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K-pop’s popularity is starting to shape fashion worldwide

Brands like Chrome Hearts and Moschino saw a spike in searches after K-pop stars wore them.

The K-pop group BTS performs on The Tonight Show in September.
The K-pop group BTS performs their hit “Idol” on The Tonight Show in September.
Andrew Lipovsky/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

To understand how influential K-pop is worldwide, look no further than social media. The 26th birthday of Jin, the singer-songwriter of Korea’s pop supergroup BTS, was by far the top Twitter trend globally Monday, garnering more than a million tweets. The Melon Music Awards, which honor Korea’s most popular musical acts, took place Saturday, and they too dominated Twitter as fans of groups like BTS, Blackpink, Mamamoo, and iKon gushed about the show.

With roots in the 1990s, K-pop — a mix of pop, rap, electronica, and other genres with a South Korean twist — is affecting far more than social media trends and billboard charts. Fans of the music are taking up charitable causes, and according to the global fashion search engine Lyst, they are also wearing the same designers as their beloved K-pop idols. In its “Year in Fashion” report, which tracked more than 100 million searches from 80 million shoppers across the globe in 2018, Lyst identified K-pop stars as “major global fashion influencers.” It credits these performers with spiking searches related to brands like Moschino and Chrome Hearts after wearing them this year.

The omnipresence of K-pop fans on social media around the world is fueling the trend as well as the importance of visuals in the genre. Bright colors and bold prints are the norm when it comes to K-pop acts, who have made fads of the most mundane (and unexpected) pieces of clothing. A campaign T-shirt from Rev. Jesse Jackson’s failed 1988 presidential run became a must-have in South Korea this year after rapper Moonbyul of Mamamoo wore it. And the introduction of makeup lines for men is largely due to K-pop, since many members of the boy bands use “guyliner,” lip tints, and brow fillers; it’s no coincidence that South Korea reportedly makes up 20 percent of the global men’s cosmetics market.

As K-pop’s influence spreads, it has shaped fashion trends in a way music hasn’t seen since the genesis of American hip-hop, when brands like Adidas, Kangol, and Jordans became must-haves for listeners. Designers, according to Lyst, would be wise to embrace K-pop’s impact on fashion, an almost certainly lucrative move.

Innovative videos and devoted fans have led to K-pop fashion’s rise

K-pop stars’ fashion sensibilities haven’t been lost on American publications like Vogue: The magazine named Sehun of the group EXO the “best-dressed man” at Louis Vuitton Resort’s 2019 show in May. It was the second consecutive year that Sehun received the shoutout from the magazine, which highlighted his “fuzzy mohair sweater with bold stripes” and the “red and white woven into each detail” of his outfit. The mix of textures and bold colors in Sehun’s outfit is representative of the K-pop look, in which artists lean toward vivid hues, sensual fabrics, and showy patterns.

EXO star Sehun at the Louis Vuitton show at Paris Fashion Week in 2017.
K-pop star Sehun at the Louis Vuitton show at Paris Fashion Week in 2017.
Marc Piasecki/WireImage

Lyst also mentioned Sehun’s appearance at Louis Vuitton in its “Year in Fashion.” Camilla Clarkson, the communications manager for the platform, told me fans’ social media activity plays a role in why the public has become so interested in what K-pop stars wear.

“K-pop’s influence on fashion has been growing rapidly over the years alongside the rise of social media,” Clarkson said. “ No part of their life is too small for fans to tweet, vlog, or ’gram about. As a result, we’ve seen more global searches and sales this year than ever before, with fans desperate to get as close to the stars as possible.”

Since fans can’t actually get to know the K-pop acts they idolize, buying the same items they buy is a way for them to feel connected to these stars.

“Many of them aspire to imitate their favorite K-pop idols by dressing like them, so they use fashion search engines … to buy or seek inspiration from the exact pieces their idols are wearing,” Shelley Li of the K-Style Files, a database of K-pop fashions, told me.

