LVMH's Private Equity Firm is Banking on the Power of Korean Culture

While Korean pop-stars are busy infiltrating the fashion industry (and Western audiences with their English language song choruses), LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton has been making a play for Korean (and Chinese) consumers by way of Korea’s thriving market for luxury goods. Thanks to the January 2016 alliance of LVMH and Groupe Arnault, the family holding company of LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault, with Greenwich, Connecticut-based consumer-focused private equity group Catterton to form L Catterton and before that, their formation of the L Capital regional off-shoots, LVMH has some interesting assets under its ownership umbrella.

One such acquisition brought YG Entertainment, one of Korea’s top K-pop management firms, with talent including Big Bang and 2NE1, under the L Capital umbrella in August 2014 with an investment that is expected to be up to $80 million. As noted by Reuters at the time, “LVMH and YG have worked together before.  When YG-managed rapper-producer G-Dragon (pictured above), a member of Big Bang and a fashion icon, released his solo album in 2009, LVMH’s Louis Vuitton was the clothing sponsor, the first time the luxury brand backed a South Korean singer.”

G-Dragon has since become a brand ambassador for Chanel, while his Big Band bandmate Taeyang was scooped up by LVMH-owned Fendi last year to collaborate on a capsule collection and campaign, entitled, “Fendi for Taeyang.”

The fashion industry has not been immune to the selling power of K-pop, which is nearly unmatched by anything in the West, particularly since South Korea’s government began pouring millions of dollars into forming a Ministry of Culture with a specific department devoted to K-pop,” as NPR columnist Kat Chow noted. Such efforts included building massive, multi-million dollar concert auditoriums and developing an array of concert-related technologies.

Euny Hong, the author of The Birth of Korean Cool, elaborated saying: "They wanted Korea of the 21st century to be like America of the 20th century where America was just considered so universally cool that anything made in America would automatically be bought.”

LVMH has made additional inroads to the Korean consumer – and in connection therewith, the Chinese consumers, as Chinese luxury consumers will spend $29 billion at South Korea luxury retailers by 2020 – by way of two additional investments. In June 2016, L Catterton Asia took a minority stake in CLIO Cosmetics.

The acquisition makes sense given the widespread obsession with Korean beauty, both on Korean soil and on an increasingly international basis, including in major markets like China. As the BBC reported in 2016, South Korean women spend more of their income on cosmetics than those in any other country. In fact, Korean women spend twice as much of their income on beauty products and make-up than their American counterparts.

With that in mind, "Foreign investors having been piling into the Korean cosmetics business in recent years, emboldened by the country's success in exporting a 'Korean Wave' culture built around music, fashion and beauty products,” according to Reuters. “In 2015, South Korea become the second-largest cosmetics exporter to China after France, shipping $1.1 billion in goods, according to Seoul's Ministry of Food and Drug Safety."

Just over a year later, in September 2017, L Catterton Asia made another Korean investment. This time, it placed its bets on eyewear brand Gentle Monster. Ravi Thakran, chairman and managing partner of L Catterton Asia, confirmed the deal, saying that L Catterton Asia "has become the second-biggest shareholder of IICOMBINED, the owner and operator of Gentle Monster, after its two founders.”

Founded in 2011 by Jay Oh and Hankook Kim, Gentle Monster has surged in popularity in South Korea and China – traditionally dominated by Western luxury brands – in recent years as part of a new guard that is making waves in South Korea and helping to not only keep Korean fashion – an industry that has already brought in billions of dollars from pop-cultural exports to the West – firmly on the map but to elevate it even further in the eyes of international consumers.

LVMH’s continued investment – by way of L Catterton – is the latest indication that Korea is home to an influential market that is making waves on an international scale.