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Riding the K-beauty wave
IF THE popularity of Descendants of the Sun and the announcement that South Korean e-beauty startup Althea has just raised a Series A funding of US$3.5 million is anything to go by, the hallyu wave isn't going to be on the ebb any time soon. Far from suffering from K-beauty fatigue, consumers here are eyeing Song Hye Kyo's ombre pout (created with Laneige's Two Tone Lip Bar, to be exact) and lapping up cosmetics boosted with ingredients as exotic as plant placenta, deep ocean water and even the humble lalang plant. Everyone has gotten in on the Korean craze, from chaebol LG Household & Healthcare being commissioned by the country's government to create the luxe brand History of Whoo, to health and beauty giant Guardian launching its own brand of affordable Korean-formulated and manufactured skincare line Crystal Moist.
"The beauty about beauty is that it never stops evolving," says Joyce Teh, president of TFS Singapore, which distributes History of Whoo alongside other major Korean brands such as The Face Shop.
"Although there are many more Korean beauty brands in Singapore today compared to just six years ago, the technology that goes into an even finer powder, a cushion that gives smoother, more even makeup base finish, a new lipstick effect or finish . . . it never ends. Fashion and beauty trends are cyclical. To me, as long as the brand is able to renew itself and keep ahead of the trend curve, it'll continue to thrive."
Recently holding a blockbuster event at Tangs fronted by no less than three celebrities - Zoe Tay, Jade Seah and Jean Danker - the brand is going all out to push products such as the S$205 Bichup Ja Saeng Essence. Apart from the use of medicinal herbs and even a plant placenta derivative - said to activate skin cells to repair themselves - History of Whoo also has a compelling backstory. Launched in South Korea in 2003, it interprets the traditional beauty formulas used by empresses from the Eastern Royal Courts and through modern technologies, developed various skincare and makeup lines that are fit for a queen.
"The primary complex contained in Whoo's skincare products is gongjinbidan based on an 800-year old secret imperial anti-ageing treatment that was made for the Korean emperors," adds Ms Teh.
For those who don't quite need the royal treatment but are obsessed with Korean skincare, there's Crystal Moist at the other end of the spectrum with nothing priced above S$26. Its star ingredients are a mineral-rich Korean deep ocean water and a brightening complex derived from five Korean botanical extracts. Similarly, Laneige - the brand fronted by Descendants of the Sun's Song Hye Kyo - has also upgraded its Basic Care Line with a price point hovering around the S$40 mark.
"Korean consumers are some of the most sophisticated in the world and beauty brands have to keep up with the expectations of local skincare fans," says Segolene Defline, corporate brand director, Group Health & Beauty, The Dairy Farm Group (parent company of Guardian).
"This has resulted in the development of multi-step regimens, and products that work in synergy to boost one another from a collection."
South Korea is one of the world's biggest cosmetics spenders per capita and boasts the savviest skincare fanatics. Indeed, while the price of each product is low, the Crystal Moist skincare regimen consists of over seven steps, designed to be carried out twice a day. It might seem to be a clever ploy to sell more products, but the texture of each formulation is lightweight enough for our Asian weather and can be layered to maximise its effects.
"Korean skincare is getting a lot attention and its popularity is taking the world by storm," adds Ms Defline, who has over a decade of experience in skincare.
"This is especially true in the neighbouring Asian markets, like Hong Kong and China. Korean beauty researchers and scientists create innovative products using advanced technology and dynamic formulations which are tailor-made for Asian skin."
Asia also isn't the only region where Korean cosmetics reign supreme. South Korean cosmetics startup Memebox has announced that it raised US$29 million from investors including Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang. Its subscription box model ships out cool products such as a powder cleanser that soaps up into a lather, a black sesame hot mask, or colour-correcting BB cushions that resemble the colour and texture of pandan cake.
Even luxury beauty e-commerce site Beautyfresh - founded in Switzerland and launched here last year - stocks 11 Korean beauty brands including Sulwhasoo and Laneige, alongside popular European or US brands such as Lancome, Sisley and La Mer.
"Korea's climate and Korean culture create a need for women to constantly protect and enhance their appearance," says Jack Wong, founder of Beautyfresh.
"Korean products in general have a much more approachable price point. In addition, their marketing drives and ingredients are more innovative, such as snail slime masks or horse oil creams. In the mass market segment, Korean brands have been doing very well due to their extensive markets and retail touch points."
This product innovation often stems from a nature-meets-technology philosophy when it comes to product development, amped up with touches of Korean history and culture.
"When I get to talk with Westerners about how Korean women use milk or drinkable yogurt to cleanse their faces and bodies, most of them are fascinated by it and become very interested," says makeup creative director of Korean makeup brand Moonshot Jenny Park.
"And when they actually try for themselves and see the great results, many come to accept that there are different ways of looking at it and that in the end, it's not really a strange regimen. These sort of experiences can and have been the inspiration of those new, unexpected, and creative beauty products. And as you can expect, Korean beauty products are closely connected to Korean culture."
Moonshot, which is available here at beauty retailer Sephora, was in fact founded in 2014 by the Korean entertainment company behind massive K-pop names Psy, Big Bang and 2NE1, YG Entertainment. Most K-beauty brands recognise and bank on the popularity of Korean entertainers: Moonshot held an event earlier in the year for 200 guests eager to catch a glimpse of K-pop idol Dara; while mass market brand Crystal Moist has a K-pop brand ambassador, Ju Eun Young from girl group TwoX, who made an appearance at the brand's launch.
"What makes people focus on Korean beauty is the popularity of K-pop, Korean dramas and TV shows," adds Ms Park, who previously worked for Shu Uemura and NARS.
"To be specific, as the stars, actresses, and TV personalities became more and more popular, fans abroad became interested in what beauty products they were using."
Whether it's star power, sexy ingredients or Asian-centric formulations, Korean beauty trends are here for the long haul. Thankfully, with its plethora of trends ranging from the excretions of molluscs to creams named after every letter of the alphabet, this is one beauty category that will never get dull.