First, they invaded our television screens with their dramas, then our music players with their pop hits.
Now, the South Koreans have found their way into our make-up pouches and skincare regimens.
The Korean beauty wave has hit Singapore and shows no signs of stopping.
Ten years ago, there were just a handful of South Korean brands here, namely Laneige, Thefaceshop and Missha.
Today, there are more than 20, seven of which entered the market with stand-alone stores or counters at department stores, in the last four years.
Among the new-to-market brands that launched stand-alone shops last year was Innisfree, known for its skincare that is formulated with natural ingredients from Jeju island. It opened its first store at Takashimaya Shopping Centre last November and flew in its ambassador, K-drama heart-throb Lee Min Ho, to create hype for the 1,370 sq ft store's launch. Two more Innisfree stores will open by the end of this year.
Too Cool For School - known for its cute packaging and innovative formulas such as its rice wine and yogurt smoothie mask - opened its first store here last September at Far East Plaza. It has since opened another two outlets at Westgate and VivoCity, and has up to five more planned for next year.
Last July, VDL launched its brand of fun colour cosmetics at Suntec City, before rolling out another three outlets at Bugis Junction, Jurong Point and Bedok Mall.
Aside from department store counters, South Korean brands are also increasingly making their presence felt at personal-care stores and multi-brand beauty supermarts such as Sasa and Sephora, which have traditionally been dominated by American, French and Japanese brands.
For example, until 2012, Guardian did not carry any Korean brands apart from a range of face masks. But it now stocks popular labels such as Yadah, Skin Watchers, skinfactory and Dr. Jart+.
On why Guardian introduced Korean brands to its line-up of skincare and cosmetics, a spokesman says: "The demand for Korean beauty products has grown over the years as the flawless and natural look sported by Korean celebrities is highly coveted by many here."
She added that the products have been "well-received in the local market".
In October, South Korean travel vendor Shilla Travel Retail will take over the 19 perfume and cosmetics stores covering about 5,500 sq m in Changi Airport's Terminals 1 to 3 from its current tenant Nuance-Watson. It will also occupy about 1,800 sq m of space in the soon-to-be-built Terminal 4.
There are no details on how many brands will be Korean, but those that are already available here, such as Missha, Etude House and Thefaceshop, will have a presence at the airport for the first time, says a Changi Airport spokesman.
Currently, the only South Korean brands that are stocked at Nuance-Watson are Sulwhasoo and Laneige.
LENDING STAR POWER
So what has given rise to this Korean beauty boom, not just in Singapore, but all over Asia?
Most brands that Urban spoke to point to the Hallyu craze. And with many of them using K-pop and K-drama stars to front their brands - for example, Innisfree has Lee, Etude House has boyband Shinee, cosmetics label Clio has Sandara Park of girl group 2NE1 - it is no wonder that K-mad fans are rushing to stock up.
Laneige's brand manager, Ms Doreen Chia, reveals: "Laneige's year-on-year sales figures have been on a double-digit percentage growth for the last three years, due to the increasing popularity of the Korean wave."
The brand, which is fronted by Korean A-list actress Song Hye Kyo, had just one counter in Isetan Orchard in 2003. It is now available at 14 department store counters, five stand-alone boutiques and eight Sephora stores.
Administrative executive Phuah Zhi Ling, 41, says she first noticed Laneige because of the brand's dewy-skinned spokesman.
"Although I'm not a fan of K-dramas, I'm a fan of skincare. Song's complexion looks so good that I trust the brand."
Etude House - a mass brand targeted at women aged 18 to 30 - has laid claim to five-member boyband Shinee since 2011.
Says the brand's spokesman: "With their multiple albums and awards, Shinee is extremely popular with fans all over the world, especially in Asia. They are also recognised as fashion and beauty icons; plus all the members have good complexions."
She declined to reveal sales figures, but Etude House, which launched here in 2009, has the second most number of stand-alone shops out of all the Korean brands here. It is set to open its 19th store at Junction 8 next month.
On the popularity of Korean beauty brands, celebrity make-up artist Clarence Lee notes: "While fans of K-pop and K-drama would tend to sway towards the South Korean brands that their idols endorse, they would also generally have an affinity to all things made in South Korea.
"The South Korean brands are giving products made elsewhere a run for their money."
All this translates into big bucks for Korean beauty players.
South Korea's biggest cosmetics company Amorepacific Corp - which owns Laneige, Etude House, Innisfree and Sulwhasoo - reported that its sales in China last year totalled 338.7 billion South Korean won (S$400.6 million), a 29 per cent increase from 2012.
For the rest of Asia, its sales totalled 126.6 South Korean billion won, a 64 per cent increase from 2012.
