Luxury Products Are Everywhere in K-dramas, But Do They Always Make Sense?

Korean dramas, widely referred to as K-dramas, can be self-prescribed remedies for all ailments, and, thankfully for us, they are now more accessible than ever. Previously reserved to Korean TV stations like JTBC and tvN, now K-dramas are readily available to international fans both as simulcasts on Netflix and via multiple platforms like Rakuten Viki and Kocowa. Whether you are into a full-on rom-com or prefer a more action-packed thriller, there’s a K-drama out there for you.

If you love K-dramas, staying up at the wee hours of the night continuously pressing play on some of your all-time favorites or watching a simulcast in the middle of the day are probably common scenarios – but we, K-drama lovers, don’t hate it. It’s a lifestyle. On average, K-dramas feature 16 sweet episodes packed more often than not with clichéd piggyback rides, obscure break-ups, time jumps, and the notable inclusion of luxury products. K-dramas can feel like warm hugs, but it’s undeniable, and also understandable, that they’re also “lucrative marketing channels,” as a Business of Fashion report from earlier this year put it. We’ve witnessed products selling out by mere association with an idol on multiple occasions (notoriously BTS’s Jungkook) but do K-dramas harness the same power? Apparently so. But, while they might be good for business, do these luxury products always make sense in the narrative?

Some of the luxury products featured on K-dramas – and there are a lot, especially when it comes to fashion – might escape the non-trained eye. However, any fashion aficionado will almost immediately recognize them. (And, actually, even people who are admittedly not that into fashion will at least be able to identify that something looks high-end.) Roger Vivier’s brand manager for South Korea, Stephanie Kim, told BoF that some luxury brands even choose “the kind of character their products are spotted on,” though the inclusion of luxury products in K-dramas isn’t always synonymous with product placements.

The most obvious signal to viewers when it comes to product placements, at least on Netflix, comes via the words “this program contains product placements” when you press play or at the end of the episode. These are usually not high-fashion placements but rather commodity products such as ramen, sandwich shops, instant coffee, and smartphones, with the latter arguably toeing the line. If you are watching a program that is airing on one of the popular Korean networks (i.e. KBS, SBS, JBTC, tvN), you learn to spot the luxury products because the brand/logos are usually blurred out due to South Korea’s stricter broadcasting regulations. Put simply, per Article 73 of South Korea’s Broadcasting Act, these broadcasting stations censor any brand names/logos who aren’t officially associated with their show and there are very specific rules surrounding how an external producer can agree with the broadcaster to add these placements.

As an avid viewer, I invest a lot of time (probably too much) and emotion (again, too much) into each character as their stories unfold. So, every often, during that scene when I see the character wearing a luxury brand that doesn’t fit their storyline, it interferes with the overall relatability. But that doesn’t make them any less fun. In fact, spotting luxury products can be a game on its own so why not play a round of “does the inclusion of these luxury products make sense to the narrative?” in the six recent(ish) K-dramas? Let’s start! (But first, beware of mild spoilers ahead!)

Instead of the popular rags-to-riches clichés, Netflix’s Do Do Sol Sol La La Sol flips the script and makes it riches-to-rags for the main character Gu Rara (Go Ara). And, actually, for the other main character, Sunwoo Jun (Lee Jaewook), too. Overall, this series is a great example where it’s plausible that the once-opulent Gu Rara is repeatedly sporting the very trendy Bottega Veneta cassette bag.

Sunwoo wearing a distressed Marni military jacket.

It’s also reasonable that the once-rich Sunwoo Jun casually wears Off-White sneakers, Raf Simmons x Fred Perry hoodies, Bottega Veneta jackets, all while carrying a Givenchy backpack. Lacing these main leads in luxury products without interfering with the narrative nor impeding on their character relatability was well executed here. Finger snaps all around!

Sunwoo wearing everyone's favorite affordable sneakers: Vans.
Sunwoo wearing everyone’s favorite affordable sneakers: Vans.

COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Released late last year, Netflix’s Record of Youth follows three youth and their highs and lows of trying to make it into – and surviving – the entertainment industry. So, what doesn’t add up? In the first episode, Sa Hyejun (Park Bogum) is the definition of broke, yet he is wearing a Maison Margiela jacket and a Loewe puzzle bag (not even the classic one, which is already $3,500, but a special edition one) amid contemplating how he’s going to pay the bills… Wild thought, maybe hit up The Real Real?

Hyejun wearing a collarless Margiela denim jacket and his Loewe puzzle bag.

