Hubert Burda Media

Special K

Their understanding of Asian skin have propelled Korean beauty brands into the spotlight. 

Special K

In the past decade, South Korea has become a point of interest. CNN dubbed the nation “Hollywood of the East” (in 2010) and stressed that it is now looked up to by millions of fans from countries ranging from Japan to Indonesia. With the popularity of its K-pop celebrities — and their flawless skin — came curiosity about the Korean lifestyle, including its beauty secrets.
The head honchos of Korean beauty brands such as Sulwhasoo, Laneige and innisfree all agree on one thing: Consumers are so captivated by the beauty of these celebrities, or the idea of beauty they perpetuate, that they feel the need to emulate these public figures. This in turn has generated much interest in the country's beauty brands and products.
Case in point: When word got out that Yoona, a member of massively popular band Girls' Generation used innisfree's mineral melting foundation, the product became a major hit. And when Sandara Park of girl group 2NE1 became the face of cosmetic brand Clio, the brand's eyeliner became even more visible in the market. These products remain the respective brand's bestsellers.
Kim Young-mock, innisfree global marketing manager, explains: “A general trend among women in Korea, as well as those in the Asian region, is to imitate make-up looks and heed the beauty tips of popular Hallyu (Korean wave) celebrities. This does help K-beauty brands in its visibility.”
Endorsements and recommendations, however, can only bring a brand so far. It's the actual efficacy of these skincare and cosmetics products that have sealed their reputation of being a force to be reckoned with in the international beauty arena.
To ensure their products are as innovative as they are well-received, these brands dedicate a large portion of resources to the research and development processes. Laneige, which dedicated 20 years to water science research, is one example.
Over the two decades, they studied more than 100 types of natural water from 35 countries in their quest to formulate skin-perfecting water. Today, the formulation is applied to a range of products credited with helping women achieve a supple and radiant complexion.
And when Korean women complained about the lack of sufficiently black eyeliners (they deemed those on the market to be ‘hazy black'), Clio responded by adding a unique carbon black ingredient that boosted its eyeliner's colour pay-off. “That was the first time such an ingredient was included in an eyeliner formulation in Korea and today, this product is called the Kill Black Eyeliner in our collection,” says Clio president Hyun-Ok Han.
Another innovative heavyweight is Sulwhasoo. Dubbed as the number one brand in South Korea's luxury cosmetics market, it believes in using indigenous plants and herbs such as ginseng, peony and Solomon's seal in its products. To ensure efficacy of these ingredients' beautifying and healing properties, the brand uses the 500-year-old Poje method of refining medicinal herbs.
“We recreate the properties of legendary medicinal plants of Asia by tapping on the technology of modern science. By doing so, we have been able to present this range of products that addresses skin needs from the inside out,” says Katherine Sek, commercial general manager of Amorepacific Singapore, the holding company of Sulwhasoo and Laneige.
While brands such as these are relatively new introductions to the international market, it is worthwhile to note most top K-beauty brands are well-established. Clio has been around for 21 years, Laneige for 20 and Sulwhasoo for 17.
This means they are not only backed by a wealth of experience, but have a much better understanding of the problems and needs of Asian women than their Western counterparts.
Take, for example, innisfree. The brand takes great pride in having developed eight different skincare formulations, each of which addresses different skincare issues commonly faced by Asian women such as oily skin.
Likewise, Sulwhasoo has conducted a comprehensive study on women's skin in 12 cities across Asia. They've even conducted a clinical study of its wildly popular First Care Activating Serum on Chinese women. This Asia-focused research and its resultant products is likely the reason why an increasing number of Asian users are turning to Korean brands for their beauty needs.
We've heard enough real life stories that attest to this. There is this former Prestige cover girl, who once waxed lyrical to us about Clio's gelpresso eyeliner (that has sold some 2.8 million eyeliners since 2009); another who raved about how supple her skin looked after using the Laneige Water Bank mask. There's also Korean celebrity Park Jin-hee, who loved Sulwhasoo's products so much that she — and not a staff member — was spotted at a store in Seoul testing and purchasing them personally.
Another thing to love about K-beauty brands is its constant innovative spirit. Not too long ago, BB creams were the must-haves; now, it is the BB cushion. Such a massive hit was this invention that Amorepacific, makers of the first BB Cushion, was given the Excellence Award by South Korea's Ministry of Knowledge Economy.
“The unique cushion under the Sulwhasoo and Laneige brands has 800,000 pores, which finely divide the BB cream for a lighter textured make-up, a popular trend with beauty aficionados. It comes with a puff that has been designed to pick up just the right amount of emulsion for a smooth application,” says Laneige General Manager Doreen Chia.
Other K-beauty brands such as Etude House, The Face Shop and innisfree have since followed suit by rolling out their respective versions. Likewise, their BB cushions promise to provide comprehensive coverage, while simultaneously doing at least one of these things: Hydrate, protect skin from the sun's UV rays and improve skin elasticity.
If its standing in the industry today is anything to go by, K-beauty is poised to scale greater heights and South Korea may well take over as the reigning purveyor of beauty products in the world.