should consider skin color



Korean beauty, or simply K-beauty, has long dominated the Asian beauty market, with exports to major regional economies, such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan, increasing every year. Recently, K-beauty’s international focus has shifted. Following the increasing popularity of K-pop and K-dramas in the United States and Europe, Korean cosmetics companies are emphasizing markets in the West.

Korean cosmetics exports to the United States hit more than $400 million in 2017 - a 28 percent increase from the previous year - according to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (Kotra).

Amorepacific, which owns popular beauty brands like Etude House, Innisfree, Laneige and Sulwhasoo, announced in September that it would increase its sales by 50 percent by year 2025 in 50 countries. Although the company has been making inroads in the west since 2002, when it first entered the Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York, it was not until recently that it decided to increase the number of its stores in western countries.

The company announced in December that it would open five more Innisfree stores in the United States and Canada by 2019 with the aim of building its market share in the West.

“We will dream big for our [expansion] in eastern markets and fly high towards the western markets,” said Chairman Suh Kyung-bae during the company’s 73rd anniversary celebration in September.


Cosmocos, which own the Danahan, Vprove and Flor de Man beauty brands, is also targeting western markets. It announced in December that it opened its first Beauty Credit store in New York, and will open more stores in New York and in Maryland this year.

Other Korean cosmetics brands, such as VDL, Mediheal and Dewycel, are also gearing up for American expansion.

Last year, a number of Korean and western beauty companies collaborated. In November, Korea’s Tonymoly teamed up with Italy’s Moschino to introduce a makeup collection with products ranging from eye shadow palettes to lip tints and cushion pacts. They are packaged in black and gold and stamped with Moschino’s logo.

In September, Memebox teamed up with France’s Sephora and launched a Korean beauty line called Kaja, which is “let’s go” in Korean. Kaja is aimed at introducing inclusive and localized versions of Korean cosmetics in the United States, with 47 beauty items that can match a diverse range of skin types.

“We will overcome the limits of K-beauty and become a brand that [adjusts to the needs of] the customers,” said Memebox CEO Ha Hyung-seok. “We plan to use technology and innovative ideas to spread K-beauty.”

Some western companies have introduced their own versions of K-beauty lines. Irish fashion retailer Primark, for instance, offered a 12-piece K-beauty collection in summer and named it K-pop. The collection includes Bubble Blush cushion blusher, Sugar Rush eye shadow palette, Eye Candy eyeliner and Super Cheeky cheek tint - all inspired by the trendy colors of K-beauty, like coral and pink.



Foreign YouTubers review K-beauty

Although the spread of K-pop is one of the biggest drivers behind K-beauty’s popularity, the increasing number of foreign beauty bloggers reviewing Korean cosmetic products has also contributed to its spread abroad. According to Kotra’s “2018 Global Market Report,” one strategy to globalize K-beauty is to promote it through social media in order to appeal to young customers.

With over 15 million videos related to K-beauty on YouTube, beauty bloggers of different races and genders are taking K-beauty to a new level, reinterpreting with their own standards and spreading K-beauty around the globe.

A YouTuber who goes by the name Kennie makes reviews of Korean cosmetics and offers tutorials. Born in Detroit, Michigan, she started her channel in 2012 to simply learn the Korean language. She then started merging her two interests - Korean-related topics and makeup - into her YouTube videos, and she now has over 250,000 followers on her channel.

Though, one subject that troubles her is the lack of K-beauty options for darker skin.

“As western consumers begin to hold domestic brands accountable for completely excluding darker-skinned people from their consumer base, I noticed that Korean brands were entering into the international market and not expanding their ranges to fit the new market,” she told the Korea JoongAng Daily.

“As a darker-skinned K-beauty enthusiast, I find the most frustrating part of participating in the international K-beauty phenomenon is the idea that I do not have the right as a prospective consumer to request shades that will match people who look like me, even though the products are being sold in my backyard. There are Korean brands being sold in major U.S. supermarkets and cosmetic stores, in areas with highly diverse populations, and people with dark skin are completely excluded from enjoying that expansion. Dark skin is not exclusive to a particular race. You can be any race or ethnicity and have dark skin. It’s just interesting to see how dark skin is constantly seen as an unreliable consumer base when that is not at all the case.”

Although she wishes for more variety in Korean cosmetics, she is enthusiastic about the expansion of K-beauty in international markets.

“I think the expansion is incredible,” she said. “K-beauty is the epicenter for some of the most incredible cosmetic innovations, and I love that I can get them at my local Walmart or CVS.”

Ultimately, she proves that K-beauty products can fit dark skins - you just have to apply them well in your own way.

Her future goal is “to continue make content that bridges the gap between K-beauty and international cosmetic industries.”

Beauty blogger Morgan Alison Stewart, who runs the channel The Beauty Breakdown, also believes that there should be more shade availability in K-beauty.

“I’d love to see Korean brands come out with more shade availability,” she told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “Also, I think Korean beauty brands need to have skin care and makeup that doesn’t superficially brighten the skin. I’m all for brightening the skin in the sense of correcting hyper pigmentation, but I think a lot of times, Korean products have ingredients that make the skin look immediately lighter. I’m not a fan of that, because to me, it looks like my face doesn’t match the rest of my body.”

Other than that, however, she is a big fan of K-beauty. She defines K-beauty as “effective beauty with good quality ingredients, cute packaging and innovative products.”

Her channel, with more than 500,000 subscribers, includes not only reviews of Korean cosmetics, but also K-pop-inspired tutorials, makeup tips, skin care routine, cosmetics shopping and travel.

The reason she started creating K-beauty-related videos was the lack of English reviews.

Beauty blogger Edward Avila’s channel dates way back to 2007. He was living in California until he moved to Korea few years ago. He watched K-beauty YouTube channels back in the United States, but when he visited the country, he thought, “I’ll be in Korea, so why not [make videos on] K-beauty?”

He has over one million subscribers to his YouTube channel, and 42 percent of the overall viewers are from the United States. Only 0.7 percent are from Korea. His videos are a mix of K-pop idol makeup coverage, reviews and, more recently, makeovers of his friends. In some of his videos, he interviews K-pop singers like Aoora and Hotshot.

“These days, I would give my friends a style makeover, hair makeup, go shopping together, buy clothes and things like that,” he said in an interview with JoongAng Daily. “These days, people don’t really care about reviews, even makeup tutorials. People just like me for my personality.

“K-beauty is more about a certain look rather than certain products,” he added. “You can do Korean makeup with American products. It’s about how you apply them. When it comes to the market ? that’s the market.

BY YEO YE-RIM [yeo.yerim@joongang.co.kr]

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