The worlds of fashion and entertainment are getting even more tangled as a new gang of digitally-enabled front row fixtures from Korea, Japan and China redefine cool and how it is sold to a global audience.
TOKYO, Japan — With blue hair and bone structure to die for, Mademoiselle Yulia can afford to be a bit audacious. The Japanese DJ has been gigging her way through the Tokyo club circuit for years, fine-tuning her vocals while learning how to craft an outfit that wows the fickle after-hours crowd.
Crossing over has always been a slog for the 28-year-old but now that hashtag culture has the power to catapult local stars into the global limelight, it doesn’t really matter if her J-pop genre gets lost in translation. Her Instagram feed breaks down these barriers, filtering out the stylish musician from the underground music she creates for a new legion of fans obsessed more with her wardrobe than with her emcee patter — no wonder brands like Stella McCartney and Gucci have been falling over themselves to partner with her.
Mademoiselle Yulia is one of several Asian entertainers who, because of their infectious personal style and loyal online following, are gaining newfound fashion fame. What makes these young celebrities such a hot commodity is that they have now earned serious “fashion cred” from the top of the food chain. By befriending and inspiring some of the biggest names on the catwalk, they are able to bolster their cool factor and extend their social reach and influence to a more global fashion audience.
When Karl Lagerfeld included G-Dragon in a group photo at the latest Chanel couture show alongside international A-listers like Kristen Stewart and Julianne Moore, it helped elevate the Korean rapper’s status as an ‘it boy’ even higher. G-Dragon had already attained cult status in the West by infiltrating the pages of Dazed & Confused, which chronicles edgier stars from Hallyu cinema, K-pop and other Asian entertainment scenes.
Reinventing a musician as a fashion plate is nothing new. But because their pop culture references and style cues are rooted in Asia, it means they are changing the way that fashion defines ‘cool’ and sells that most nebulous of qualities on to the consumer.
There was a similar effect with Li Yuchun (aka Chris Lee) when Riccardo Tisci cast the androgynous Chinese singer for Givenchy’s recent ad campaign. Not only do such relationships have an exponential effect in lucrative Asian markets, the retweeted content spreads like wildfire — providing a fast, affordable and effective way for brands to refresh their pantheon of celebrity ambassadors for a global audience hungry for novelty and diversity.
“Givenchy’s average retweet rate is around 50, but when Li Yuchun related content was posted on Givenchy’s Weibo account, it got 31,655 retweets,” explains Rand Han, the founder of Resonance China, a Shanghai-based social media agency specialising in lifestyle and luxury brands.
In an era where the most powerful style icons are often talented personalities rather than silent muses, fashion stardust can get contagious. Mademoiselle Yulia concedes that rubbing shoulders with much bigger celebrities in the cloistered world of fashion has upped her own value for designer brands.
When photos of her sandwiched front row between Iggy Azalea and Nicki Minaj at the Jeremy Scott show circulated online a few years ago, it helped put Yulia on the industry radar. A year later in Paris, she was approached by Rihanna during fashion week. Yulia recalls, “She said, ‘I was always attracted by you on Instagram so I’m happy to [finally] meet you.’ Since then we’ve become friends.”
After a cameo in the “The Baddest Female” music video for Korean superstar Chaerin Lee (CL), Mademoiselle Yulia was asked to DJ at the Chanel Resort show after party in Seoul and has appeared at a number of other exclusive fashion events around the world. Today, she is represented by global model agency IMG, which helps her monetise her growing number of fashion gigs.
“I’ve been able to meet people who I normally wouldn’t have the chance to meet [but] luckily, in the environment in which I grew up, even before social media, I had a lot of opportunities to meet people like Jeremy Scott and the KTZ team who looked after me when I started DJing,” she adds.
Mademoiselle Yulia has a certain fashion swagger that can’t quite be matched by higher profile Japanese celebrities like actresses Rila Fukushima or Rinko Kikuchi. Thanks to the quality of her 133,000 Instagram followers — many of whom are fashion insiders and influencers themselves — she is often placed in the same league as model-turned-actress Kiko Mizuhara, who has an online army 20 times bigger.
“Quality is [sometimes] more important than quantity. Mademoiselle Yulia is one of the few internationally famous icons in Japan who really understands how to mix her personality with versatility and fashionableness,” says Mizuyo Yoshida, the founder of Japanese fashion PR firm Steady Study, which has represented luxury brands including Céline, Dior Homme and Thom Browne over the years.
Having made a name for herself as one of the first Japanese publicists to use local celebrities as a marketing vehicle for international fashion brands, Yoshida has a better vantage point than most. But gone are the days when it was enough to throw a glamorous party at Tokyo nightclubs like Le Baron and wait for discreet alliances to develop with handful of A-listers.