Lyst found that K-pop’s influence has spread across both women’s and men’s fashion, with boy bands like BTS and EXO and women K-pop stars like CL and Park Bom all driving fashion trends. And a group like BTS can inspire both men and women to dress like them. When rapper Suga from the group wore a checked shirt designed by Virgil Abloh, searches for it increased 120 percent, according to Lyst. The same occurred when RM, another BTS rapper, wore a pink Adidas number; searches for pink T-shirts rose by 97 percent.

Li credits the globalization of K-pop music with its growing influence on fashion trends. As K-pop fans have spread from South Korea to countries such as South Africa, the Philippines, and the United States, the fashions its stars wear have more eyes on them and, thus, more copycats. But Li and Clarkson say the specific visuals associated with the music also play a role.

“K-pop comes in a visually stimulating package — high-production music videos and performances with vibrant sets, lighting, and, of course, fashion,” Li said.

Clarkson describes K-pop music videos as pushing boundaries and said that each artist is expected to have a distinct fashion sense.

“K-pop music videos are a fantastic, slick operation,” she said. “They push boundaries and highlight that too much is never enough — from bright, colorful hair and makeup to trend-defying fashion. Each star, or ‘idol,’ as they’re known in Korea, has a unique personality and style.”

BTS has seen its share of fashion-related controversies

While K-pop stars have received plenty of praise for their style, their sartorial choices have sometimes sparked controversy. In November, BTS drew criticism for wearing hats bearing Nazi symbols during a photo shoot. Three years ago, the group faced a similar controversy after taking part in a photo shoot at the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. The Simon Wiesenthal Center also pointed out that BTS has performed onstage waving large flags that looked similar to the Nazi swastika.

Just last month, a scheduled TV appearance featuring BTS was canceled because one member reportedly wore a shirt that included an image of the atomic bomb dropping on Japan. The Simon Wiesenthal Center subsequently declared that BTS owed both the Japanese people and victims of Nazism an apology.

“It is clear that those designing and promoting this group’s career are too comfortable with denigrating the memory of the past,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, director of Global Social Action at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, in a statement. “The result is that young generations in Korea and around the world are more likely to identify bigotry and intolerance as being ‘cool’ and help erase the lessons of history.”

It’s unclear how much BTS knows about what the imagery on their clothes symbolizes, or if the group members dress themselves. After the controversies over the group’s clothing in November, Big Hit Entertainment, the agency representing them, issued an apology, stating it “had no intention of causing distress or pain” to those affected by the atomic bomb or by Nazism:

The incident was in no way intentional, and although all apparel and accessories used during the photoshoot had been provided by the publication conducting the shoot, we would like to offer our sincere apologies for inadvertently inflicting pain and distress to anyone affected by totalitarian regimes in the past by failing to strictly review the clothing and accessories that our members were made to wear, as well as to anyone who may have experienced distress and discomfort by witnessing an association of our artists with imagery reminiscent of political extremism.

Clearly, with international fame comes even more responsibility for a supergroup like BTS to dress in a way that takes into account how certain imagery may be read by a wide range of audiences. Still, the fact that BTS has dominated worldwide trends on Twitter during the first few days of December indicates that the controversies related to their clothing certainly haven’t curbed the zeal that surrounds the group.

BTS at the American Music Awards in 2017.
BTS, at the American Music Awards in 2017, are fashion trendsetters.
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

It makes sense for the fashion world to embrace K-pop

Camilla Clarkson predicts that K-pop and its stars will continue to dominate fashion trends next year. That means more male makeup, unconventional T-shirt choices, brightly colored hair, and bold prints — from stripes to zigzags to polka dots — and clothes featuring cartoon or video game characters. Given this, Clarkson argues that Western fashion designers in particular would be wise to capitalize on the trend.

It took mid- and high-end brands years to embrace hip-hop after rappers stepped out in brands like Coach, Gucci, and Cartier. Gucci specifically has fans in rap artists like Lil Pump and in BTS alike. Predictably, it has seen more sales thanks to a boom in Generation Z and young millennial shoppers, likely influenced by these artists. For luxury fashion brands to wait as long to welcome K-pop as they did hip-hop would be a mistake, at least financially.

“Western designers would do well to see [K-pop] not just as a place for inspiration,” Clarkson said, “but an area to involve themselves in to help bolster sales.”

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