Jokes aside, this isn’t an isolated event. Even before his acting career takes off, he is regularly seen in Gucci blazers, Valentino sneakers, and Burberry trench coats. (PSA: Hyejun’s style actually remains unchanged even after he becomes South Korea’s hottest star.)

Hyejun wearing an AMI Paris pouch and Valentino sneakers with Jeongha wearing the famous Dr. Martens Jadons early in the series.

Enter the female lead: An Jeongha, played by Parasite’s Park Sodam. She is a budding makeup artist with humble beginnings that is also trying to thrive and survive. While her style is personable and often features oversized shirts, blazers, and cardigans, these are usually high-end brands including Officine Générale, Coach, Michael Kors, and YUUL YIE shoes. Even her famous no-numbers watch is close to $300. Does this make sense for the plot? Absolutely not. Does it make viewers want to splash out on designer stuff? Probably.

By the way, Hyejun’s rich best friend, Won Haehyo (Byeon Wooseok) is a good example of the inclusion of luxury products making sense. As one of Seoul’s elite, he’s often seen in Fendi blazers, Zadig & Voltaire, and Juun.J sweaters – which make all the sense.

Even though “run” is in the title, Netflix’s Run On is actually somewhat slow. (If you love a slow-burner, this is the one for you.) The series sweeps sensitive topics, convolutes relationships, and artfully stumbles on the “worlds collide” cliché. Two of the main characters, Ki Seongyeom (Yim Siwan) and Seo Danah (Choi Sooyoung), are rich-rich. So, it’s understandable that they’re always wearing AMI Paris, Moncler, Thom Browne, Burberry, and maaaany more.

Seongyeom wearing an AMI Paris striped sweater.
Seongyeom wearing a 7 Moncler Fragment Hiroshi Fujiwara shirt.
Seongyeom wearing a Thom Browne hoodie.

Oh Mijoo (Shin Saekyeong), on the other hand, is a film translator and English interpreter that is both fiery and loveable. More importantly, we know from her consistent obsession with checking her bank account (which is always low) that she is broke. She frequently volunteers for side gigs (tutoring) to make some fast cash. Despite this, she has one of the latest Samsung smartphones (which she could be paying in installments, fair enough!) and is spotted wearing Isabel Marant and Loewe sweaters as PJs (!!!), Philip Lim bomber jackets, and carrying various Loewe bags, Bottega Veneta’s coveted shoulder pouch as well as Marc Jacobs totes. Yet another example where the luxury products fail the sense-check.

Mijoo with another Samsung Galaxy Z Flip phone, which, in all fairness, is not hers.

Put simply, the only character’s luxury-product-to-character-narrative ratio that makes sense in Netflix’s Start-Up is the beloved, show-stealing Han Jipyeong (Kim Seonho) aka. Good Boy. He wasn’t always wealthy, but he earned his wealth and is rocking it well in brands like Fendi and Golden Goose from his lavish penthouse.

Jipyeong in Golden Goose sneaks.

The main character, Seo Dalmi, played by the lovely Suzy Bae, however, is a struggling college dropout that works part-time jobs to survive while dreaming of becoming a CEO. In the first episode, Dalmi uses a black permanent marker to color the scuff marks on her worn-out black heels – while wearing a Lanvin bag that sells for $2,000. In the next episodes as well, every single bag Dalmi carries retails over $1,000 individually. These include a Loewe shoulder bag, a Salvatore Ferragamo tote, and the iconic Lady Dior My ABCDior bag. Even if Suzy is a Dior ambassador (meaning the Dior bag probably had to make a cameo), the rest doesn’t make sense. Dalmi is consistently and nonchalantly wearing Lemaire and Roger Viver throughout the series, all while aggressively tying her hair up every time she gets an idea.

Dalmi sporting the Lady Dior My ABCDior bag.
Dalmi wearing a Bianca Chandôn hoodie.

The other main lead, Nam Dosan (Nam Joohyuk), is a math prodigy that started Samsan Tech with his two best friends. Besides needing a serious glow-up (which is worth the wait), Dosan and his friends are seriously struggling to pay the bills to keep the lights on in their makeshift office that is falling apart. To add insult to injury, the three are often hiding from their investors (which include Dosan’s parents). So, how is Dosan wearing Isabel Marant and AMI Paris sweaters in the first few episodes while coding and knitting in the dark?

Based on a popular webtoon, tvN’s True Beauty, available to international audiences via Rakuten Viki, is a light-hearted love triangle story for the most part but it also dabbles in heavy-hitting topics such as suicide, bullying, societal standards of beauty, and self-confidence. Among the show sponsors? The usual suspects: Samsung and Swarovski. The show also has a partnership with K-beauty retailer Olive Young (who owns colorgram) and it might be the smartest on this list.

