(Featured in ‘Life & Style’ section of the International Herald Tribune- Joongang Daily, Feb. 13, 2004)
Like most young women her age, Kim Yoon-kyung spends a lot of time pondering what to wear. The 17-year old doesn’t need to choose an outfit, because she has to wear a uniform to school. What matters most is not what other people can see, but what they can’t.
“I have about 20 panties in all different colors but not that many bras. I think I should buy them in sets now; you know, the design has to match,” Ms. Kim says as she pores over the lingerie collection at a trendy shop near Shinchon.
She chatters gaily with her friend as she confronts a difficult decision. “The leopard print, or this one with the pink hearts and lace? No wait, ooh, look at that denim one,” she gushes.
Ms. Kim is one of the many young Koreans who are taking more interest in a fashion that was once forbidden to them. Lingerie in Korea was practically nonexistent until about a decade ago, and even then it was more about function or comfort because underwear was taken literally – not meant to be seen. Many single women received their first piece of lingerie as a wedding present for the first night of their honeymoon, as fancy underwear was considered to be worn only by married women or prostitutes.
In the spotlight, on stage
Underwear fashion is now going through a high-profile phase in Korea that is similar to that of Western countries in the 1980s, when top designers such as Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani began presenting innerwear collections. Pop star Madonna wore giant cone bras and corsets designed by Jean Paul Gaultier in her 1988 tour, but Korean stars have just started to appear on stage in skimpy outfits.
Only a few years ago, Korean singer Seo Tae-ji was banned from public television for dyeing his hair red. Now, low-slung hip-hop styles reveal underwear above waistlines and female singers are frequently seen wearing halter tops.
“We began advertising lingerie with top stars in the late 1990s,” said Lee Yong-gil, PR director of SBW, an underwear company. “It was a risk for both us and the celebrity, but now, it’s not embarrassing at all to appear in a lingerie commercial.”
Many celebrities are cashing in on the shift in attitudes. Lee Hyo-lee and Kwon Sang-woo, currently two of the most popular young celebrities because of their physiques, received 330 million won ($283,000) and 400 million won respectively to appear as a couple in a series of underwear commercials this year. Jang Jin-young, who won the Best Actress award at the Blue Dragon Film Awards last year, will soon flaunt her curves for an ad campaign for Venus. She reportedly received at least 500 million won ($428,000). Diva, a famed singing and dancing female trio, released their new album last month, wearing their bras on the cover.
Dongah TV, a Korean cable fashion channel, is responding to the increased interest in lingerie fashion with several shows in their day slots beginning next month.
“We started foreign lingerie designer shows since 1998, but they were mostly after midnight because we thought the content was too much for Korean viewers during the day,” said program planning director Kwon Yong-seop. “Now, lingerie is not considered taboo, but just another type of clothes, so it’s all right to broadcast the shows during the day.”
Changing perceptions on sex and sexuality, as well as the Internet, have burst open the doors to Korea’s more private areas of fashion.
“Today’s youth is affected and influenced by Western culture real-time through the Internet. This has also lifted a lot of restraints on women’s sexuality,” said Byun Jeong-su, a culture critic. “Society is giving more room for women to express their sexuality, especially since women’s social status is rising as well. It’s trendy for both men and women to look sexy.”
Kim Eun-sil, professor of women’s studies at Ewha and director of the Asia Women’s Studies Center in Seoul, agrees that society has become much more casual about sex.
“Ten years ago, body piercing and tattoos were strange, but now they are common and people are less surprised at sex scandals. Also, companies are finding ways to market sex into the very microaspects of our society.”
Some think that young people’s purchasing power shapes the market. “When I was in my 20s, my generation was interested in fashion too,” Lee Eun-sook, 54, said. “But young people these days have more pocket money and don’t hesitate to use it. You can take my daughter as an example.”
When told that older generations were leery of lingerie, Chun Yu-eun, 17, asked, “What’s wrong about buying underwear? It’s not like I’m buying something luxurious and expensive, but it has almost the same magical effect of making me feel special.”
Impact on market
Korean lingerie companies are rushing to target teenagers and early 20-somethings. “Consumers in their teens and early 20s only make up 18 percent of the market now, but it is quickly growing. Last year, we saw a 21 percent increase in young women’s lingerie,” said Choi Sang-seol, marketing director of Namyoung L&F, one of the largest Korean innerwear companies.
Last month, SBW, well-known for its functional white underwear, changed the brand identity of one of its lines, with slogans such as “lovely and romantic” or “sensual and chic.”
Bodyguard, another underwear company, launched a new brand last month called Yes, aiming to attract teenagers. Solb, one of the first brands marketed to young women, is also undergoing plans to freshen up its image.
The boom is drawing foreign companies as well. Last September, Aimer Feel, a Japanese brand, opened shops in the main commercial shopping districts of Seoul, and Victoria’s Secret, one of the biggest U.S. lingerie stores, will open a store in Myeongdong early next month.
“With young people these days, it’s all about showy underwear,” said Victoria’s Secret marketing director Kim Ju-hwan.
That includes Korean men. It used to be that men had either their mothers or their wives buy their underwear, but the more fashion-conscious young men are now shopping for themselves.
“The men’s fashion underwear market grew 10.15 percent overall last year,” Mr. Choi said. A Fila Korea spokesperson said sales shot up 20 to 30 percent in “sexy” men’s underwear last year. New brands for men are appearing, such as Gentoff, which was introduced in August.
“When I entered college, I started living at a boardinghouse, and I wore the white briefs that my mother had packed for me,” said Kim Jae-ik, 21. “Then one day, I noticed that all my friends were wearing trunks that had colorful patterns. I buy my own underwear now,” he says.
It’s not just the different colors they’re interested in. Trunks or drawers made of spandex or Lycra are popular because they create a sleeker shape. At Calvin Klein, men’s thongs and briefs with straps that support the rear are increasingly popular as well.
“Two years ago, men thought it was embarrassing to wear spandex pants, but now a lot of men are coming into the shops and trying them on. Women are buying them for Valentine’s Day gifts too,” said Lee Jeong-in, a spokesperson for Gentoff.
Even if attitudes toward fancy underwear have changed, some women are still hesitant because they are afraid that their expression of sexuality will be misunderstood.
“Sexuality may give a new identity to a woman, but just because she wears sexy clothes doesn’t mean she is open about sex. It would be very dangerous to say that Korean women are interested in their underwear because of their interest in sex,” Professor Kim said.
Jeon Woo-young isn’t subscribing to that misconception. “I’m going to give my girlfriend some lingerie for her birthday,” the 25-year-old said. “It doesn’t mean I want to sleep with her; I just wanted to get something personal.
“I wouldn’t mind having a peek, though,” he added.