Here's the understatement of the century: over the last decade, the world has become fascinated with Korean beauty trends.
Whether it's due to K-Pop girl groups like BlackPink or NewJeans becoming global beauty icons or the allure of the ten-step skincare routine popularized by YouTube in the mid-2010s, K-Beauty's ocean-hopping impact has reverberated throughout the Western skincare, cosmetic, and aesthetic enhancement markets. If you're even remotely a fan of sheet masks, cushion foundations, subtle glitter eyeshadows, 3D nail charms or frizz-free hair treatments, you'll have Korean beauty moguls to thank.
Earlier this month, I spent a week in South Korea with the Seoul Metropolitan Government attending Seoul Fashion Week— or, as my beauty editor friends liked to see it, 7 days of experimenting (read: spending way too much money) with heaps of life-changing products and high-tech treatments one of the most cosmetically advanced-countries in the world has to offer. It's safe to say my life was changed.
After speaking with K-Beauty experts both in New York and abroad, as well as getting a back-stage, in-depth look at the Korean beauty industry during Seoul Fashion Week, I'm picking up these makeup, hair, and nail trends straight from the shows and streets of South Korea.
While short nails and "quiet luxury"-esque colors have been dominating the Western trend cycles, there's nothing more fun than to take a peak at Korean nails, often acting as a statement to most outfits. It feels like the possibilities are endless in Seoul when you look at any Korean girls' hands walking down the streets in popular, artsy areas—namely, Seongsu-dong, the trendy, hipster area that's been dubbed the Brooklyn of Seoul.
The eccentricity of 3D gems, pearls, extensions, and acrylic molding seen in Korean nail art has made Korean-born, New York-based nail artist Jay Oh, a fan-favorite among both Western and Korean It Girl-clientele. "The most popular nail service that is requested is my signature Ice Nails and any intense 3D art," Oh told Who What Wear. The possibilites, explains says, are quite endless. You can just take a look at her Instagram, @KawaiiNailsNYC, for a peel-back at what's trending in Seoul. Long gone are the days of a regular French manicure or a single-color gel— something I did before stumbling upon Oh's A-list work last year. We all have to start somewhere, right?
Nail art in South Korea almost feels like a beauty statement in itself, with artists and technicians setting and creating larger-than-life nail trends that will make you feel (and, quite literally look), like a K-Pop star. "I saw BLACKPINK’s nail artist create mother of pearl nails inspired from najeonchilgi— a technique of inlaying pieces of shells [often mother of pearl] or ivory into wooden objects like jewelry boxes" Oh tells me. During our appointment, it's exactly what I asked for, with the other hand being another popular K-Beauty nail trend— oversize 3D charms and holographic aurora nails.
Top to bottom: @lalalisa_m, courtesy of Seoul Fashion Week, courtesy of author.
While K-Beauty is most often associated with skincare, one of the most exciting aspects of the modern-day beauty industry I couldn't wait to dive-into while in Seoul is the overwhelmingly large cosmetics industry. If you look at the back of any exciting, innovative product in Sephora, you might be shocked to find it's actually made in Korea— including Rare Beauty's soft matte liquid blush and Haus Lab's fan-favorite foundation.
While I spent more hours browsing the aisles of Olive Young (a Sephora-esque South Korean beauty retailer) than I care to admit, the real magic came behind the scenes. During Seoul Fashion Week, popular makeup agency and brand JennyHouse took over the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, allowing me to sit down with top K-Beauty experts for one-on-one sessions to figure out the million-dollar question: how come everyone's makeup in Seoul looks so good?
Courtesy of author.
Courtesy of author.
The answer: subdued products with smartly-placed application methods. In lieu of high-coverage foundations, powdery blushes, or thick liner applied with brushes or sponges, both backstage at the Vegan Tiger Spring/Summer 2024 show and at JennyHouse's pop-up studio, the agency's artists opted for dewy cushion compacts, soft glitter discreetly placed under the lower lash-line, and skin-like hues for eyeshadows and cream blushes. You won't find any drying, ultra-matte liquid lipsticks here—instead, the Seoul crowd opts for nude glosses and rosy lip tints.
If you step out at any moment to one of Seoul's youth-filled, vibrant neighborhoods at night, you'd be surprised the hair game looks impeccable at all hours of the day. According to Baek SoonSik, CEO of celebrity-loved Soonsiki Hair Salon, the haircare industry has shifted massively over the last decade. Since being founded in 2005, the Instagram-famous salon has been on the cutting edge of trends, popularizing balayage styles, digital perms, and layered haircuts.
"We quickly catch onto new trends in Korea and try to make them more accessible for the newer generations," SoonSik explained over email. For the last 18 years, the brand's flagship Hongdae salon has served clients high-up within the K-Pop and fashion industry. It's newest It-treatment everyone can't seem to get enough of? Personalized hair colors. "Finding personal colors has been on the rise in Korea, as it’s become a trend to find a color suitable for your skin tone," SoonSik wrote. If you've seen one of those viral color-theory TikTok videos, suggesting different color palettes and tones for clients, you'll know exactly what he's talking about.
For warmer tones, SoonSik suggests vibrant oranges, rich browns, and golden-toned beiges if you're looking to switch it up. For cooler tones, SoonSik says the rise of blue-black tones, platnium blonde, and soft violet tones are in-trend. If you're on the fence, opt for a '90s-style slicked-back bun or layered shag, à la New Jeans— the popular Korean girl group that's been making waves for their nostalgic beauty. Crimped hair and micro-braids, seen at Vegan Tiger's Gen-Z inspired show, are one to watch for an emerging, controversial hair trend the Seoul set can't seem to get enough of.