What Is K-Beauty and Why Does It Have Such a Cult Following in India?

A throng of women and men from around India descended upon the Palladium mall in Chennai’s Phoenix MarketCity last month with just one keyword on their lips: K-beauty. They were there to participate and shop at India’s first ever K-BeautyCon, an event that included panel discussions, masterclasses with makeup artists, and blogger meets featuring some of the biggest beauty influencers from India and the top beauty brands from South Korea. The event was a part of the mall’s month-long celebration of Asian culture including anime, Asian cinema, K-pop and eSports.

But there’s no doubt that K-beauty has a cult-like following unlike any other import from the rest of Asia. In fact, if the craze among well-heeled millennials on Instagram is anything to go by (just search for #kbeauty), it’s the next big thing for beauty junkies, and Indian brands had better watch out.

What is it about South Korean beauty that makes it such a natural fit for a country like India? For one, it’s because in both countries, the focus is on skincare over cosmetics, says Nishant PK, head of sales for Limese India. Nishant’s company is based in India and South Korea and was launched two years ago by three former MBA classmates at Indian School of Business.

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Product counters at K-BeautyCon in September 2018 at Palladium Mall, Chennai

The firm not only manufactures its own beauty products under the brand name Limese, they also serve as the sole distributor for other top-selling independent Korean brands such as A. by Bom and Dear Klairs (also just called Klairs), one of the highest rated beauty brands on Amazon.

These brands already had a high organic demand in India due to their rumoured high effectiveness with endowing visibly fairer and flawless skin, and were being imported through illegal channels way before Limese made it available officially. The second highest number of viewers for Dear Klairs’ YouTube channel in English, after the US, are from India.

“The first time we listed Klairs products on Nykaa.com (priced from Rs 1,200 to 2,100), we sold a product a minute and went out of stock within hours. It was completely unexpected,” says Kaushal Shah, head of operations for Limese. Nykaa, in fact, now has a dedicated section for South Korean skincare offering over a dozen brands.

Another reason for the success of K-beauty products among the more evolved beauty addicts is that – as a country with over 4,000 homegrown beauty labels and very stringent production values – South Korean beauty brands are highly trusted everywhere in the world. “I was so sure about their quality that I tried over 200 K-beauty brands to solve my acne and pigmentation problem,” says Shelley Nayak, a senior project engineer working in civil planning, who imported the products through Instagram sellers, and didn’t mind paying the extra customs fee.

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L-R: Beauty blogger Ankita Arora (Beautyandthebeing.com); engineer and K-beauty maven, Shelley Nayak (skbbi.com)

Her various experiments in Korean products led to the launch of her blog, South Korea Beauty Blog from India (skbbi.com) and she is now quite a celebrity in the domain. “What I respect about K-beauty is that they spend their money on research and development, and not so much on marketing,” says the 27-year-old civil engineer who found her beauty salvation in brands like CosRX and Troiareuke.

“Unlike in India, K-beauty products are not celebrity endorsed, and are marketed only through word of mouth by religious followers. They’re also very transparent about their ingredients, unlike in India,” she avers.

Her fellow beauty blogger Ankita Arora agrees. “Beauty buyers are more aware now; they go through ingredients lists and they know what works for their skin and what doesn’t. That’s where K-beauty really scores,” says the Mumbai-based entrepreneur who blogs at Beautyandthebeing.com.

The 33-year-old rolls her eyes at the famed 10-step K-beauty regime, though: “It’s too heavy for me; it clogs my pores,” she says, adding that she cut down on the number of products and now uses only about four throughout the day.

“K-beauty products are high on hydration, which is good for acne-prone skin like mine,” says Ankita who came upon the K-beauty brand Laneige while on a trip to Hong Kong and is hooked to it. She sources it now through Daisyskinfix.com, a leading retailer for K-beauty in India.

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L-R: Founders of She Skin by Seoul-Made, Kunal Puri and Noel Ham; the She Skin counter at K-BeautyCon

In fact, such is the demand for Korean products in India that She Skin, a two-month old beauty label from Indo-Korean brand Seoul-Made, decided to launch it at the K-BeautyCon in Chennai first.

The brainchild of two friends, Noel Ham and Kunal Puri, the brand has launched a line of four products priced Rs 2,500 to 6,500 especially for the Indian market. One of them, the Micro Bubble Oxygen Therapy Cleanser, uses a patented microbubble technology to avoid scrubbing the face too hard.

“Our company uses only high-quality natural ingredients and was originally making products called Dr She for plastic surgeons in Korea and Japan to help patients heal after surgery,” says Noel, a Korean American who has lived in Bengaluru for three years and loves being in India.

“In fact, all products have 93–95 percent concentration of natural ingredients instead of water as the primary ingredient. That makes them highly effective from the very first day of use,” he adds.

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Beauty writer Kannagi Desai

Beauty writer Kannagi Desai would agree. A fan of K-beauty products ever since Innisfree made its entry into India a few years ago, she has been closely following the evolution of South Korean beauty products in India and is pretty pleased about it.

Indians are comfortable with the idea of natural ingredients in their products, says the Mumbai-based writer, especially due to our history of Ayurveda. “And K-beauty products such as sheet masks, which cost as little as Rs 100 a piece, are a great way to lure younger customers who may not be able to shell out large sums at one go,” she says.

“K-beauty is also less weird than J-beauty,” Kannagi goes on with a grave, all-knowing nod, indicating that the odd ingredients and application procedures of Japanese beauty products may perhaps turn off some people in India.

But that’s the stuff of another story. Until J-beauty arrives on Indian shores, K-beauty can make hay.

First published in the October 2018 issue of eShe magazine

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