The Korea Herald


Infamy as fashion trend catalyst

Line between notoriety and style continues to blur in fast-paced world of Korean fashion

By Song Seung-hyun

Published : June 19, 2024 - 10:33

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Ador CEO Min Hee-jin speaks at a press conference in Seoul on April 25. (Newsis) Ador CEO Min Hee-jin speaks at a press conference in Seoul on April 25. (Newsis)

In the ever-shifting realm of fashion trends, a public dispute between K-pop tastemaker Min Hee-jin and her company, Hybe, has inadvertently launched an unconventional style statement.

Min, CEO of Hybe subsidiary Ador, found herself embroiled in controversy in April when Hybe filed a breach-of-trust complaint against her with police.

However, it wasn't just the legal battle that captured public attention.

Min's attire during her April press conference, in which she swung between a tearful plea and using swear words to defend herself, became an unexpected focus. She was dressed simply and casually, wearing a blue baseball cap and a green striped sweatshirt. Both her Japanese brand California General Store T-shirt and 47Brand cap quickly sold out online afterwards.

This isn't the first time figures embroiled in controversy have intersected with the Korean fashion world.

In 1999, Sin Chang-won, a notorious fugitive serving a life sentence for murder, became an unlikely fashion icon. After escaping prison in 1997, he remained at-large for over two years. His capture was the top news nationwide and the vibrant Missoni T-shirt that he was wearing during his arrest sparked a national trend, with knock-offs flooding the market.

Similarly, controversial figures like Shin Jeong-ah, whose fabricated academic credentials rocked the nation in 2007, and Choi Seo-won, confidante to ex-President Park Geun-hye and jailed for her influence over state affairs leading to the latter's 2016 impeachment, have also seen their clothing choices garner unexpected attention. The Dolce & Gabbana jacket and McQueen T-shirt worn by Shin and the Prada shoes worn by Choi became subjects of public fascination.

This photo shows Sin Chang-won (center), who was caught more than 2 years after having escaping from prison, in 1999. (Herald DB) This photo shows Sin Chang-won (center), who was caught more than 2 years after having escaping from prison, in 1999. (Herald DB)

Why do such trends emerge?

Some see authenticity in these unexpected trends.

"Celebrities appearing at events or even in paparazzi shots are styled by professionals," explained Han, who requested anonymity. "But those in the media for negative reasons likely aren't promoting specific brands."

A 2020 report by the Korea Consumer Agency sheds light on the psychology behind this phenomenon, suggesting that the perceived wealth and power of these celebrities ironically lead some to trust the quality of their fashion choices.

“The fact that celebrities with a high level of wealth and power are perceived to have committed unsavory acts or crimes out of selfishness ironically made many have high trust in the quality of the products they choose,” the report stated.

On the other hand, some people find this trend bizarre and are unwilling to follow it.

"It's funny that such items become popular," said Kim Soo-yeon, 32. “Personally, I wouldn't buy them."

Kim Do-yeon, 39, echoed this sentiment.

"My husband has a jacket worn by trot singer Kim Ho-joong when he was investigated for drunk driving. He finds it strange that people want to buy the same item," Kim said.

Singer Kim has been arrested for his involvement in a hit-and-run incident while intoxicated. Following the news, social media buzzed with a post identifying the luxury brands of his clothing: a Moncler jacket, Louis Vuitton shoes and Chrome Hearts glasses.

Minji of NewJeans (Ador) Minji of NewJeans (Ador)

Brand perspective

This phenomenon isn't exclusive to Korea, but local fashion industry insiders say the market here is highly sensitive to those who command a lot of influence -- be it positive or negative.

"Koreans are heavily influenced by those with a high level of social recognition," said one such industry insider. She added that foreign brands often find it challenging to build long-term success in Korea due to the rapid rise and fall of trends driven by celebrities and others who suddenly become popular on social media.

While these products experience a sales surge, the brands do not always welcome such exposure.

When the padded jacket worn by Chung Yoo-ra, the daughter of Choi Seo-won, was rumored to be from Nobis, the brand swiftly denied it.

In 2020, Fila Korea issued a statement shortly after images of Cho Ju-bin, the South Korean mastermind of the online sex blackmail ring, Nth Room, appeared in the media.

"We are deeply regretful and dismayed that Cho Ju-bin was seen wearing our product," the statement said. The company requested that journalists "blur the Fila logo" in the images.

At Musinsa, the country’s largest online fashion platform, sales of MLB's LA Dodgers ball cap, similar to the one worn by Min, increased by 269 percent in the April 25-28 period, compared to April 21-24.

Despite seeing a sales bump in Min-promoted items, the platform made it clear that it does not want to be seen as involved in the case. An official there declined to give any comment.

Instead, a local fashion insider said, “a sales surge from bad publicity might please the sales team, but management is unlikely to favor it due to potential damage to the brand image."

Moreover, in recent years, the question of authenticity also surfaced over these trends, making brands more unwilling to be exposed this way, according to sources.

For instance, Min’s attire choice was questioned for being an intentional choice to promote NewJeans, Ador's biggest stars.

A member of girl group NewJeans, produced by Min, sported a similar green-striped shirt and blue cap in a teaser photo released just a day after Min's press conference.