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Men Primp for Power in Competitive S. Korea

From androgynous young males to aging businessmen, more are turning to makeup.

October 19, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — The handsome young men walk past each other in the blinding sunlight. Their shoulders lightly brush, and they turn their heads for a closer inspection.

"Wow, he's got great skin," murmurs one, while the other casually informs him, "It's just that I've changed skin lotion."

The scene is from a television advertisement, hawking what is euphemistically called a "color lotion" for men. Actually, it's a liquid foundation designed, as the ad says, to "cover the imperfections."

Cosmetics merchants in the West are still fantasizing about the day when men will wear makeup -- and presumably cough up as much money on their appearance as women do -- but in South Korea, the future is now.

Color Lotion was introduced last year with a lavish advertising campaign starring androgynous World Cup soccer star Ahn Jung Hwan -- the David Beckham of South Korea. The lotion chalked up $4 million in sales in the first six months, surprising even its manufacturer.

Meanwhile, the chairman of one of the country's largest cosmetics companies recently published his confessional memoirs with the title "The CEO Who Wears Makeup."

"Why shouldn't men want to look beautiful and take care of their skin?" asked Yu Sang Ok, 70, the head of Coreana Cosmetics. "Especially as they grow older, they have to wear makeup if they don't want to look shabby."

In fact, Korean men were touching up their appearances long before the term "metrosexual" was coined by trend-spotters in the West to describe heterosexual men who lavish attention on their looks.

Most politicians over 50 dye their hair. President Roh Moo Hyun and his predecessor, Kim Dae Jung, are distinguished by heads of jet-black hair -- as is North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, although his regime is sufficiently secretive that one cannot say with certainty whether his hair is dyed.

Kim Min Yoo, an Estee Lauder salesman at a Seoul department store, says prominent figures have been using makeup as well, but discreetly.

"It's always existed. Men would wear a little of their wives' or girlfriends' makeup. It is just that now it is out in the open and respectable," said Kim, who wears his hair streaked with copper highlights and admits to applying a little powder and eyebrow pencil for special occasions.

South Koreans are famous in Asia for their pursuit of beauty.

Seoul's plastic surgeons, fashion boutiques, hairdressers and cosmetics merchants attract customers from throughout the region.

Those in the industry attribute the phenomenon to an ultra-competitive society, especially when it comes to jobs.

"One's skin is important to get a job," said Ji Jeong Hyeon of CNP Skin, a cosmetics company.

He said that men who buy cosmetics "are, in short, investing in themselves to raise their value."

The advertising for men's makeup here features young, girlish models. But market research indicates that the best customers are middle-aged businessmen who are trying to compete.

"We thought this would be popular with teenagers and men in their 20s, but we discovered to our surprise that it was men in their 40s who were most concerned about their skin being rough from the effects of aging, heavy smoking and stress," said Chong Pu Kyung, who helped develop Color Lotion for Somang Cosmetics.

"This is Confucian society that respects age, but men feel they need to look younger in order to succeed," she said.

Until Color Lotion was released last year, men's cosmetics consisted of after-shaves, moisturizers, acne treatments and "whitening" creams, a ubiquitous product in Asia. The very idea of a foundation to cover the skin was considered too effeminate to be marketed to men.

But the product's success broke through the psychological barriers here against real makeup, and it has since been widely emulated by other cosmetics companies.

Somang, meanwhile, is beginning to market its product in China, Vietnam, Mongolia and Japan, where men's makeup is even more widely accepted. The company is even considering an eyebrow pencil for men.

Jinna Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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