In China and Korea, young men are ditching cosmetics conventions and embracing K-pop-inspired beauty.

The conventions that have kept BB creams, concealers and lipsticks firmly in women’s makeup bags are beginning to break down. In the West, brands like Milk Makeup and ASOS exemplify this cultural shift driven by millennial and generation Z men, and now men’s grooming in East Asia is gaining its own momentum.

For many men in South Korea, skincare and eyebrow pencils are as indispensable to their grooming regimen as taking a shower. “Eyebrows are huge in Seoul, to the point that young men say their eyebrows are the most important part of their face,” David Yi, the Korean-American founder of Very Good Light, a blog working to “redefine men’s beauty,” tells JWT Intelligence.

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Very Good Light and Milk Makeup's Blur the Lines campaign
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These men are reportedly some of the biggest spenders on grooming products in the world. In part, this is thanks to the influence of K-pop idols and their makeup routines. Euromonitor says that, despite slowing growth in the men’s grooming sector in South Korea, its future remains “dynamic” as more major players and independent brands want in. Plenty of skincare labels are already delivering in this segment. Ssanai offers hair and skincare products in dark, minimal packaging “for fine gentlemen with confidence in their swagger”; DTRT produces toners and moisturizers aimed at men; and Tony Moly and Innisfree both take things a step further with moisturizing camouflage cream (South Korean men are required to do two years of military service).

“The messaging behind the products is that to be a man you have to take care of yourself,” Yi says. “This comes with celebrity males who are the stars in these cosmetic brands’ campaigns.”

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Ssanai
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Yi’s website went live shortly after CoverGirl appointed beauty vlogger James Charles as its first CoverBoy. While this was a beauty industry breakthrough in the United States, Yi maintains that makeup is already a masculine norm in Korea. LAKA, one of the newest brands on the market, confirms this, he says: LAKA boasts lipsticks in 12 shades and promotes itself on Instagram as being for “both girls and boys.”

“LAKA is amazing as it’s actually gender-neutral,” notes Yi. “I love the fact that the brand uses beauty but has a male look and female look. In the States, boy beauty YouTubers still have a traditional women’s or ‘drag’ look, whereas in Korea there are specific beauty looks for men. I think that’s so progressive—utilizing makeup and having separate looks for guys and girls using the same product.”

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LAKA
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It’s a beauty innovation that could potentially serve as a model for brands in China, one of the fastest-growing male grooming markets in the world. Euromonitor predicted in a 2016 report that retail sales in the sector would top RMB1.9 billion ($278 million) at an annual sales growth of 13.5%. While much of this growth is firmly in grooming and skincare products, data from Chinese e-commerce sites like VIP.com show increasing numbers of male online shoppers buying beauty masks, eyebrow pencils and lipstick.

The surge in interest from men in grooming in China has prompted some drugstore brands like Japan’s Mentholatum to update their products. Mentholatum relaunched its face wash last year to include charcoal, and also introduced a charcoal mask. And a niche but growing group of male consumers is turning to makeup and premium skincare products traditionally aimed at women, as well as unisex brands such as Aesop.

Marketing culture in China’s luxury sector clearly indicates the changing aesthetics around male beauty. From Clinique to L’Occitane, brands are appointing male brand ambassadors with a largely female fan base on social media. Often called “little fresh meat” or “flower boys,” these 20-something pop idols, many of whom were trained as teenagers in Korea’s pop factories, are popular for their soft, feminine features and delicate mannerisms. They show their fans how they adopt upscale skincare products into their daily routines with messages of confidence.

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Huang Zi Tao for YSL

Many of these campaigns are for skincare lines, but Estée Lauder broke boundaries—perhaps inspired by male beauty blogger Li Jiaqi, known as “iron-lipped brother” for his tireless lipstick testing—when it featured its male brand ambassador, singer Hua Chenyu, in an April ad for its #310 Mars Red lipstick. Though he didn’t seem to be wearing the lipstick in the ad, that wasn’t the case for Huang Zi Tao, Korean pop singer turned C-pop star, who applied lip gloss in an ad campaign for YSL last fall. While the brand’s Chinese social media followers haven’t seen much campaign-wise from “Z. Tao” since then—YSL Beauty’s record-breaking debut on Chinese e-commerce giant Tmall this spring featured a female in its ad video—his inclusive message gives clues about beauty’s future direction for Chinese men, even if marketers are still concentrating largely on female clients.

“Makeup allows me to be closer with my dreams,” Tao says in the ad. “For me, makeup is like a weapon. It’s also like a form of creation. It’s a bit like music is a form of inspiration, like dance is a form of flexibility, like performing is a form of energy… I become a new version of myself. A totally free version of myself.”