Luxury brand Sulwhasoo, based on traditional Korean herbs and know-how, first entered the Singapore market at the Perfumes & Cosmetics stores in Changi Airport in 2010, before opening a counter in Tangs Orchard in 2012.
Since then, it has opened counters in Robinsons Orchard, Takashimaya Department Store and Tangs VivoCity. Its spokesman says sales figures have increased by more than three times since it launched.
Ms Stenifer Tan, the merchandising manager of Tangs Beauty, says the department store chose to stock Sulwhasoo when the beauty hall revamped in 2012 because it is the top premium skincare brand from South Korea.
"The appeal is definitely in part due to the K-wave or K-culture that's sweeping the globe at the moment, but aside from that, the real relevance and longer lasting appeal are that these are Asian brands, formulated for Asian skin types. Many feel these are more able to fulfil their beauty needs."
The strength of the South Korean beauty wave has intensified competition in the saturated beauty market here. In November, Japanese brand Fancl announced in a press release that due to continued losses, it would be closing its 33 stores in Singapore and Taiwan.
In a previous report on Fancl exiting the market, Mr Lee was quoted as saying: "There are so many Korean brands now and many of them are cheaper too."
Mr Afif Haddar, the general manager of Sephora South-east Asia, says he has noticed that Western brands are feeling the heat from their South Korean competitors.
"The South Koreans are known for their innovation in skincare. And I've noticed that the Western brands are doing more to match their own quality of products to the South Koreans."
Sephora currently carries Korean beauty brands Reskin, Laneige and, more recently, PureHeal's.
NOVELTY AND INNOVATION
Beyond the superficial appeal of Korean celebrities fronting their brands, where else do Korean brands' strengths lie?
One key thing that sets them apart from Japanese and Western brands is the speed at which they release new products, much like high street fashion brands.
For example, Etude House rolls out around 30 new products every month, and Clio replaces or updates up to 70 of its formulas a year. In comparison, most Japanese and Western brands launch only a handful of wares about once every three months.
The innovation behind the South Korean products is another pull factor for consumers.
Ms Vivienne Rudd, director of global insight, beauty and personal care at market research firm Mintel, notes that South Korea has been seen as an incubator of interesting skincare technology and concepts for a number of years.
"But it was the movement of BB creams from Asia to the Western markets in late 2011 that acted as a tipping point.
"This not only piqued interest in what else South Korea had to offer, it also gave South Korean companies the aura of expertise and the self confidence to make the most of this interest," she says in an e-mail interview with Urban.
Ironically, BB creams (an abbreviation of "blemish balm" or "beauty balm") were originally created in Germany to calm the skin of patients who had undergone laser treatment.
The product became trendy in South Korea in 2007 when celebrities there popularised the trend of barely there make-up, which BB creams - half lightweight foundation, half anti-ageing moisturiser - helped them achieve.
These days, all the big beauty brands, including established French and American ones, have their own versions of BB creams.
But the South Korean brands have still managed to one up their competition.
Take, for example, Laneige's BB Cushion BB cream.
While most BB creams come in a tube, Laneige's version is soaked in a compact sponge. It also comes with a thin rubber sponge that picks up a thin film of the formula to give skin a dewy finish.
NO STOPPING THE K-WAVE
The gentle and lightweight skincare formulas of brands such as Laneige and Innisfree also appeal to consumers.
Says Jaslyn Kong, a 31-year-old teacher, who likes the texture of Innisfree products: "Their skincare range is light and mild, which is suitable for my skin and our humid weather.
"Products from many of the Western brands can be a little too rich, while the high concentration of ingredients in some of the Japanese skincare products is too strong for my liking."
Freelance make-up artist Larry Yeo is a big fan of South Korean brands for their quality and efficacy.
"Sulwhasoo's EvenFair Perfecting Cushion foundation gives good coverage without looking too thick; Laneige's Water Bank Essence hydrates the skin well; and Clio's Tinted Tattoo Kill Brow is the best brow gel ever because on one side, it comes with a marker pen to fill in brows."
While South Korean beauty products are trendy and exciting, some consumers are still staying loyal to brands that have been in the market for a longer time.
Says Ms Phuah: "While many of the French, Japanese and American brands have been around for a long time and are backed by years of research, some South Korean brands are a lot younger.
"So at this point, I'm still experimenting with the latter and figuring out which is better for my skin."
But until the Korean wave stops flooding the market with new brands and products, Guardian's spokesman thinks such beauty products will continue to appeal to consumers here.
She adds: "Singaporean women love being adventurous and experimenting with different beauty products and that's why the Korean beauty proposition has proven to be so exciting and appealing to them."
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 21, 2014
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