Last June, I saw fashion’s love affair with K-pop heat up firsthand, at the Prada men’s show. The fashion week spectacle has been getting crazier year after year since the dawn of social media, and South Korea’s SM Entertainment has been determined to get in on the action. SM is one of the largest agencies dedicated to incubating and managing K-pop groups, with NCT, EXO, Girls’ Generation, Red Velvet, WayV, and more under its hitmaking umbrella. After sending a few artists to Paris Fashion Week before the pandemic, 2022 saw SM launch a full court press to link its talent with European luxury houses. “Prada SS23 Men’s show was the fashion show where we started to engage more enthusiastically,” said Soyeon Kim, the visual director of SM. SM arranged for Jaehyun from their flagship group, NCT, to attend the show, where he was shriekingly greeted by a crowd of around 400-500 people—mostly young Italians—who had earnestly waited behind metal barriers around the brand’s Fondazione Prada venue for several hours.
The payoff of such a relationship is twofold, according to Wook Kim, SM’s head of visual/fashion. “As a K-pop artist, there is a difference between the visuals shown in their album and the visuals shown at fashion shows with brands,” Wook explained via email. “Thus, attending Fashion Week gives you the opportunity to show new visuals, and participation in the event itself imprints the artist’s value and extends it to the fashion market, resulting in a mutually beneficial relationship between artist and brand.” In other words, the artist gets to create elevated content, and the brand gets access to the artist’s image—and, increasingly, their enormous Gen-Z fan base.
In recent months, this arrangement has created a runaway nuclear reaction of hype. At the Prada men’s show in January, enough screaming Enhypen fans to populate a small Italian town (over 6,000, per a Prada rep) clogged the streets around the Fondazione, signs in hand and phones at the ready. When the seven denim- and leather-clad boys got out of their black sprinter vans, the collective hyperventilation must have been picked up by seismographs. NCT star Jeno’s trip to Milan for the Ferragamo show in February practically shifted the city’s traffic patterns. “The road was paralyzed because fans gathered in front of the Ferragamo store when Jeno was visiting there, even though it wasn’t the actual show day,” said Soyeon Kim. Concrete proof that SM’s plan is working. “The energy and hype was very impressive,” Kim added.
This unprecedented viral fandom explains why brands are eager to lock down K-pop stars for front row exclusives, and, increasingly, long-term contracts, as was the case when Dior signed Jimin as a global brand ambassador in January. Louis Vuitton followed by announcing J-Hope as the luggage juggernaut’s newest house ambassador, saying in a statement that the Seoul-based artist “brings his unique charm and style to this exciting new chapter with the Maison.” “It boils down to engagement,” said Bryan Yambao, AKA Bryanboy, the front row fixture and editor-in-chief of Perfect Magazine, following the Miu Miu show in Paris. “You have this generational shift of kids who are obsessed with these Asian celebrities versus, say, Jake Gyllenhaal. They really worship them as idols. So they will buy whatever they’re wearing, they will buy whatever they’re promoting, they’ll hype them up on the internet. It’s a different world.”