Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The Business of Fashion, an editorial partner of CNN Style.
NewJeans may not have celebrated its first birthday yet, but the South Korean quintet behind hit songs “Attention” and “Hype Boy” has become a need-to-know name in fashion circles.
In March alone, NewJeans’ members Minji, Hanni, Danielle, Haerin and Hyein, all still in their teens, have inked a global ambassadorship with Levi’s, appeared in a photo shoot for American Vogue and were appointed ambassadors for Seoul Fashion Week. And that’s just as a group. Individually, Hanni represents Gucci and Armani Beauty, Hyein works with Louis Vuitton, Danielle was tapped by Burberry and YSL Beauty, while Minji is an ambassador for Chanel in three divisions: fashion, beauty and watches and jewelry.
These luxury brands are anticipating hefty returns from lovers of Korean music, movies and TV shows. The number of “hallyu” (or “Korean Wave”) fans exceeded 178 million last year, according to a report by the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs-affiliated Korea Foundation, up from 156 million in 2021 and nearly 20 times the fan population 11 years ago.
Data from social media analytics agency LaunchMetrics shows that K-pop stars are regularly some of the top drivers of engagement and subsequently revenue for brands. When Cartier announced Blackpink’s Jisoo as brand ambassador, for instance, that social media post generated $3 million in media value for the brand, and when BTS attended the 2022 Grammy Awards dressed in Louis Vuitton the appearance generated $6.4 million of value for the label.
Brands have plenty of options: NewJeans is one of more than a dozen K-pop acts to launch last year, including Mimiirose, Fifty Fifty and Le Sserafim. Many are looking to fill the void left by BTS, which has temporarily disbanded until around 2025 while its members undertake their mandatory military service. Meanwhile, top acts like Blackpink and Twice are embarking on global tours as the live events calendar returns to its pre-pandemic form.
But because of their softer, pared-back look, NewJeans has benefited from the fashion industry’s recent turn towards quiet luxury. The moniker NewJeans was chosen because it alludes to jeans being a timeless fashion staple, and is also a double entendre for “new genes,” an indication of their intent to herald a new generation of K-pop. In short, NewJeans are the kind of performers that brands can harness as a refreshing alternative.
Why luxury loves NewJeans
Although their meteoric rise is similar to Blackpink’s, and both acts are multi-member girl groups (NewJeans has five members to Blackpink’s four), that’s mostly where the similarities end. When it comes to aesthetic and musical appeal, NewJeans has been charting its own path with a girl-next-door-look and sweet pop tunes since debuting last July.
Instead of high-octane makeup and outfits, the girls are styled as innocent and mostly natural. In the music videos for both “Ditto” and “Cookie,” they wear schoolgirl uniforms, meanwhile in “OMG”, they dance with backpacks in the shape of stuffed toy animals.
The sets in each of their music videos are relatively simple, too — for example, a sports field, or a studio with a bench as the only prop. It’s a contrast to the swaggery dance moves and highly-saturated, CGI-effects-filled music videos that have been dominant among K-pop girl groups.
That choice could be due to how young the group’s members are. The oldest, Minji, is only 18, while Hyein is just 14. The cutesy stylings also extend to their dedicated fan app “Phoning” and YouTube channel, where they release the kind of content that could double as a children’s TV show. In various 30-minute clips, they play shop, throw a pajama party and visit a farm, for example.
Who are their fans?
Brands and events have been lining up to tap into their growing following, a fandom that call themselves Bunnies or “tokki” — a reference to a cartoon rabbit character on the NewJeans’ album cover.
Seoul Fashion Week appointed the group ambassadors for 2023, succeeding actor Lee Jung Jae of “Squid Game” fame. The organizers pointed to “their daily fashion and stage outfits (which) show this naturalness and bouncy charm in a bright and friendly way,” and coordinated for the group to promote local designers Ulkin, Ajobyajo and Blr Bluer during the event.
But as important as their home market is (South Korea over-indexes on luxury sales relative to the size of its population), it’s the girls’ international appeal that stands out. Musinsa, a leading e-commerce platform that specializes in selling South Korean fashion overseas signed the group in October as ambassadors.
The company, which stocks some 300 brands like Thisisneverthat and Mardi Mercredi on its global site, said in the announcement it expects the group to “create a new wave of K-fashion” and that they will “be perfect as a K-icon for promoting Korean fashion brands to the world.”
Musinsa plans to use the campaigns with NewJeans to market in Japan, Southeast Asia, the US and — leveraging the background of two of the girls, Danielle and Hanni, who grew up there — Australia.
In a pairing that seemed destined to happen, NewJeans signed on as Levi’s global ambassadors in mid-March. The denim brand called it “a natural partnership” thanks to the “group’s desire to be as timeless to culture as jeans are to fashion.”
That same month, the group was featured in a photo shoot with the US edition of Vogue, shot by photographer Cho Giseok.
Because Cho also wears another hat as the founder of the LVMH Prize-nominated fashion label, Kusikohc, his brand saw a jump in social media followers after the Vogue photo shoot.
Lawrence Von Mohl, global brand manager for Kusikohc, said that Asian pop stars tend to cultivate much more intense fanbases in the West, while Asian followers are more willing to spend money to support their idols, even irrationally. (Fans have been known to each buy dozens of copies of an album to make sure their favorite performer will break industry records.)
“The following is insane,” said Von Mohl. “If you go to the big (fashion) shows Chanel, Dior or what not, there’s screams when the K-pop stars come out, you can barely hear your own voice, and not when a Western celebrity runs down the carpet.”
For now, Blackpink is still a rarity in the world of K-pop in the way it’s been able to capture mass Western mainstream awareness. The group is set to strengthen that further when it performs a headline set at Coachella later this month. Blackpink was the first K-pop group to perform there, back in 2019, which was hailed as a major feat at the time. Much of the attention will be back on the group with new tour dates, and specifically band member Jisoo, whose two singles from her solo debut stormed Spotify’s steaming charts over the weekend.
There’s other competition, too, from newer acts. Fifty Fifty, another girl group, became the fastest K-pop group to break into the US Billboard Hot 100 chart with its song “Cupid”, and IVE’s music label announced that it is about to start marketing the group in North America. IVE member Yujin recently nabbed an ambassador role with Fendi.
But NewJeans, in its first full summer season, will already be touring globally at a major US festival. The band is set to take the stage at Lollapalooza in Chicago, compared to the three years it took Blackpink to be invited to perform at Coachella, indicating that NewJeans is strongly positioned to claim a growing stake in the lucrative fashion endorsements market.