|(from left) Lee Boo-jin, Lee Seo-hyun, Chung Yoo-kyung, Chang Seon-yoon (Illustration by Park Gee-young)|
Even for chaebol daughters, the glass ceiling in corporate Korea is hard to shatter.
The nation’s big family-owned businesses have long devoted themselves to building the world’s best electronics, cars and ships. Usually, the male heirs guide these flagship operations.
So their sisters have found a way to build their own empires in a sector previously untapped by their fathers or grandfathers ― the luxury business.
Though it is unclear whether the decision was the result of a power game with their brothers or because of their own taste, a slew of female chaebol scions are more recently venturing into the soaring high-end fashion and confectionery businesses.
Samsung Electronics chairman Lee Kun-hee’s two daughters, Boo-jin and Seo-hyun, are key figures who wield mind-boggling power in the nation’s luxury market, while brother Jay-yong is most likely to take over the tech giant.
The elder sister Boo-jin leads the Samsung-affiliated Hotel Shilla and its lucrative duty-free business. She won the business rights to Louis Vuitton’s first airport outlet in Incheon International Airport in 2011. The French fashion house last year logged the largest profits among brands selling at the airport, worth almost 70 million won.
Seo-hyun was recently named president of Samsung Everland to oversee the fashion business that was formerly under Cheil Industries. Under her leadership, Samsung has earned the sales rights of luxury brands such as Theory, Issey Miyake, Balmain and Valextra. She also spearheaded the launch of the fast-fashion brand 8ight Seconds to challenge Spain’s Zara and Japan’s Uniqlo.
Chung Yoo-kyung, daughter of Shinsegae Group chairwoman Lee Myung-hee and vice president of Shinsegae, has also expanded her presence in the fashion and other high-end businesses at the retail giant.
Shinsegae has purchased buildings in the posh district of Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul, since 2001 under the names of the group chairwoman and her daughter. And the buildings are now occupied by luxury fashion brands that the group has secured the sales rights for over the past decade.
Thanks to the efforts, the group’s fashion unit Shinsegae International boasts the largest number of fashion brands, including Armani, Maison Martin Margiela, Marni, Dries Van Noten, Moncler and Givenchy.
Chang Seon-yoon, granddaughter of Lotte Group chairman Shin Kyuk-ho, has operated a retail company called Bliss since 2010 as she jumped into the wine and restaurant business.
She already has more than 10 years of experience in overseeing luxury brands while working at Lotte Department Store. During the time, she also led the establishment of Lotte Avenuel, a store building dedicated solely to hip, luxury brands, which has also become a hot spot for Japanese and Chinese travelers.
“Their business size would not be comparable to the flagship arms operated by their brothers,” said an industry source. “But they are elevating the overall brand awareness of the manufacturing-driven big businesses.”
But their expansion using powerful distribution channels and funding from other profitable subsidiaries within the group is also under scathing public scrutiny.
Last year, some chain bakeries owned by chaebol daughters were forced to abandon the business amid growing criticism that they were hurting mom-and-pop shops through unfair competition.
Now self-employed importers of luxury items are also seeking to ban their excessive entry into the market.
“Importing luxury items or fashion brands does not make big money. Big companies just want to earn the reputation,” said a business man who owns an import company.
By Lee Ji-yoon (firstname.lastname@example.org)