Does K-pop have more selling power than Hollywood? Luxury fashion brands are ditching film stars for Korean idols – but collaborating with BTS or Blackpink doesn't always guarantee success

created style trends around the world, Audrey Hepburn’s influence, Daniel Craig wearing an Omega watch, producing content for streaming giants, Korean stars are taking over, world’s top band in 2020, Human Gucci, brand ambassadors for Louis Vuitton, several high-visibility collaborations, that has been carefully orchestrated, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter

This article is part of STYLE’s Inside Luxury column.

The value in luxury brands lies in the ability to tell stories. The best luxury brands are excellent at this. In my doctoral thesis “Decoding Luxury”, written about a decade ago, I showed how the Added Luxury Value that a brand provides its customers depends on the perception of that brand as being “luxury”. The latter depends a large extent on the brand story.

created style trends around the world, Audrey Hepburn’s influence, Daniel Craig wearing an Omega watch, producing content for streaming giants, Korean stars are taking over, world’s top band in 2020, Human Gucci, brand ambassadors for Louis Vuitton, several high-visibility collaborations, that has been carefully orchestrated, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter

Blackpink’s Jennie. Photo: @jennierubyjane/Instagram

The “glam” factor can be key – making something appear extraordinary and outside our day-to-day routine or the normal way things are. It attaches a desire and an inspirational quality to luxury.

created style trends around the world, Audrey Hepburn’s influence, Daniel Craig wearing an Omega watch, producing content for streaming giants, Korean stars are taking over, world’s top band in 2020, Human Gucci, brand ambassadors for Louis Vuitton, several high-visibility collaborations, that has been carefully orchestrated, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter

Actress Audrey Hepburn in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Photo: Paramount Pictures

Until recently, Hollywood was the global epicentre for glamour. The Golden Globes and the Oscars were events that created style trends around the world. Actors were the embodiment of Hollywood appeal and, consequently, have been the faces of luxury brands for the last few decades. Just think of Audrey Hepburn’s influence on the perception of Tiffany & Co. through the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or George Clooney’s endorsement of Nespresso, or Daniel Craig wearing an Omega watch in James Bond films – entire brands have become reflections of Hollywood celebrity status.

However, a lot of the allure depends on watching films in cinemas, and on the global interest these blockbusters create. As Hollywood transforms increasingly to producing content for streaming giants such as Netflix, Apple TV+ or Disney+, and going to a cinema has become more difficult during the pandemic, there are signs that Hollywood glamour is fading. One could argue that the Hollywood “brand” needs to be reinvented, and connected with contemporary brand storytelling that reignites its glamour.

That explains, in part, why Korean stars are taking over. K-pop has become the most influential music genre worldwide, apart from hip-hop and rap. Blackpink became the world’s top band in 2020, reflecting that K-pop is not just a regional phenomenon, but has created global hype.

created style trends around the world, Audrey Hepburn’s influence, Daniel Craig wearing an Omega watch, producing content for streaming giants, Korean stars are taking over, world’s top band in 2020, Human Gucci, brand ambassadors for Louis Vuitton, several high-visibility collaborations, that has been carefully orchestrated, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter

Kai from Exo collaborated with Gucci on a capsule collection. Photo: Handout

In 2020, Gucci started collaborating with K-pop group Exo’s superstar Kai (aka the “Human Gucci”), leading to a capsule collection that was launched in early 2021. In April 2021, K-pop group BTS became brand ambassadors for Louis Vuitton.

Blackpink’s members have landed several high-visibility collaborations, including Tiffany & Co. engaging Rosé as a global ambassador, even as she is also an ambassador for Saint Laurent. Lisa is the face of Celine, Jennie is the “Human Chanel” – having transformed the perception of the brand dramatically since she became its face. Similarly, Jisoo is often dubbed the “Human Dior”.

