Hubert Burda Media

The Women Behind Your Next K Beauty Obsession

Sarah Lee and Christine Chang launched online retailer Glow Recipe to bring the best of K Beauty to addicts around the world.

Jelly packs. Milk peels. Blur creams. Modelling masks. Pressed serums. You can consider yourself a poet in the language of beauty and still be left clueless by some of the innovations forged by the makers of Korean skincare lines. Which is where the American start-up Glow Recipe comes in. In an age when vanity projects are a dime a dozen, best friends Sarah Lee and Christine Chang are two veterans of the beauty industry who decided to take their know-how of the Korean business of vanity and sell it to the world – in a way that’s surprisingly “un-vain”.

Although Glow Recipe maintains an online boutique, its virtual shelves stocked to the rafters with the hottest and latest from Seoul, what’s more interesting about the company isn’t its public presence, but its incubation practice. Behind the scenes, Lee and Chang work with Korean beauty manufacturers, as well as American distributors such as Sephora and Target, to redevelop product packaging, names and collateral so that it’s coherent to the rest of the world.

“We introduced this mask – they’re called ‘modelling masks’ in Korea – but it doesn’t make sense,” explains Lee. “We didn’t want people to laugh at it, or think that it’s gimmicky, or not serious. It’s based on the tradition of detoxifying the skin [that’s been prevalent] in spas in Korea for decades. So we changed the name to rubber masks. We recently launched multiple brands in Sephora in the US and we had to reinterpret all the trends.”

A tacky moisturiser-cum-primer by J.One called a Jelly Pack became a make-up “gripper”, which instantly rationalises to consumers the sticky sensation that’s left behind by this twoin- one product. And a cryptic Merbliss Wedding Dress Bi-Leanser? That’s explained as a cleanser + mask bar on the Glow Recipe site.

Two-in-ones are a huge trend in Korea, and their efficiency and efficacy should make them a hit in markets like Hong Kong, where beauty know-how is at a high level and skincare consumers lead frantic lives, so the heightened clarification is key in helping Korean brands penetrate the markets overseas. “It takes time and brainstorming, but it’s worth it, because then it’s relevant it’s not exotic, it’s ‘for me’,” says Lee. “That process is missing in most companies presently, but that’s why we make tutorials and provide as much content as possible on using these new concepts and terms.

“Oftentimes – and this goes back to what I’ve seen working for a French brand, L’Oréal, in the US hub – I’ve seen brands taking the formula or the concept from Paris just because it was successful, but launching it in the US never worked because they’re two different markets that are used to diffevent trends and dynamics in beauty.”

For savvy consumers here (and, according to Lee, despite decent access to K-beauty products, Hong Kong customers are an important part of the Glow Recipe’s client base, particularly after a Christmas pop-up with luxury retailer Lane Crawford), “supertankers” are the products to look out for. “I call them super-taskers because they go beyond a multitasked,” says Lee. “There’s a vitamin C exfoliator that comes in a mask format [Wish Formula Squish-and-Bubble Mesh Mask] – it brightens the skin, it exfoliates, it also hydrates. It’s good for the face but you can also use it for the rest of the body.”

She also recommends products with a high concentration of quality active ingredients: the line Huxley, for example, provides products that contain moisture-binding cactus, constituting more than 60 percent of the entire formula. Yuri Pibu’s Artichoke series can “whip up sagging pores”, while Whamisa’s Sea Kelp Facial Sheet Masks, which brighten and smooth, were a hit enough that they scored Lee and Chang a trio of bids on the venture-capital reality TV show Shark Tank.

The greatest boon from that experience, says Lee, was the PR. Website hits soared, and the friends-turned-business partners are concentrating on making sure that the noise generated is sustained. They continue to push the education agenda via Glow Recipe’s YouTube channel, which is filled with tutorials and reviews as short as a minute and as long as 15, decoding the secrets of K-beauty for the world.

“The homework for people like me and the rest of the industry is to make it not just gimmicky, but actually products that change your skin,” Lee says. “The great news is that the Western market is not dependent on [endorsements by] K-pop stars and soap operas, it’s purely based on the quality and the results. French beauty – nobody calls it ‘French beauty’. The goal is to make people forget about ‘Korean beauty’ down the road and perceive it as a group of innovative, performance driven products.”