South Korean cosmetics brands lay foundation in Europe

The stand of South Korean cosmetics brand Sulwhasoo at Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris.
The stand of South Korean cosmetics brand Sulwhasoo at Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - South Korean cosmetics brands, wildly successful across Asia, now have their eye on Europe where their penetration is, for now, only skin-deep.

Picking luxury goods powerhouse France as its bridgehead to seduce European consumers, South Korea's leading cosmetics firm Amore Pacific launched its top brand Sulwhasoo at the upmarket Galeries Lafayette department store a few months ago.

Britain is the next planned stop for Amore, with plans to launch its other flagship brand, Laneige, too.

The Korean industry has a solid reputation for innovation and a knack for blending natural ingredients - such as green tea, ginseng root or even snail slime - into beauty products.

Hallyu, the "Korean Wave" of pop culture sweeping Asia since the 1990s, has given cosmetics sales a big lift.

"The company's aim today is to widen its geographical presence beyond Asia," Mr Thierry Maman, head of Amore Pacific Europe, said.

Tensions with Chinese clients after South Korea allowed the United States to install a missile shield added urgency to the drive towards globalisation, he added.

One of the challenges for European expansion is that the Korean Wave of pop culture has not really taken off there.

The Hallyu association can even be a bit of a drawback, said Ms Laura Koeppler, who co-manages the Korean Smooch online store which sells avant-garde cosmetics made in Seoul.

She added that early Korean cosmetics imports to Europe rode a wave of enthusiasm for kawai, meaning "cute" in Japanese, including TonyMoly and Skin79 which makes face masks in the shape of a panda.

"Consumers thought that that is what South Korea is about," she told AFP.

Ms Koeppler said "there is real skill" in K-beauty, which has come up with game-changing products such as BB creams, good at covering imperfections, and so-called "cushions", which blend skincare and make-up ingredients into a single product.

South Korean beauty and skincare require different "application rituals" than those Europeans are used to, said Mr Maman. "There is a need for guidance" for European consumers wanting to work Korean products into their routine."

A number of Western beauty companies have copied South Korean cosmetics inventions, industry experts said. Sometimes, they simply buy into local companies for fast Asian market exposure, such as when Unilever picked up South Korea's Carver, LVMH bought a stake in Clio Cosmetics and Estee Lauder invested in Dr Jar+ and DTRT.