Korean flower boys: the origin of the fashion trends of the 1990s

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In the 90s, South Korean film director Kim Sung-su captured the atmosphere of a lost generation. His repertoire of dismal teen films—described as “a messy Wong Kar-wai lite” by fanatics and haters alike—has been largely forgotten today, but one in particular, City of the Rising Sun (1998), speaking to a generation that grew up after the Asian Financial Crisis. It was also, incidentally, jam-packed with catchy and attractive menswear, and made room for the phenom of the men’s style of the time: the flower boy.

Starring IRL best friends Lee Jung-jae and Jung Woo-sung, this film traces the unlikely friendship between Do Chul (Jung-jae), a wannabe boxer who can’t swing a punch to save his life, and Hong-Gi (Woo-sung ), a cool con with great pizazz. The leaders sneak around Seoul in a fit that will make a soft TikTok boy’s mouth foam.

The ultimate himbo, Hong-Gi has a taste for cuddly tank tops, shrink tees, ravey sunglasses, and precision-cut stitching. You either want to date him, be him or find another way to fit into his wardrobe. Failed fighter Do Chul lacks courage—except for the pierced eyebrows that adorn his many black eyes—navigating the rat race in army surplus gear, cargo pants, and fashion flip-flops.

Just a year earlier, Woo-Sung rose to fame thanks to his role as a school gangster in Sung-su’s previous film. Defeat (1997). This time, the bad boy is more interested in white-collar crime, spending his swindled money to buy hair gel, cigarettes, and a skimpy little ensemble. But what does this change from no-fuck-given to flamboyant mean?

In his book, author Sun Jung explains that in the late 1990s, macho men who once dominated the small screen developed into pretty boys or lost popularity due to more non-Jewish male leads. The phenomenon, Jung explains, coined the term ‘kkonminam‘ or ‘flower boy’, a combination of the words ‘kkot’ (flower) and ‘minam’ (beautiful man). The madness stems from a growing obsession with male characters in Japanese shijõ anime and manga. Lead androgynous, a type of elf called bishõnen (beautiful boys), and all have one feature in common: they are tall with slender feminine faces and have long, shiny Rapunzel-like locks.

Prior to 1998, Japanese culture was officially banned in Korea. Once the government reinstated it, the forbidden fruit proved more tantalizing than ever. So, this angel-faced boy becomes the hottest of the new dawn.

However, they are not completely foreign. Over the years, teens have been quietly getting improvements in areas like Cheonggyecheon and Myeongdong, where Japanese goods like CDs, shows, and comic books are sold off-books. First-generation K-pop bands like HOT and Sechs Kies have pioneered the bubblegum aesthetic from 1996 onwards, creating a Backstreet vs NSYNC* level fan war by wearing eyeshadow, campy outfits, and dyed hair. All of this was a huge ban on Korean TV at the time.

Lee Soo-man, founder of SM entertainment, collected HOT after spending years researching youth culture and surveying youth. The consensus suggests that “young people, disillusioned by the government and its graphic, macho, militaristic depictions of men, want a softer type of masculinity”, writes author David Yi. Soon, actors like Lee Joon-gi and Bae Yoon-Jong perfected the formula and sold it back to Japan, where the show Winter Sonata (2002) and King and Clown (2005) helped to trigger the first K wave.

“A few years ago it might have been considered effeminate for a man to be fussy about his clothes and appearance. Real men demand that the world accept them in their own impolite and untidy way.” reported TIME magazine in 2006. “In today’s Asia, the definition of masculinity is changing – and narcissism is coming.” Consider complete metamorphosis.

But influencer and founder of Cielo’s K-beauty brand, Edward Avila, explains that ‘flower boy’ is a phrase that is rarely used these days. “The term that’s used more often these days is “잘생쁨”, a combination of “잘생겼어 (handsome)” and “이쁨 (beautiful),” says Edward. Whatever the name, the scent of roses is still sweet. Examples include BTS’s Jimin on the cover of Vogue Singapore, Gucci’s collaboration with Kai from Exo, or the beautiful male actors at Miu Miu’s Women’s Tales event in Seoul last month.

“I don’t think men with a ‘gentle’ image are limited in Korea, they are now popular all over the world,” said stylist Yang Ah Young. “Korean content has boomed worldwide, and characters in dramas and movies are loved by many.” And it’s not just the stars who take part. “Nowadays, boys want to make a good impression not only on the public but also on the opposite sex, so they will curl their hair, shave their faces, put on a little bit of make-up, straighten their eyebrows, or grow themselves out. personal fashion style,” said Avila.

Over the past decade, Korean men have become the world’s biggest spenders on skincare and make-up, contributing $7 billion to the beauty industry. A survey by GlobalData found that three-quarters of Korean men regularly partake in beauty treatments and 58% of Gen Z say they use a make-up treatment at least once a week, compared to 34% of Korean men overall.

The Korean Ministry of Defense even recently announced that soldiers will be given allowances for haircuts and beauty products. While it may sound like a post-masculinity utopia, the reality is a little murkier. There are no anti-discrimination laws to protect queer people in Korea, for example, and military service is still considered an adult ritual. There’s even an entire genre of K-drama aimed at action men with perfectly styled hair and glassy skin.

The kind of skinless and genderless silhouettes seen in the SS22 collection probably won’t fly on the streets either. “There are many ‘genderless’ brands in Korea, but it’s important to ask, what kind of ‘genderless’ are we talking about?” says Avila, “Boxy t-shirts and baggy pants have become very popular, but things like tight, see-through mesh shirts, skirts and heels probably won’t be mainstream (for men). This trend will probably only be associated with stage wear, worn by K-pop idols or at Seoul Fashion Week.”

Even so, the flower boy must have bloomed. We bet that even Do Chung doesn’t like sheet masks these days.

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