Truefitt & Hill, an English barbershop with more than 200 years of history, is the oldest barbershop in the world as certified by the Guiness Book of World Records in 2000. One South Korean branch is located conveniently in Seoul’s Cheongdam district — an upmarket area known for luxury boutiques and the residences of high-profile celebrities.
The entrance to Truefitt & Hill looks nothing like a barbershop and more like a bespoke tailor’s. Inside, old paintings of British vessels hang from the walls. A male customer observes his reflection in the mirror — his haircut resembles Eggsy from the movie Kingsman — while the barber sprays him with his favorite perfume (employees memorize the favorite scents of their regulars).
“There’s a Korean saying that a beautiful rice cake is also delicious to eat. I think this is a new era in which men openly groom themselves,” said Truefitt & Hill marketing manager Nam Hyeong-woo.
Most of the clients here are financially stable men in their late 30s to 50s — high-level managers and business owners who pay close attention to their appearances. They’re ajeossis, a Korean designation for middle-aged to elderly men, a still-untapped market in South Korea’s mammoth cosmetics industry.
South Korea is famous for its obsession with grooming. The country has the highest ratio of cosmetic surgeries per capita in the world. And it’s not just the women: South Korean men are the world’s top per-capita consumers of skincare products, with sales accounting for one-fifth of the global market according to Euromonitor.
Could there be a market for the older men of South Korea? Ajeossis aren’t typically seen as target customers of cosmetics companies. The elderly male population is often seen within the context of poverty and toil — having formed the labor force during the mid- to late-twentieth century — or through a critical frame of patriarchy, as entitled and authoritarian gaejeossi.
But ajeossis may offer too big a potential market to miss out on. Marketers are trying to rebrand their image — as exemplified by the movie Ajeossi (The Man from Nowhere) featuring a boyishly handsome, 40-year-old Won Bin.
“Me, an ajeossi?” 45-year-old actor Lee Jung-jae tries to rebrand middle-aged men in an ad for fashion brand Crocodile.
For Kang Sung-ki, a 67-year old retired police officer living in Seoul, applying anything to his face is a hassle. “I’ve never used a product in my life, even lotion,” Kang said proudly. “I don’t feel a need for it because those products don’t really work for older men in terms of their functionality or economic payoff.”
But the ajeossis of the future offer hope for the cosmetics market. 29-year-old Kim Seong-hwan works at a local fashion company and used to have eczema. He uses five different skincare and hair products, and applies a small dose of foundation when going to a job interviews and important work meetings. “It leaves a better impression and cleaner image of you. I think 10 percent of my [male] friends apply BB cream regularly,” Kim said, referring to a kind of all-in-one cream that can provide hydration, light foundation cover and protection from the sun.
The South Korean cosmetics industry, which produced more than 13.5 trillion won (US 12.7 billion) in 2016, has traditionally catered towards women. Around 1/10 of the generated revenue was from men’s cosmetics; the male grooming industry in South Korea has been steadily growing, by over 20 percent from 2012 to 2016, according to a 2017 Euromonitor report.
Some cosmetics giants have been paying attention to the male half of South Korea’s population — the country’s gender ratio is almost equal — looking for untapped market potential in men.
AmorePacific is the market leader in men’s grooming. The company provides a wide range of goods — skin products like Hera Homme, Iope For Men and Odyssey — and enjoyed a market share of almost one fifth in 2016, according to Euromonitor.
“The company’s brand power is comparable with international brands and the retail coverage is significant,” said Lisa Hong, a beauty and fashion research analyst at Euromonitor.
Beauty products for men are easy to find in stores like Olive Young, a healthcare and beauty franchise operated by CJ Group and a haven for customers interested in grooming. In a branch in Cheongdam, various male products line the shelves, from regular toner to serum, nose-hair trimmer and leg-hair groomers.
“For ajeossis, their spouses usually come and pick out skincare products,” said a female employee at the store, withholding her name. She said most of the male customers were younger adults, like Kim.
“Positive awareness in using beauty products is slowly increasing among middle-aged Korean men, especially for facial/body moisturizing and anti-aging products,” said Hong of Euromonitor. “However, most male consumers still tend to use products purchased by other family members, rather than being willing to search for and purchase things for themselves.”
Kim Yongsub, director of Keen-eyed Imagination, a research center analyzing consumer trends and business creativity, says more older men are embracing grooming in their lifestyles.
“Men in their 40s and 50s are commonly using sunblock — meaning they are paying attention to their skin, which was uncommon in the past. Some older men in their 40s and 50s view eyebrow and nail grooming more favorably,” Kim said in an email. “Now, the definition of a successful man is one who is stylish and well-groomed.”
Beauty drives economic success — according to research by the economist Daniel Hamermesh and his colleagues. In a 1994 study, Hamermesh’s team argued that workers who were judged more attractive than those who weren’t earned more, and that the effect was slightly greater for men than women. Cosmetics companies make sure to drive this point home — in no cosmetic ad, targeting women or men, will the portrayed protagonist look poor.
“In South Korea, the competition to look good is fiercer because of hyper-competition in society as well as the cultural tendency to be more conscious of others,” said Kim of Keen-eyed Imagination. The importance of grooming had trickled up from younger men in their 20s to 30s to ajeossis in their 40s to 50s, Kim said.
“South Korean men have traditionally been pressured to exhibit masculinity as being strong, untamed and socially successful,” wrote Cho Hye-jung, author of the book South Korea’s Men and Women, published in 1999.
Kim of Keen-eyed Imagination said that the blurring of gender lines in the cosmetics sector reflected the breakdown of traditional gender norms in South Korea. “It’s outdated to think that pink is for women and blue is for men,” he said.
Since Cho’s book came out, the definition of manhood has been evolving. For better or worse, successful men are expected to have clear complexions, on top of the usual ‘manly’ strength and money to spare. The ajeossis of tomorrow — like Kim Seong-hwan — appear to be increasingly interested in beauty in the way manufacturers typically thought women were. Male grooming is still a relatively small market, but it’s slowly making an impact on the larger cosmetics industry.
Cover image: Won Bin is technically an ajeossi now. (Source: LG via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)