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[Herald Interview] LAKA: Gender-neutral makeup brand seeks to break boundaries

Meet the woman on a mission to challenge stereotypes in beauty industry

Models pose wearing LAKA‘s products (LAKA)
Models pose wearing LAKA‘s products (LAKA)
From facial masks to BB creams, Korean beauty products -- often dubbed K-Beauty -- have become one of South Korea’s biggest exports in recent years, riding the wave of the country’s rise in soft power typified by TV shows and K-pop.

But one brand is making small waves in a way unprecedented by any others in the country before.

Launched by a former advertising director in 2018, LAKA Cosmetics is South Korea’s first gender-neutral makeup brand.

“Every product of ours does not specify gender and presents looks that can work for both women and men,” CEO and Brand Director Lee Min-mi said during an interview with The Korea Herald.

Lee says LAKA’s brand philosophy is “Anyone can enjoy it if it suits their taste,” which, in her words, “reflects the time we currently live in.”

On its website, the brand boldly proclaims its mission: “Rewriting the script that only specific gender would be interested in playing with colors. Our products challenge the stereotypes in the beauty industry and promote expression, empowerment, and uniqueness.”

Having studied advertising and worked at a PR agency representing makeup and jewelry companies in the past, Lee said she had gained knowledge and insight before making the call to build her own makeup company with a little twist.

“When I decided to create a beauty brand, I thought the message must be responding to what is deemed the ‘most conservative’ now, which led me to thinking that the answer was a gender-neutral concept,” she said.

CEO and Brand Director Lee Min-mi (LAKA)
CEO and Brand Director Lee Min-mi (LAKA)
From concealers, lip tints to eye shadow palettes, LAKA has a range of items, which are available at Olive Young stores, South Korea’s largest beauty and health retailer.

In October, the company released its hit Wild Brow Shaper – a transparent glue type eyebrow mascara designed to give volume and energy to the eyebrows.

Lee said the first batch of stock was “sold out in five days” and has maintained “strong sales performance” in Japan and Taiwan.

Watery Sheer Lipstick in the Leonard shade is a hit particularly with male customers, who account for over 30 percent of sales, while darker shades of foundation products also enjoy a high male-to-female consumer ratio, she explained.

The brand also secured an investment of 1.5 billion won from Leferi Beauty Entertainment earlier this year, an “influence value chain” company that manages influencers, in a boost for their preparations to branch out into other countries. It also plans to open a “space filled with only LAKA products where all shades are available” next year.

“We are an indie beauty brand that is growing faster than anyone else in the South Korean market. We’ve also been very well received by foreign boutiques and global distributors,” she said.

“At the moment, we are in the early stages of branding in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia with plans to launch in the US and Vietnam.”

The men’s makeup market is growing, especially here in South Korea, where the market was estimated to worth 1.2 trillion won in 2018, according to Euromonitor.

Against this backdrop, Amorepacific launched its men’s makeup brand Bro&Tips in 2017.

Chanel also world-premiered its men’s makeup and skincare line Boy De Chanel in 2018 in South Korea.

While signs of success have been visible here and there, things have been quite tricky for LAKA as it seeks to appeal to everyone without conforming to gender stereotypes.

“I’d love to see a time when it’s no longer strange to see male colleagues sitting next to me wearing a subtle blusher but I don’t see that happening in the near future,” she said before adding, “But change is definitely happening.”

A promotional image for LAKA’s Wild Brow Shaper (LAKA)
A promotional image for LAKA’s Wild Brow Shaper (LAKA)
Being gender-neutral, LAKA had to move away from more traditional marketing technique such as gender specific labels in pursuit of finding the middle ground.

Instead of labeling products as “for men,” its message has remained focused on preference rather than gender in its social media content and copy writing, Lee said.

“LAKA’s task is to send out the message that makeup is something fun, not something you should feel obliged to wear because you are a woman or avoid because you are a man.”

The careful strategy was designed to retain its appeal to women while creating an environment in which men who want to wear makeup can do so despite it still being a no-go zone for a lot of their peers.

It also looked to practicality when it comes to color.

“If you look at the colors of LAKA products, they are mostly neutral and comfortable to wear. It’s for everyone and works well on not just women’s face but men’s. But we also try to mix things up by adding a little bit of brick to coral or orange to red.”

Earlier this year, it teamed up with Aero K for a joint marketing campaign – a budget airline that went viral on social media for its gender neutral uniforms.

Lee said the collaboration project made her feel like she had found an ally as both companies take a value-based approach.

“I’d love to see more values being touched upon respectfully in the business world through brand philosophy.

“Not just gender perceptions but also the environment and race, for instance.”

By Yim Hyun-su (hyunsu@heraldcorp.com)
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