Over the weekend, K-pop stars took over the front rows at Paris Fashion Week. Hours after making an appearance at the Louis Vuitton Fall 2023 menswear show, GOT7 member Jackson Wang was appointed Louis Vuitton’s newest brand ambassador. He was previously a China ambassador for Fendi, spokesperson for Ray Ban, and “friend of the house” at Cartier.
Hong Kong-born Wang is among a growing number of ethnic Chinese idols that have experienced a spectacular rise in the K-pop landscape.
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Other K-pop stars who attended recent fashion weeks include Chinese-American Mark Tuan of GOT7, who appeared at Saint Laurent’s Spring/Summer 2023 show; Taiwanese-American Amber Liu, a member of the girl group f(x), who donned an all-white ensemble at Givenchy; and Ningning from girl group aespa, who hails from Heilongjiang.
While a number of ethnically Chinese K-pop stars have achieved tremendous fame in Korea and widespread global renown, Greater China is where many are setting their sights for the future. The likes of Amber Liu, whose promotional activities in China have been managed by China-based Ryce Entertainment, have found a second wind for their careers by working with local entertainment and global brands in the country.
Chinese K-pop ambassadors
Throughout 2022, Wang Yibo’s face could be seen on major luxury ads across the nation, as the member of Chinese-Korean boy band Uniq fronted major campaigns and became brand ambassador for labels including Chanel and Moncler.
But Chinese K-pop stars like Wang were cultural ambassadors long before they became luxury brand ambassadors, argues CedarBough Saeji, assistant professor of Korean and East Asian Studies at Pusan National University in South Korea.
“K-pop groups will go to a foreign country, and there will be one member of your group that will know how to speak the language and will know how to reach those [local] fans more directly,” she says.
This was perhaps most crucial throughout China’s years-long ban on South Korean cultural content, which some say was only recently partially lifted. The ban took place due to geopolitical tensions between the two nations, when China objected to the U.S’s deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system in South Korea.
But however you look at it, the colossal success and promotion of Chinese K-pop idols in China is no accident. Alongside the rise of influential Chinese platform TikTok (owned by China’s Bytedance), experts believe that arrival of China’s own K-pop stars speaks to the nation’s “increasingly prominent role in global pop culture,” as well as China’s own soft power efforts, according to the FT.
Since the arrival of K-pop outfit Super Junior’s Chinese member Hang Geng in 2005 until now, at least 66 idols of Chinese descent have debuted, according to the aforementioned report.
Wang Yibo is currently managed by China’s largest idol management company YH Entertainment Group. Born in Luoyang, Henan province, Wang began competing in local dance competitions from a young age. Through his work with Uniq, which debuted in 2014, Wang was propelled into stardom.
Wang’s success as a singer, idol and luxury brand ambassador in China has also contributed to YH Entertainment Group’s sensational rise. In mid-January this year, the management firm went public and raised roughly $63 million, adding Ding Shijia, deputy chairman of Anta Sports, to its roster of major investors, according to a Bloomberg report.
Aforementioned idol Jackson Wang is another notable success story. Wang is a former Olympic fencer, and the son of a former Olympian. He joined South Korea’s JYP Entertainment while in his teens and debuted with K-pop group G7 in 2014. Over much of 2022, Wang took a starring role across Cartier, Fendi, Gucci and Boucheron campaigns in China.
Chinese women in K-pop
But beyond boybanders,“there has been a distinctive pattern [of] Chinese women who are active in the idol industry,” says Saeji. “They tend to be more successful [than Chinese male K-pop idols] and their groups tend not to be plagued by rumors.”
After the scandal, trial and arrest of Chinese former K-pop idol Kris Wu, who was later sentenced to 13 years in prison for sexual assault in China, Saeji says brands will become more careful and selective about who they collaborate with. Wu was once the face of major campaigns for luxury brands including Louis Vuitton, Bulgari, L’Oréal, as well as for local companies including Tencent and C-beauty brand Kans.
“Chinese brands are making conservative choices right now,” explains Saeji.
Victoria Song, a member of girl group f(x), better known by her Chinese name Song Qian in China, is among the most popular female K-pop idols in China at the moment. Song’s stardom rose under after debuting with the girl group in 2009; managed by South Korea’s SM Entertainment, Song appeared on Korean TV shows including We Got Married, a reality series in which she was paired up in a multicultural “marriage” with Thai-American idol Nickhun of boy band 2PM, where the two soon became household names.
Over the years, Song has transitioned into pan-Asian ventures, such as starring in the 2012 Chinese-Taiwanese TV series When Love Walked In. After appearing in the Chinese remake of My Best Friend’s Wedding in 2016, she went on to make her solo debut in China playing lead roles in mainland dramas and reality TV shows such as Chuang 2020 (a Chinese version of Korea’s Produce 101).
More recently, she fronted campaigns including Chanel Wanted timepiece ads, as well as Jimmy Choo’s bag campaign in September. As the face of Moncler’s 2022 playful toy-inspired Grenoble capsule collection, Song’s versatility and influence as a brand collaborator is evident.
But ultimately, experts like Saeji believe that the biggest sign of success for K-pop trained idols of any descent is that their appeal can be appreciated anywhere. “K-pop and pop music fandom is partially based on convincing the audience that the idol is somebody just like you who may have worked really hard to get the musical and dance training to become an idol but otherwise, they [are normal],” she explains.
“And in that way, they’re aspirational.”