Image: Louis Vuitton

“Despite the ongoing pandemic, South Korean consumers are still obsessed with luxury goods,” Korean Bizwire asserted this week, pointing to the fact that Gen-Z and millennial consumers – who helped to generate $12.5 billion last year – were readily lining up outside of Louis Vuitton and Chanel stores early this year even as COVID-19 cases were rising. The assertion comes several months after Korean publication Financial News revealed that Korea’s three top department store chains all reported double-digit luxury goods sales for 2020 on a year-over-year basis, as consumers who have been unable to travel spend extra on personal luxury goods.

As the global luxury goods market has taken a hit as a result of the pandemic, with Bain & Co. revealing that sales for the segment dropped by 23 percent in 2020, the most significant plummet in sales Since the consultancy began tracking the market in 1996, “China and Korea have shown the biggest demand for luxury brands during the pandemic,” Korea JoongAng Daily reported in February. While the overall economy in South Korea “stagnated due to the coronavirus,” Seo Yong-gu, a professor of business administration at Sookmyung Women’s University, told Korea Bizwire, “the income levels of between 6 and 7 million [Korean] households actually rose,” prompting Korean consumers to exhibit “a strong appetite for luxury consumption.”   

COVID aside, the $12.5 billion Korean luxury market is growing, with Bizwire reporting this week that “the popularity of luxury goods in South Korean has bucked a global trend, as last year’s luxury sales worldwide ($286.9 billion) dropped by 19 percent from the previous year ($354.4 billion).” In charging ahead, the publication revealed that “luxury sales in South Korea outstripped Germany in 2020,” enabling the country to become “the world’s seventh largest contributor to the global luxury market.” Deloitte highlighted the strength of the market in its 2020 Global Powers of Luxury Goods report, stating that while consumers in Mexico, Chile, and India were less than optimistic about spending in light of the pandemic, consumers in Korea were among those that were “most secure about their finances,” and thus, more likely to shell out on more expensive purchases. 

It is presumably this luxury goods growth and willingness to spend, paired with the remarkable appeal of boy band BTS that has prompted Louis Vuitton to tap the 7-member-group as its newest global brand ambassadors. In a statement on Friday, the Paris-based group’s men’s artistic director Virgil Abloh said that he is “delighted BTS are joining Louis Vuitton today,” and revealed that he is “looking forward to this wonderful partnership, which adds a modern chapter to the house, merging luxury and contemporary culture.” Meanwhile, the superstar group asserted in a statement of their own, “Becoming global brand ambassadors for Louis Vuitton is a truly exciting moment for us. We are excited for our upcoming projects with Virgil Abloh.”

The move by Louis Vuitton to put RM, Jin, SUGA, j-hope, Jimin, V and Jung Kook at the front of its menswear division is the latest – and certainly, the most momentous – example of a Western giant looking to tap into the increasingly globalized appeal of K-Pop and its mega-stars. Worth an estimated $6 billion, K-Pop as an industry has become a global phenomenon, with brands both in and outside of Korea looking to the hyper-influential segment as a way to reach a pool of hyper-engaged fans. 

Chanel, for instance, has been tapping into Korea demand by way of former boy-bander G-Dragon, who has served as an ambassador to the French fashion house for several years. Speaking about the decision to enlist G-Dragon, Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s president of fashion, stated back in 2017 that “today, South Korea is the most influential country in Asia, with its energy and creativity, its youth culture and the pop music and TV celebrities, who have become incredibly powerful, even in China and Japan.” 

The appeal of BTS – and other K-Pop royalty – goes beyond Korea, though. “The success of its sprawling, genre-defying pop album ‘Map of the Soul: 7,’” for instance, was “a sign of how the rising K-Pop act is cementing its place in American culture,” the Wall Street Journal stated last year after the album hit No. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200 chart, the band’s fourth chart-topper in less than two years. BTS – with its catchy, Grammy-nominated songs and sweeping social media followership – is “a success story that defies conventional wisdom about the kinds of music Americans will tune into – not least because the songs are mostly sung in Korean,” the publication’s Neil Shah wrote, asserting that “across style and subject matter, BTS’s music and squeaky-clean image appeal to millennial and Generation Z listeners who are drawn to themes of self-acceptance and empowerment.”

Looking beyond the increasingly sweeping geography of BTS super-fans – the group of individuals that refer to themselves the “Army” – and they do span the globe, the sheer level of fandom at play is striking. There is “a deep, even life-changing, attachment to the group and its message of inclusivity and self-love,” the New York Times revealed last year, noting that BTS’ biggest Army-level supporters, “don’t just attend concerts or buy the band’s seemingly endless stream of merchandise (although they do plenty of that), they have organized themselves into groups that perform a host of services on the band’s behalf, from translating a fire hose of BTS content into English and other languages … to running highly coordinated social media campaigns.” 

It is no wonder that Louis Vuitton – which seemingly foreshadowed the big BTS announcement when it dressed the band for the 2021 Grammys last month, where BTS was nominated for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance – wants in. Given the fact that its business largely depends on generating buzz in order to sell large volumes of branded leather goods and accessories, BTS seems like one of the most appropriate places to turn right now.

In a matter of 24 hours, Louis Vuitton’s first Instagram post announcing the addition of BTS to its roster of ambassadors has racked up more than 950,000 likes and nearly 30,000 comments. (For a point of reference, that is almost double the amount of traction generated by six images of Abloh’s S/S 2021 menswear campaign that Louis Vuitton posted several weeks ago combined). If such early Instagram traction is any indication, this is going to be a blockbuster pairing.