Never too old to walk the runway in S. Korea

More seniors in the country are venturing into unconventional late-career opportunities

MR KIM CHIL-DOO (above).

SEOUL • Boasting an overgrown beard and grey wavy hair, 65-yearold Kim Chil-doo glared at the wall, poised and confident, as he practised his runway walk among young, pin-thin models at an academy in Seoul earlier this month. Mr Kim became South Korea’s first senior fashion model last year, realising his lifelong dream with a charismatic debut at Seoul Fashion Week.

“This was what I wanted to do when I was young, but gave up to make money and I thought maybe it’s worth trying even now,” Mr Kim said. “I’m glad I did it. Being a model is fun.

Senior? It’s just a label.” In a country with the world’s fastest-ageing population, many South Koreans like Mr Kim are venturing into unconventional late-career opportunities. Seniors have flocked to modelling schools on the back of Mr Kim’s success. Others have become YouTube stars or signed up to teach Korean to K-pop fans overseas.

The trend has offered fresh hope to the elderly, many of whom take on low-paying, blue-collar jobs to support themselves after retiring.

On a recent weekday afternoon, about two dozen people, mostly in their late 50s to 60s, gathered at a welfare centre in Songpa in southeastern Seoul for catwalk training, hoping to emulate Mr Kim, now an up-and-coming star in commercials and fashion magazines.

For Ms Yoo Sung-lae, 59, her unfulfilled childhood dream of becoming an actress and interest in fashion led her to sign up for the course.

“Learning modelling feels like reviving my youth that I could not enjoy because I got married and gave birth at a young age,” Ms Yoo said, donning a cobalt blue jacket, orange stiletto heels and designer sunglasses.

Mr Lim Sung-min, who represents Mr Kim and is a former model, said his agency is seeking to bolster its ranks of senior models, aiming to cater to the fast-growing elderly demographic.

This was what I wanted to do when I was young, but gave up to make money and I thought maybe it's worth trying even now. I'm glad I did it. Being a model is fun. Senior? It's just a label.

MR KIM CHIL-DOO, who became South Korea's first senior fashion model last year when he made his debut at Seoul Fashion Week

Some firms and local governments are seeking to harness the older generation’s untapped potential and help them start a new chapter of life.

Mr Cho Yong-min was a public policy student at Princeton University when he floated a small languageexchange project between retired South Korean professionals and foreigners in 2014.

He started recruiting elderly volunteers, linking them with Korean major students at Princeton and Yale via Skype.

“They were too talented to play pool there every day, with so much social and career experience to share,” said Mr Cho, 27, who recently graduated from the school.

The market proved much more promising than expected, attracting students, Korean-Americans and a soaring global fan-base of K-pop bands and singers.

In 2017, Mr Cho turned the initiative into a start-up called Say – or Seniors And Youth – which has more than 50 active instructors and 500 paying students.

Tapping an international community has also proved lucrative for more traditional older workers.

In the small, mountain valley town of Yeongju, 66-year-old blacksmith Seok Noh-ki was contemplating closing his struggling workshop until his homi, a traditional Korean hand plough, began selling like hot cakes on and eBay late last year following a promotional campaign on YouTube.

His handmade tool is now one of the top 10 gardening devices globally on Amazon, garnering praise from farmers looking for solid weeding instruments.

“When they said Amazon, I thought they’re talking about the rainforest and river that I saw on television,” Mr Seok said.

Sales of his tools have tripled and exports have soared, leading him to take on more workers – some seniors like himself and some youngsters who might one day take over the business.

“Smith work is all I’ve done since I was 14, but now is the best time of my life,” Mr Seok said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2019, with the headline 'Never too old to walk the runway in S. Korea'. Print Edition | Subscribe