“The way of doing PR has changed drastically,” she says. “From now on, I think the celebrity’s character and personality will be more important [than just their image].”
Although brand alignment is paramount for cross-promotion to work well, one of the most important elements is for a celebrity’s social feed to feel authentic, spontaneous and unscripted — without being too controversial. Perhaps this explains why Lagerfeld and many other designers are so drawn to G-Dragon.
“I post things myself on social media. No one helps me with that, so it allows me to speak with my own voice and flair. I think it’s important to show real life… They like me to show me just the way I am,” G-Dragon explains.
Inhae Yeo, a journalist for Vogue Korea who heads up fashion consulting firm Oikonomos, believes that a credible connection comes through clearly in his social feeds.
“His choices are highly selective and fit him like his own while being in tune with global trends. G-Dragon knows what works and what doesn’t and he simply loves fashion, you can tell. His passion for it is real; it’s not being manipulated as a tool to bring up his value — or so you’re convinced when you see him on Instagram anyway,” she says.
From Saigon to Surabaya, G-Dragon’s outfits are meticulously unpicked by Asian superfans, some trying to create a similar look on the cheap and others buying every single luxury item that appears on social media no matter the cost. Some, like a young Singaporean called Seven Lou, are so devoted that their wardrobes are almost identical.
“I use social media to share things I find cool or interesting with my fans. I’ve never had a commercial collaboration yet, but if I had an opportunity, I would really like to try,” G-Dragon says, denying that the gifts he posts from Moschino or the clothes he retweets from Saint Laurent, Hood by Air and Chanel are product endorsements.
While some of the other pop stars from his management company can help move fashion merchandise fast, G-Dragon is in a league of his own. On top of his 5.7 million followers on Facebook, he counts 5.6 million on Instagram, 4.6 million on Twitter and 6.4 million followers on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform.
“YG Entertainment is the force behind the boyband Big Bang, where G-Dragon started, and 2NE1 and they want to make stylish solo artists out of musicians like Taeyang, CL and Sandara too. They’re taking a 360 degree approach to build them into brands in their own right and fashion collaborations are a perfect tool for that,” Yeo explains.
Last year’s $80 million investment in YG Entertainment by LVMH’s private equity arm L Capital Asia is further evidence of Korea’s cachet for stylish entertainment in the region.
Korean actors and actresses are hugely important as influencers in Asia and many have a big social following in neighbouring countries. Gianna Jun Ji-hyun, Song Hye-kyo, Lee Min-ho and Kim Soo-hyun are among those whose feeds are eagerly tracked by fashion PRs in the far east. So much so that paparazzi shots of their ‘airport style’ are considered as valuable an opportunity for fashion product placement as red carpet shots are for other celebs.
Although celebrity culture in China is a much newer phenomenon, top tier actresses like Fan Bingbing, Li Bingbing, Zhang Ziyi and Zhou Xun have each done deals with fashion and luxury brands. Some have enjoyed greater success than others but none has challenged the conventional mould for a muse quite like pop singer Li Yuchun.
“I think of her in the context of modern Chinese culture, which is highly structured and full of academic and professional pressure to fit into a certain idealised mould. Enter Li Yuchun and suddenly you have this talented tomboy singer who seemed to float free of the pressures of society. Audiences really respond to her,” says Rand Han of Resonance China.
International fashion designers have been gravitating toward the star since 2012, when the Chengdu native began inviting some of the biggest names to create the costumes for her annual ‘Why Me?’ concert tour. After Gareth Pugh and Riccardo Tisci, Jean-Paul Gaultier most recently took up the gig.
When she is not cosying up to fashion insiders like Vogue Italia’s Franca Sozzanior Carine Roitfeld on Instagram, her manager is busy on Weibo retweeting paparazzi shots of her wearing other designer favourites like Alexander Wang. Meanwhile, anonymous fans behind Twitter handles like @LiYuchunFashion pump out content dedicated to the minutiae of her wardrobe choices.
“Instead of rejecting me or asking me to fit into their vision, fashion designers actually protect and complement my style through their designs. I’m very surprised to hear that almost every one of them collaborating with me appreciates and respects my personal style,” Li Yuchun confesses.
“I’ve always known [that I have the power to influence the clothes my fans buy and how they dress] and because of that, I hope my influence mirrors my attitude towards style and beauty. Pursue, assert, appreciate, and embrace all sorts of beauty — I think that’s civilisation and the way that society is moving forward.”
It is a pretty powerful message for her 3.5 million Chinese fans on Weibo and nearly half a million more around the world who have begun to follow her on Instagram.
“That’s why she’s considered a sophisticated, mature and positive icon,” says Han. “And it’s how she’s inspired others to imitate her style of dress, hair and her attitude. She symbolises that there’s something beyond the typical pretty girl mould — a different way to look, act, think and be.”