Diversity has become a much bigger priority for fashion and beauty brands that go global. Models that aren’t just white and conventionally thin are beginning to gain traction in the fashion industry and on social media. No longer are billboards and magazines dominated mostly by one race. But this progress is only significant at face value – the public is still aware of the unjust disparities between the treatment of BIPOC models and white models, and many non-white consumers continue to struggle to find faces of their racial background representing their favorite products.
So in the midst of all this controversy, you would think that it makes sense for less racially diverse countries, especially if most of their population are people of color, to house and spawn local brands that use models primarily of their race. But this isn’t the case.
While possibly unnoticeable at first glance, most of the Korean streetwear brands worshipped by consumers in Seoul predominantly use white models for their advertisements. To illustrate, at least half of the models on the homepage of Musinsa, a popular Korean online fashion store, are white (as of now). Also, while Kirsh is one of the most sought after streetwear brands among Korean teenagers, a single glimpse on their page is enough to tell you that they do not use Asian models on their site at all, excepting their beauty line.
Of course, there is a good number of companies that hire Korean models for their campaigns. But many less mainstream, indie brands often put their clothes on white models – sometimes exclusively. And as it turns out, the smaller a brand is, the whiter their model lineup may become. International marketing and sales director at PLAC, a Korean casual fashion brand, gives us the reasoning behind this phenomenon: There is a smaller selection of lesser-known Korean models, so hiring foreign ones generally provides a financial advantage for the company, not to mention it being less time-consuming.
The manager of Stussy Korea presents another explanation; he suggests that when Korean brands try to cast Korean models, they feel pressure to hire ones with greater recognition. But this still doesn’t clear the veil from the mystery. It just sounds like a lame excuse. Why would foreign faces with blue eyes and blonde hair provide a similar, if not the same marketing effect for a company that celeb-level Korean models would? Why are western models the better alternative in shaping a company’s image? And as for foreign models being the more accessible option, wouldn’t submitting to this only dry out of the already small pool of underground Asian models?
It’s questionable whether the decision to showcase white models is primarily economically driven, but rather more so driven by inherent cultural ideologies. The romanticization of Western culture is still apparent in Asian societies, at least in Korea. While in English, the slang term, “hip”, casually refers to something of the latest fashion, Koreans often use it to positively describe a certain style that is deemed very westernized. A girl with ABG or “Insta baddie” makeup on is considered “hip”. A restaurant resembling a 50’s drive-thru is “hip”. Thus, a brand whose clothes are modeled by foreigners may be “hip”. And recently, the 90’s American schoolgirl aesthetic has been surging, dubbed by Koreans as the “High-teen” trend.
These trends and terms are completely fine. The appreciation of Western culture is not problematic in itself, but the romanticization of it can become an issue when it’s seen as more desirable than one’s own cultural identity. The notion that Asian countries are less developed than Europe and North America and the association of Asians with knock-offs and poverty is still ongoing. It continues to affect Asian societies. Senior editor at Musinsa says this himself: “We have a subconscious inferiority complex against Westerners. As a race, we have a tendency to think Westerners are more sophisticated than we are.”
This less implicit reason might be at the heart of the problem of the lack of Asian models in K-fashion brands. Yes, it’s a problem, because as a customer and a citizen of a country, it’s understandable for people to want to see their roots represented by brands that they buy from, just as anybody else would. The US is populated by people of all racial backgrounds. And Americans, whether they are white, Black, Asian, Latinx, native, or mixed, deserve to see their clothes modeled by people that look like them, especially if the clothes are from a local brand. Similarly, if a brand caters internationally, they should also put a heavy emphasis on representing the global population (this means all races!). But if someone can’t find representation overseas nor in their own home country, where will they?