Not long ago, a colleague of mine here in our Hong Kong office came in brimming with excitement over a new pair of sunglasses she had just purchased. She was eager to show them to me and shocked that I had never heard of the brand: Gentle Monster, a South Korean luxury eyewear firm that recently opened its first flagship store in Hong Kong.
Called “The Platform,” the trendy Causeway Bay shop is designed to look like a train station platform, and this gallery-like appeal follows the company’s philosophy of “innovational high-end experiments.” Even with a high price point of about US$300 a pair, Gentle Monster had caused quite a sensation with a long queue out its showroom door. The brand focuses on lightweight eyewear designed to fit the typical contours of Asian faces with lower nose bridges.
After discovering the brand, I stopped into a Gentle Monster after-sale service shop when I was back in Seoul this summer. Such service shops only repair glasses and fulfill prescriptions. The shop owner there told me that its foreign customers (mostly from Asia) have increased, and business was up as patronage among Korean consumers seeking repairs and servicing was also growing. Established about five years ago, the company’s frames gained popularity after Korean actress Jun Ji-Hyun wore them in an episode of the popular drama “My Love from the Star.” Now, Gentle Monster has amassed enough of a following to roll out shops in Beijing and New York’s SoHo, in addition to its six domestic Korean shops, and its presence in major department stores around the world.
By now, the K-Wave phenomenon—which includes popular K-Pop bands, Korean cosmetics, television dramas and food—is old news. But a Korean wave of high-end fashion brands? The Korea I grew up in was a famous destination for the original equipment manufacturers of global brands. Now, pricey Korean-designed sunglasses with international appeal mark a new dimension in this cultural evolution.
On my way back to Hong Kong, I tried on some Gentle Monster sunglasses at an airport duty free shop, and was impressed with its quality and branding. Moreover, it was my first experience witnessing the success of a luxury Korean brand overseas—and wondered: can Korea transform from technology provider to a branding and content ace? Asia is home to many entrepreneurs, with the region’s local companies gaining market share, and even achieving international brand recognition. I am hopeful that Korean companies are now moving into luxury brand segments, and this is now something that we watch for during our company visits.