How K-pop Conquered Fashion Week

This originally appeared in Show Notes, GQ staffer Samuel Hine’s fashion week newsletter. For more stories like it, hit the link above and subscribe.

Every era of fashion has its own stars. In the ’90s, it was supermodels. In the aughts, it was actors. Then came the rush of bloggers and influencers. The rappers who were once shut out of Paris Fashion Week (as immortalized in the famous Tommy Ton photograph of Kanye West’s gatecrashing crew in 2009) were finally given pride of place at fashion shows last decade. Some of the politics around who gets coveted front row seats are not political at all—sometimes A-listers happen to be in town when their favorite brand is unveiling a new collection. But taken broadly, each wave signals the luxury industries shifting priorities and evolving strategies for finding new audiences. (One of the few figures who seems to show up year after year, for decades? Jared Leto!)

Now, we’re squarely in fashion’s K-pop era. 

Over the past few years, K-pop has become a full-scale global phenomenon, with groups like BTS and Blackpink topping international music charts and selling out stadiums around the world. Fashion was initially slow to embrace these smooth-dancing stars who inspire Beatles-level fandom. But now they’re wasting no time. In January, all seven members of Enhypen—formed through a televised survival competition in 2020—attended the Prada men’s show, while Gucci hosted EXO’s Kai. Saint Laurent invited Ten of NCT and Jeonghan of Seventeen. Two of the genre’s brightest stars joined the LVMH family: BTS’s J-Hope sat at Louis Vuitton’s men’s show, and accompanied his bandmate Jimin to Dior. In the past few weeks, the trend has only picked up steam, with NCT’s Johnny Suh at Thom Browne, Seventeen’s DK at Bally, NCT’s Jeno at Ferragamo, BTS’s RM at Bottega Veneta, Rosé from Blackpink at Saint Laurent, NCT’s Taeyong at Loewe, and Blackpink’s Jennie at Chanel. Just about the only luxury brand that didn’t have serious K-pop wattage in the front row this week was Balenciaga, which opted for a low-key guest list

RM, greeted by hundreds of raised phones at Bottega Veneta.

Arnold Jerocki / Getty Images

Last June, I saw fashion’s love affair with K-pop heat up firsthand, at the Prada men’s show. The fashion week spectacle has been getting crazier year after year since the dawn of social media, and South Korea’s SM Entertainment has been determined to get in on the action. SM is one of the largest agencies dedicated to incubating and managing K-pop groups, with NCT, EXO, Girls’ Generation, Red Velvet, WayV, and more under its hitmaking umbrella. After sending a few artists to Paris Fashion Week before the pandemic, 2022 saw SM launch a full court press to link its talent with European luxury houses. “Prada SS23 Men’s show was the fashion show where we started to engage more enthusiastically,” said Soyeon Kim, the visual director of SM. SM arranged for Jaehyun from their flagship group, NCT, to attend the show, where he was shriekingly greeted by a crowd of around 400-500 people—mostly young Italians—who had earnestly waited behind metal barriers around the brand’s Fondazione Prada venue for several hours. 

The payoff of such a relationship is twofold, according to Wook Kim, SM’s head of visual/fashion. “As a K-pop artist, there is a difference between the visuals shown in their album and the visuals shown at fashion shows with brands,” Wook explained via email. “Thus, attending Fashion Week gives you the opportunity to show new visuals, and participation in the event itself imprints the artist’s value and extends it to the fashion market, resulting in a mutually beneficial relationship between artist and brand.” In other words, the artist gets to create elevated content, and the brand gets access to the artist’s image—and, increasingly, their enormous Gen-Z fan base.

Jeno, with his new frow friends Hunter Schafer and Evan Mock.

Jacopo M. Raule / Getty Images

In recent months, this arrangement has created a runaway nuclear reaction of hype. At the Prada men’s show in January, enough screaming Enhypen fans to populate a small Italian town (over 6,000, per a Prada rep) clogged the streets around the Fondazione, signs in hand and phones at the ready. When the seven denim- and leather-clad boys got out of their black sprinter vans, the collective hyperventilation must have been picked up by seismographs. NCT star Jeno’s trip to Milan for the Ferragamo show in February practically shifted the city’s traffic patterns. “The road was paralyzed because fans gathered in front of the Ferragamo store when Jeno was visiting there, even though it wasn’t the actual show day,” said Soyeon Kim. Concrete proof that SM’s plan is working. “The energy and hype was very impressive,” Kim added. 

This unprecedented viral fandom explains why brands are eager to lock down K-pop stars for front row exclusives, and, increasingly, long-term contracts, as was the case when Dior signed Jimin as a global brand ambassador in January. Louis Vuitton followed by announcing J-Hope as the luggage juggernaut’s newest house ambassador, saying in a statement that the Seoul-based artist “brings his unique charm and style to this exciting new chapter with the Maison.” “It boils down to engagement,” said Bryan Yambao, AKA Bryanboy, the front row fixture and editor-in-chief of Perfect Magazine, following the Miu Miu show in Paris. “You have this generational shift of kids who are obsessed with these Asian celebrities versus, say, Jake Gyllenhaal. They really worship them as idols. So they will buy whatever they’re wearing, they will buy whatever they’re promoting, they’ll hype them up on the internet. It’s a different world.” 

Johnny Suh, blinded but unfazed outside of Thom Browne.

Raymond Hall

The trend has also raised thorny questions around tokenism. Yambao noted that one Parisian luxury house recently misidentified a K-pop group in a press release. The fashion press are also struggling to adapt. As Yambao sees it, the western editors who rush to post front row flicks of K-pop stars on their magazine Instagram accounts don’t always know who they’re photographing. (“They’re always asking me: ‘Who’s that?’ said Yambao. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know! I’m in the same boat as you!’”)  A common grumble this season among fashion week veterans has been about the difficulty of navigating the fan-packed streets outside venues. 

Your relatively agile Show Notes correspondent was able to catch up with a few K-pop stars at the recent stretch of shows. At Thom Browne in New York, NCT’s Johnny Suh was standing by his VIP section seat, looking a little stunned but excited after being besieged by flashbulbs for a good five minutes. “I’ve always been a huge fan of Thom Browne, and I can’t believe I’m actually here at the show,” said Suh, wearing a Browne-designed glen plaid suit. He clearly meant it—as attendees took their seats, Suh nerded out over the parade of tricolor-tipped fits. He and his fellow K-pop idols might be newcomers to the fashion week scene, but they come prepared with authentic and compelling senses of personal style. Think of it this way: a few dozen guys who could trounce Harry Styles in a fit battle any day of the week are now taking fashion’s biggest stages. 

Predictions vary for where luxury and K-pop’s mutual obsession goes from here. “It’s only going to get bigger,” said Yambao. There’s no sign that the generational shift that has led to K-pop’s global rise is going to fade away anytime soon. “French kids are learning Korean! It’s insane,” Yambao noted. Having lived through the ’90s glamazon moment, where the likes of Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer brought mobs of fans out to fashion shows, French fashion PR kingpin Lucien Pages was more measured. “It’s up to K-pop,” he said. “If they stay relevant, they will stay in fashion. But because it’s fashion, when something is at such a high moment, people will want something else. They will want the contrary.” 

If you ask me? The NCT boys will be sitting next to Jared Leto in the front row for years to come. 

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