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Seoulista: South Korea’s Cultural Feminine Identity

By Joie Goh

Amorepacific Singapore + Top Photo CorporationRestrained makeup, flawless skin and feminine silhouettes define South Korea's vision of the ideal modern woman, embodied in the muses of Amorepacific's brands like Song Hye-Kyo, Gianna Jun and Park Shin-Hye.


“The Parisienne’s beauty is timeless,” declares a suited, bespectacled middle-aged South Korean executive to a room full of beauty editors. His presence is slightly incongruous to the setting; a floral- bedecked, purple-themed private makeup studio on the second floor of Korean cosmetic brand Hera’s flagship boutique in the chic Gangnam district of Seoul. The speaker in question is Lee Jong Hyun, the brand’s global marketing team manager and an 18-year veteran of Amorepacific, its parent company. He inhales, and completes his statement:

“But the Seoulista’s beauty is transformative.”

The girlish K-beauty look has made its presence known in the last decade — thick, ruler-straight brows; overly dewy skin with a lacquered sheen; gradient lips — but the Seoulista is not simply an aesthetic. Trademarked by Hera in 2013, the term was coined to describe a very particular set of ideals that embodies the contemporary South Korean woman. Through a series of slick visuals and catchy buzzwords, Lee characterises this East Asian female Übermensch: she is ultra-feminine, professional and trendy. “She works hard at her career, and she is successful, but she enjoys her life as well,” he adds. “She is the new woman of the 21st century.”

The emphasis is ever on the feminine: Even if the Seoulista wears a pantsuit, the aesthetic is never mannish or masculine; high heels, classic jewellery and soft, flowing hair finish the look, no matter how impractical. She dominates the boardroom, but never intimidates.

The goal in crafting this image, according to Lee, is to put forward an internationally and instantly recognisable portrait of a Korean woman. Just like how insouciant hair and cavalier red lips defined the effortless Parisienne, or how bold brows and smoky eyes defined the polished Brit Girl, the Seoulista’s makeup is sophisticated, understated and natural — but decidedly not au naturel.

Taking over the presentation, the brand’s chief makeup artist Jason Lee details the specifics of the look: flawless, semi-matte skin by way of cushion foundation and glow-enhancing primers, subtle eyeliner and coral or pink lipstick that does not veer too far from one’s natural lip colour.

The Seoulista look takes advantage of the Korean woman’s skin tone and texture — perhaps the most coveted of Korean features according to the internet (typing “why do Koreans” into Google yields “have good skin” as the second-most popular autocomplete suggestion). Contouring, a Western trend that’s increasingly popular in South Korea, requires a barely-there approach; just a touch down the sides of the nose and inner socket of the eyes to give a hint of depth, nothing under the cheekbones or jaw.

Jason Lee, who also helms the beauty direction backstage for Seoul Fashion Week (of which Hera is the key sponsor), constantly cautions against looking too intimidating. His extent of an edgy eye look involves drawing eyeliner with a pencil, then filling in the gaps of the lashes with a liquid to create a clearer line. Korean faces, he explains without mincing words, tend to be dull compared to Western or Caucasian features. “Their eyes, nose and lips aren’t very clear or distinct,” says Jason Lee, referring to the flatter and more delicate facial features common to East Asians. “Therefore, Korean women used to overdo it and highlight everything with thick eye makeup and bold lips. It’s too heavy-handed.”

To further encourage South Korean women to adopt the look and embody the ideal, Hera, which will be launched here come 2018, publishes a quarterly magazine in Korea. It profiles personalities such as fashion and jewellery designers, and female entrepreneurs, who lead successful careers while maintaining a stylish, ladylike aesthetic. The magazine also peppers its pages with aspirational lifestyle snapshots of the brand’s beauty offerings, recommendations of boutiques and cafes that a wannabe-Seoulista should visit, and even the specific types of pastries she ought to order. Poetic, philosophical vignettes often accompany the visuals, such as: “Seoulista’s (sic) eyes capture the daily scenery, which had been overlooked. In this fast-moving city, the small happiness that comes from such moments is more valuable than anything else.”

While the term Seoulista is owned by Hera, the aesthetic is not. From Song Hye-Kyo in “Descendants of the Sun”, to Gianna Jun in “The Legend of the Blue Sea” and Park Shin-Hye in “Doctor Crush”, nearly every leading lady in recent blockbuster K-dramas sport the look, often leading to a mass-effect of sell-out colours and products used by the actresses, which are not limited to a particular brand. It makes sense, though, that Hera is championing and leading the charge: Amorepacific is South Korea’s biggest beauty conglomerate, and Hera, its leading premium label, which positions itself as the equivalent of Yves St Laurent Beauty. Whatever Hera dictates, K-beauty follows.