More recently, Burberry started partnering with girl band Itzy, and Givenchy with Aespa. The list goes on and on.

created style trends around the world, Audrey Hepburn’s influence, Daniel Craig wearing an Omega watch, producing content for streaming giants, Korean stars are taking over, world’s top band in 2020, Human Gucci, brand ambassadors for Louis Vuitton, several high-visibility collaborations, that has been carefully orchestrated, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter

Blackpink singer Rosé represents Saint Laurent as a global ambassador. Photo: @ysl/Instagram

The rapid growth and global appeal of the Korean entertainment industry is the critical driver of this trend. Several aspects combine to make Korean superstars globally attractive: extreme professionalism, extreme beauty and fashion focus, extreme creativity, and a youthful, sexy yet “clean” image that has been carefully orchestrated over the last two decades. The image of young, hard-working, creative and attractive stars that enjoy a jet-set lifestyle fits perfectly with the marketing requirements of today’s brands.

Brand ambassadors now have to appeal not only across the most complex mix of marketing channels ever, they also have to deeply integrate with brands, showcase their clothes and accessories as part of their lifestyle, create brand content, and – in the case of Kai – create even capsule collections and brand films.

created style trends around the world, Audrey Hepburn’s influence, Daniel Craig wearing an Omega watch, producing content for streaming giants, Korean stars are taking over, world’s top band in 2020, Human Gucci, brand ambassadors for Louis Vuitton, several high-visibility collaborations, that has been carefully orchestrated, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter

Blackpink’s Lisa is the face of Celine. Photo: @lalalalisa_m/Instagram

The versatility needed to appeal to digitally savvy Gen Zers puts traditional Hollywood film stars at a disadvantage. The new generation craves new faces and new lifestyles – and this is where cosmopolitan and digitally native K-pop stars shine.

It’s another indicator that Gen Z is changing the face of luxury to something younger, more creative and more global. As a result, K-pop stars are the new heroes of luxury – at least for now. More traditional Western fashion influencers and supermodels are still in demand, but the trend is undeniable: more and more luxury brands will tap into Korean faces to connect their brands with Gen Z.

created style trends around the world, Audrey Hepburn’s influence, Daniel Craig wearing an Omega watch, producing content for streaming giants, Korean stars are taking over, world’s top band in 2020, Human Gucci, brand ambassadors for Louis Vuitton, several high-visibility collaborations, that has been carefully orchestrated, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter

Blackpink’s Jisoo is ambassador at Dior. Photo: @dior/Instagram

As a reflection of the trend, I have been asked to join two K-pop fan organisations on a Twitter Space discussion this month to take a deep dive into the phenomena and analyse the relationship between luxury and K-pop.

Some of the upfront audience questions indicate key areas of interest: why did Celine and Gucci choose Lisa and Kai respectively? How often are brands really open to integrating an ambassador as Gucci did with Kai in his video? What are the right metrics to monitor the success of such collaborations? Can luxury change the face of K-pop? What do brands look for when they scout ambassadors?

These questions indicate potential red flags for luxury brands. Just because everyone is turning to K-pop stars does not mean that success is guaranteed. With every collaboration, brands must start with their brand positioning and partner with ambassadors that fit. Again and again this important criterion is not given enough attention, causing collaborations to fail. And the most important question of all is, if everyone has the same strategy, how can a specific brand stand out?

created style trends around the world, Audrey Hepburn’s influence, Daniel Craig wearing an Omega watch, producing content for streaming giants, Korean stars are taking over, world’s top band in 2020, Human Gucci, brand ambassadors for Louis Vuitton, several high-visibility collaborations, that has been carefully orchestrated, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter

Gucci’s collaboration with Exo singer Kai. Photo: @ zkdlin/Instagram

In this case, Gucci’s Kai collaboration is a best-in-class execution. Kai is deeply involved in the brand and his capsule collection sold out instantly across Asia with queues unseen in luxury fashion. When ambassadors become not just the face of a brand, but a creative force, then a collaboration can unleash its full potential. If it’s just a name drop, it won’t work with digitally savvy Gen Z. As Korean stars conquer luxury, brands need to do their homework even more than ever.

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