Lim Jugyeong (Moon Gayoung) is the main character – an “ugly duckling” that transforms into a goddess via makeup. She is also in high school, part of a large family, and her father has a lot of debt. She even starts working a part-time job at a café to save up for a makeup academy. Despite this narrative, she is seen wearing Saint Laurent blazers, Marc Jacobs sweaters, and Roger Viver shoes as if she had money to spare.

In sharp contrast, the show’s K-beauty sponsorship with colorgram was a smart weave into Lim Jugyeong’s story. Makeup is more affordable as opposed to some of the high-end fashion items – which we agree she wouldn’t be able to afford. Also, when she used the colorgram products on air, her selections went viral off-screen. (Spoiler alert: the scene where she applied the colorgram Thunderbolt Tint Lacquer to heartthrob Han Seojun’s lips had everyone trying to purchase the same lip tint.)

But back to fashion. Lee Suho (ASTRO‘s Cha Eunwoo) is the other main character that exclusively wears designer clothes (even though the designer names are censored, again, due to South Korean regulations). Regardless, this is actually in line with his story because his father is the CEO of a record label and they are the epitome of wealth.

Suho wearing a Thom Browne zip-up hoodie.

Last, but certainly not least, is Han Seojun (Hwang Inyeop) who swooped in to steal the show and hearts everywhere. (Is that true? Yes!) While his character doesn’t appear to be poor, we have to question how many different Juun.J bomber jackets he wears. Otherwise, no complaints.

Seojun in one of his many leather jackets.

Seojun in one of his many leather jackets.

COURTESY OF RAKUTEN VIKI

Netflix’s latest action-packed K-drama, Vincenzo, stops nothing short of giving us exactly what we didn’t know we needed. Suave mafia consigliere, Vincenzo Cassano (Song Joongki) seemingly has the world at his fingertips, so of course, it makes sense that he wears a TAG Heuer Monaco watch (which retail for +$5,000). A well-dressed leading man, Vincenzo even wears 100{028e8b43b440f88d50a94b0ac799d5b93a220d942414697744f001bd74eb64d0} mulberry silk tailored Happiestness PJs, which run for the equivalent of over $500.

<cite class="credit">COURTESY OF NETFLIX</cite>

COURTESY OF NETFLIX

happiestness “Spark of Light” Robe

$.00, W Concept

Strangely enough, aside from his flashy watches and his super extra PJs and suits, this show artfully skirts around mentioning other luxury brands that would have actually made sense to the narrative. In one scene, the two main characters arrive at the courthouse in what appears to be a Lamborghini, though the brand isn’t outwardly mentioned at all (because, again, regulations!) They do, however, playfully refer to Vincenzo’s Lamborghetti car a few times… Mmm… I wonder what that brand might be? (Maybe in all its flashiness, this sportscar doesn’t even actually need a mention but we are being nitpicky here.)

Vincenzo in one of his many double-breasted suits.

Vincenzo in one of his many double-breasted suits.

COURTESY OF NETFLIX

The power duo in style action.

The power duo in style action.

COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Where does one even start with goddess Hong Chayoung? Played by Jeon Yeobin, she is feisty, she is fierce, and she is always putting the “power” in power suits. Her bag collection alone is swoon-worthy and includes Chloè, Fendi, and Givenchy.

Chayoung with a Givenchy Antigona bag.

It doesn’t stop there – she also rocks Roger Vivier satin heels, Aquazzura pumps, Max Mara pantsuits, and completes her effortlessly polished looks with a Chesterfield Thom Browne coat. She even pulls off a full Off-White outfit, comprised of a suit and leather bag, in one episode and a sculptural Alexander McQueen blouse for the final kiss scene. All of which, again, pass the sense check because of her character as a big law firm lawyer.

<cite class="credit">COURTESY OF NETFLIX</cite>

COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Bottega Veneta’s wool gabardine shirt

$1570.00, MyTheresa

Joy Gryson’s Margo classic satchel bag

$588.00, W Concept

<cite class="credit">COURTESY OF NETFLIX</cite>

COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Ultimately, will an out-of-place luxury product make us stop watching a K-drama? Absolutely no. Though certainly, the narratives would benefit if product inclusions, especially luxury ones, always made sense, spotting the odd one out (and commenting about it with friends while having a watch party) is oh-so-fun – so much so, that we can’t help but hope otherwise. Let’s see what the K-drama powers-that-be have in store for us next…

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Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: 11 Best K-Dramas of 2020: Rivals, Lovers, and Slow Burning Intrigue

Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue

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