There’s no world like the K-Pop world.
Booming songs and hard-hitting choreography are the makeup of the genre’s distinction and its global success. But apart from the auditory pleasantries and eye catching visuals, it holds a superficial component in which lies impeccable style. Enter, fashion.
For decades and across all genres, fashion has played a large part in conveying the aesthetics of music from performances to music videos to album covers. Yet K-Pop’s heavy reliance on conceptual styling and unique approach to clothes, alongside its global presence, has created a luxury fashion movement that has everyone, from designers to fans, taking note.
Originating in early 1990s South Korea, K-Pop (abbreviated for “Korean pop”) was a product of liberation from a period of restrictive censorship. The debut of Seo Taiji and Boys pioneered modern-day K-Pop, blending South Korean culture with Western instrumentals and simple choreography. Sartorially, however, they merely echoed everyday attire of the ’90s, often donning bucket hats, overalls, flannel, and sports memorabilia. Resembling old school hip-hop culture in the U.S., it perhaps mirrored the strong global influence too.
However, fashion didn’t take a revolutionary turn until the end of the decade as a result of the newly coined term “idol” (which is still used today). Entertainment agencies latched onto K-Pop’s sonic momentum but turned its artists into multifaceted celebrities or idols that not only musically delivered but visually narrated the new sound. If fashion didn’t take up a large chunk of K-Pop’s DNA, it certainly did now.
Clothing was powerful, wielding the ability to set idols apart from their competitors, especially when it came to aesthetic precision, and allowing them to continuously roll out new looks and undergo reinvention. (The genre isn’t prone to monotonous boredom.) As much as this K-Pop was commercialized, fashion was now a tool of expression, a prop if you will, that summed up music perfectly.
The end of the ’90s and the early 2000s saw a plethora of looks that stood for an era of experimentation and escapism. Some dabbled in sportswear and streetwear, coalescing puffer vests, anoraks, even goggles with primary color blocking and baggy silhouettes. Looks plentiful of leather, full-length high collared coats, and narrow lenses morphed into a cyborg meets matrix meets goth concept while futuristic visions were brought to life with metallics and galactic engineering.
Notorious Y2K articles like bubblegum cropped graphic tees, cargos, and bauble hair ties followed the time’s trends or were mixed into funky ensembles. Academia concepts were instituted with school uniforms and over the shoulder JanSports styled for the sake of fashion, not grades. Outlandishly, some played with costumes like H.O.T. who coupled Mario Bros with circus for their music video “Candy”. Joining them, groups like Shinhwa and Baby Vox adapted fragments of each concept, reimagining their sartorial bones, while others like Fin.K.L. kept a signature style.
By the late 2000s and 2010s, K-Pop umbrellaed a rapidly developing industry. As it grossed mainstream popularity in the East, it also rode the Hallyu Wave – a diaspora of South Korean culture across borders that started in the 1980s –in the West. The rise of digital sharing quickly became the roots of K-Pop’s blooming success overseas.
The same knack for concocting exuberant and filled with life – or in this case musical resonance – outfits bled into a second generation of artists. But it was now displayed on a wider scale, reaching international luxury houses and underground brands that were eager to graze this previously unchartered fashion territory.
The fiery, renegade concepts of 2NE1, which captured the essence of independence and rebellion, garnered the attention of Balmain, Givenchy, and Moschino. In 2011, through his work with Adidas, Jeremy Scott turned a pair into a 2NE1 motif – wild, electric colors laced with (quite literally) golden wings weaved into the ties – for the group’s performances. Scott’s colorful designs were also fancied by Girls Generation who featured his Adidas collection in their “I Got A Boy” music video. Meanwhile Super Junior, a group that has retained its popularity to this day, donned Stella McCartney’s Beatle-inspired collection “All Together Now” in their 2019 music video “SUPER Clap”.
Fast forward to today and K-Pop is cemented in pop culture more than ever. Third generation artists, and even those their junior, are illuminating in the sartorial limelight. For one, they’ve ushered in new trends, like the modernized Hanbok, harnesses, and cropped cardigans in menswear. But in the luxury fashion books, they’ve begun a new chapter.
The whirlwind success of BTS in the music universe coincides with their style portfolio. The performances for their single “Mic Drop” alone were dressed in a multitude of designer wardrobes, from the military-esque set by Kim Jones for their 2019 world tour to the color and graphic heavy looks designed by Virgil Abloh worn during their Saturday Night Live performance.
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Idols are no stranger to fashion campaigns either. The members of Blackpink, crowned the “biggest pop band in the world”, have individually worked with Celine, Saint Laurent, Dior, and Chanel. Under SM Entertainment, members of Red Velvet, Exo, and SuperM have worked with Prada, Alexander McQueen, Gucci, Michael Kors, Burberry, among others, through campaigns, ambassador work, and social shares. The list goes on.
Being on stage decked out in fashion’s finest has also turned a few idols into high-end creative directors. Got7’s Jackson Wang launched his own streetwear brand Team Wang Design last year. Since the debut, it’s produced two collections specializing in industrial, constructed minimalism and hardware (although his latest focuses on velvet) and a capsule collection intermixing the works of Monet with apparel. Jennie of Blackpink took her hand at eyewear in 2020 when she collaborated with South Korean sunglasses label Gentle Monster in a repertoire of chic yet nostalgic pieces.
A lot of this not only asserted K-Pop as a fashion powerhouse, but has introduced luxury brands to a whole new market: K-Pop fans. Anything designer has appeal, but when worn by sought after idols who seem to effortlessly pull them off, it suddenly becomes a commodity of connection. Across social media, Pinterest-styled images pin the exact items worn by idols, whether it be on stage or at the airport, creating a channel for fans to track down and purchase those items.
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This was the case for BTS, when searches for a specific Virgil tee and a pink shirts surged after members Suga and RM were seen sporting them respectively, according to Lyst. The same goes for Fear of God, a label no stranger to the group; just by the members simply wearing it, not promoting it purposefully, the signature FG logo has become a ligament of the group’s fashion identity.
So, the next time K-Pop’s stunning performances take you aback also think about the fashion journey its been on. It may have you scouring the web for luxury too.