how korea’s male beauty obsession is challenging gender norms

The South Korean male beauty market is booming — thanks in part to the country's mandatory military service and cult TV dramas.

by Alice Newell-Hanson
20 January 2016, 4:01pm

In April 2014, Yves Saint Laurent's Rouge Pur Couture No. 52 lipstick (a coral shade) sold out in stores around the world. On eBay, the $35 tube was going for upwards of $90. There was a waitlist of "unspecified" length on Yves Saint Laurent's e-commerce site. Someone tried, unsuccessfully, to fill their suitcase with handfuls of the lipsticks at a Melbourne airport duty free store.

Why? Because earlier that year, Jeon Ji-Hyun, the star of My Love from Another Star, a popular South Korean TV drama, had worn the shade. Or rather, a rumor had circulated that she had. It was later disproved, but this is what the beauty market is like in South Korea — collective obsessions, overnight sellouts, and wild headlines.

But now that everyone in the US has heard about glass nails and snail slime face masks, media attention is turning to the male K-beauty market. Which is understandable when you see the stats. According to a July 2015 report, men in South Korea buy more cosmetics and skincare products that men in any other country around the world, and four times more than the next country on the list, Denmark, contributing to a grooming market worth $1 billion. The market is also expected to quadruple in size over the next five years.

"There's a tendency to sensationalize, though," says Charlotte Cho, the co-founder of the New York-based K-beauty site "A lot of men do wear makeup in South Korea," she tells me over the phone, "and a lot of K-pop stars wear a lot of makeup, but not every guy on the street in Seoul is wearing eyeliner." She explains the boom in the sale of "cushion compacts" for men as being "part of a general culture in South Korea of people caring about their skin."

Charlotte's husband, David Cho — with whom she founded the site and who, she says, has a very elaborate skincare routine — has a slightly different answer though. Most men in South Korea, he explains, choose to complete the country's mandatory military service during university. This means they're graduating from college two years after their female classmates and entering the job market later.

"To me, how that relates to beauty is that it's about getting the best jobs," says David. When applying for their first positions, men who have served in the military have shorter professional resumes. "And Korea is very status-driven and hierarchical," David explains.

David served in the military for eight years, and even within the same rank, he says, command would be determined by the year men graduated, and then by academic successes. In the job world, too, precedence is given to candidates according to the year they graduated and, it's widely believed, according to your appearance. So a youthful appearance (sometimes thanks to products) is paramount. "Korean culture is so driven by how you look," David says, that companies will often require candidates to include a photo of themselves on their job application. "It's common for men to wear tinted moisturizer to interviews," Charlotte adds.

"On the face of it, such preening is at odds with South Korea's macho, socially conservative culture," reads a recent piece in the Economist. But it's during their military service that most men first get into beauty products. "Korean people have very high standards when it comes to what they put on their face," says David. And the army-issue camouflage kits and sunscreens are made with "terrible ingredients."

In response, Korean beauty brand Innisfree makes products specifically for men in the military. There are "extreme power military masks," sold in camouflage packaging that come in different formulas for "after field work" and "before going on leave." And the brand also sells a palette of brown and green makeup "that's better for your skin when you're applying camo," says David.

Other brands like Lab Series and Biotherm have also begun to double down on their men's lines, and not just to cater to the armed forces. On his last trip back to Korea, two months ago, David saw "a lot more men wearing BB or CC cream. It was always a millennial generation thing but now I'm seeing it with men in their mid-to-late 30s and 40s. It's all intertwined with the hallyu wave."

The "hallyu wave" is the meteoric rise in popularity of South Korean soap operas and music. And it's radically changed conceptions of male beauty. David remembers that "back in the day, older male characters (known as 'ajusshi') looked like fathers in K-dramas, now they don't: they have glowing, unwrinkled skin." And now, a desire for flawless skin is driving up sales of BB creams, compacts, and tinted moisturizers among men: "women and men want to look like these people and they have perfect skin."

Park Tae Yun is a South Korean makeup artist who works with the K-pop idol Rain, actors Chang wook Ji and Byung hun Lee, and the members of the pop group EXO — none of whom, he says, attend events without makeup. And most of whom are not afraid of eyeliner. Among the population at large though, he says, guys are mainly "seeking out natural looking coverage to even out their skin tone through products such as tinted moisturizers." They're not getting kohled-up.

"But K-pop stars are highly influential for Korean men in their 20s," he says. "And I believe they are an even greater influence to Korean men past their 20s because they are concerned about aging and want to stay on top of the trends." He adds finally, "It won't be surprising to me if the US follows this trend."

For a time, when David Cho was in the US military, he was stationed in South Korea. I ask him how the US soldiers in the barracks reacted to the Korean soliders' use of facemasks and other beauty products. "Besides the friendly banter, like 'are you a girl?' nothing much. It was always friendly. These US soldiers living in Korea wanted to assimilate — even if they weren't doing a ten-step routine, they did begin to try things."

While it's unlikely that men are going to be causing BB cream shortages across the US any time soon, 2016 could be the year makeup for men finally goes mainstream here, if our current K-beauty obsession continues. Watch The Sunday Styles section.


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Image via YouTube

charlotte cho
david cho
park tae yun
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