Codibrook, Stripes and MEMBERSHEEP are exporting chic Korean brands to the far corners of the world
“Korea? But there’s a war going on there, isn’t there?” and “Korea? Do you mean the North, or the South?” are the types of questions that journalist-turned-social-observer-and-entrepreneur Daniel Tudor recalls hearing when he first announced his intent to move to Seoul in the early 2000s.
In the intervening decade, however, Korea has transformed itself into a global capital of cool. You can see evidence of this as stuffy conglomerates like Samsung have risen to become coveted market contenders. K-pop stars have become the idols for a generation of Asian youth. And Korean fashion designers and cosmetics brands have earned space in the catwalks and cabinets of global trendsetters.
Tudor wrote a book called A Geek in Korea: Discovering Asia’s New Kingdom of Cool, detailing Korea’s emergence, and countless articles have also told the story of Korea’s rise.
This rise didn’t happen overnight and didn’t come without decades of planning, hard work and sacrifice, fuelled by a yearning for recognition. Author Euny Hong summarises it well: “Koreans have a deep-seated desire to see the nation recognised and validated. We study harder than anyone in the world, we work more hours, and it’s all because of this need to see us finally come on top.”
Piled onto this drive was hundreds of millions of dollars in support from the Korean government to prop up cultural icons before they reaching international prominence.
On the corporate side, titans like SM Entertainment and TheFaceShop moved early to capitalise on the growing overseas hunger for Korean cultural products. Now startups have spotted opportunities passed over by their more established peers, and the government has again stepped in. New support measures, such as KISED’s Global Acceleration Program, are aimed at catapulting Korea’s startups beyond the peninsula.
While it’s still early days, here are three Korean startups that are helping to spread Korean culture, fashion and design to the rest of the world, helped by relatively rich government support under the banner of developing the nation’s “Creative Economy.”
Here we look at some of the up and coming brands that are building robust business models around ‘Korean Cool’ and are helping consumers across the globe quench their thirst for all things Korean.
Kicking off with fashion, Codibook has become an extremely successful niche online fashion mall that is delivering Korean apparel trends to the world. Their unique selling point (USP) is that their collections are curated by Korea’s top fashion trendsetters. Fans love emulating their idols and thanks to Codibook they can truly feel like they have stepped into the wardrobe of their favorite star. Three years after founding, the company has roughly 800,000 customers.
“Fashion is subjective,” said Louis Kang, one of the company’s Co-founders. “You can’t just make a rational buying choice on a cute dress by comparing specs, like you can with a computer. Everything has to match your personal taste and of course the rest of your wardrobe. K-Pop stars and TV personalities are impeccably turned out – who wouldn’t love owning curated collections from them?”
After establishing roots in Korea, Codibook make confident steps towards overseas expansion in 2015, bringing Korean fashion to a wider audience. For it’s first market launch in Southeast Asia Codibook has partnered with Singapore’s Qoo10, presenting the fashion portal with direct relationships to over 20 of Korea’s top fashion brands.
“We differentiate ourselves by helping customers find high quality clothing that they love, rather than just competing on price,” said Kang. “Any company can try to lower prices, but only companies that are passionate about fashion can truly stay maintain trend leadership and repeatedly delight customers.”
Stripes is another Korean fashion disruptor that is working to make it more convenient for Korea’s perennially overworked salarymen to keep up with their fashion, while attending to their demanding careers. They offer custom fit shirts, coats, suits and chinos with stylists visiting clients to take measurements and select fabrics in their homes or offices.
While Seoulites have been able to get tailor-made dress shirts for decades, the inconvenience of visiting a tailor shop has been a major barrier. “No one at a Korean company has time to visit a tailor during the weekdays and on the weekends we need to relax and spend time with our families,” commented one slightly stressed looking employee.
Stripes doesn’t compete on price with high street brands, “Surprisingly, I see our main competitor as Uniqlo,” said Inggeol Kim, who leads strategic planning at Stripes. “They do a very good job with basic clothes, and that’s what Korean men want. We’re also focussed on basic designs, but we’re making them fit, feel, look and last much better than what you can get from a fast fashion retailer.”
Stripes (which will turn three in January), eliminates the inconvenient steps traditionally involved in custom clothing. While there are some challenges involved in sending stylists out on house calls, the business model is paying off. More than 90 percent of the people who follow the company’s Facebook ads to its website schedule appointments and the company has more than 30,000 customers’ measurements in its database.
“It’s very costly for us to offer this level of in-home service, but it has helped us build our customer base very quickly,” said Lee Seung-jun, who co-founded the company with Chang-hoon Lee. “Our long term success depends on our ability to satisfy our customers time-and-time.”
To ensure their continued success, Stripes has optimised their sales process by giving each of their stylists an iPad with custom software to guide the sales process and show customers how options for styles and fabrics will look when applied to their specific clothing.
Like Codibook, Stripes has made Singapore its first overseas port of call, setting up a branch there in 2015. As 2016 unfolds, the company plans to establish itself in other major metropolitan business centers across Asia, including Hong Kong, Bangkok and Tokyo.
Moving away from fashion and Southeast Asia, one of the largest consumers of Korean pop culture is China, the world’s most populous nation. Smilegate, makers of PC game Crossfire have accumulated a staggering wealth from China alone – USD $1 billion per year in the game’s hayday. Beyond content, Chinese are now clamoring for Korean products which offer high quality at a reasonable cost.
MEMBERSHEEP is now actively feeding the world’s most populous nation’s addiction for products from Korea.
MEMBERSHEEP is a member only marketplace which purchases products directly from partner brands then arranges delivery to retail outlets around the world. The model is proving a hit in China, where the government and much of the population have tired of fake goods. Chinese retailers need a stable and trustworthy supplier of branded products and MEMBERSHEEP can deliver.
Having worked with a host of Korean brands like SBENU and SIWY that are themselves looking to make inroads into China, MEMBERSHEEP even counts global favorites like Carhartt, Adidas, and Levi’s among their partners. MEMBERSHEEP has also now signed a deal with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, to bring products from their partners to the wholesale platform.
“Once a brand is accepted by MEMBERSHEEP, we handle everything from logistics and uploading the product information on our online marketplace, to customer service,” explained CEO, Kim Jinsung.
In September 2015, the company reported having helped over 50 brands launch across Taiwan, Korea, Southeast Asia and China. Sales figures grew by 170 percent tover the same period.
As Hallyu (literally meaning – the Korean wave) extends the imprint all things Korean onto the map, Korean startups will continue building innovative business models around its cultural exports. Look out for the next big thing coming out of Asia’s cultural trend setter.
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