A race to ‘flex’: Why showing off wealth is a virtue in South Korea
SEOUL – If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Or fake it till you make it.
These seem to be the golden rules in South Korea, where image is everything and showing off wealth – or to at least be seen as rich – is a virtue, not a vice.
The obsession with designer labels is so widely accepted that even middle school children wear them to class.
My 13-year-old daughter recalls seeing the letters P-R-A-D-A on a classmate’s black loafers.
Moncler is the winter coat of teenage choice in schools in more affluent districts, while bags range from MSGM and Marc Jacobs, to Burberry and Balenciaga.
The flaunting extends to moms clad in designer garb and driving branded cars.
Designer bags can be seen everywhere in the streets of Seoul, sometimes even in the hands of young, doting boyfriends.
So I was hardly surprised when a recent Morgan Stanley report placed South Korea as the world’s top spender on personal luxury goods in 2022, with a total expenditure of 21.8 trillion won, or 400,000 won for each person – a 24 percent rise from the previous year.
“Appearance and financial success can resonate more with consumers in South Korea than in most other countries,” the report said.
The tendency to judge people based on looks and material status symbols runs deep in image-conscious South Korea, the plastic surgery capital of the world.
South Koreans take it a step further by using these measurements of success to strike envy in others, be it living in a multimillion-dollar apartment in a hip district overlooking the Han River, driving a Mercedes-Benz or carrying a Birkin bag.
The old Korean idiom “when my cousin buys land, I get a stomachache” shows just how much they go green with envy at someone else’s success, and how much they yearn to elicit the same response from others.
What ensues is a never-ending race to flex and flex – which means to brag about wealth and money-related stuff – so as not to lose out to anyone and show that you are “one of them”.
A Singaporean I know retorted when her Korean husband complained about her buying designer bags, a habit she developed only after moving here: “It’s all because you Koreans are so snobbish and look down on people who don’t carry designer bags.”
Another Singaporean friend shared how she had to upgrade her Peugeot to a Mercedes because the security guard at her children’s school would not let her drive in, thinking she was not one of the moms picking up children.
A Korean friend confided that her meetings with friends would last no more than an hour, as that is the most amount of “flexing” she can withstand at one sitting.
I myself remember the horror of attending my very first parent-teacher meeting back in 2015, watching every Chanel-toting Korean mom strut into the room as if walking the Paris runway.
It soon dawned on me that I would have to dress like them to get accepted into their social circle, or risk being excluded from play dates for the children.
The fear of becoming an outcast was so palpable that I asked my Korean husband for a Chanel item too. He was quite happy to oblige, believing that I would be flaunting it and at the same time praising his generosity, at every opportunity.
But I chose the most inconspicuous classic bag without the double C logo, as it has been long ingrained in me that humility is a virtue and that showing off is in bad taste.
To the South Koreans though, flexing is nothing to be ashamed of.
To cite a 2010 study by McKinsey & Company that is still relevant today, South Korea has one of the rare “luxury-friendly” cultures around.
Conducted during a time when the country’s luxury market was the second fastest-growing in the world after China, the study gave two reasons behind the strong demand – sheer love of luxury products, and the intense pressure to conform and keep up with friends and neighbors.
Only 22 percent of South Korean respondents believed that “showing off luxury goods is in bad taste”, as opposed to 45 percent of Japanese and 38 percent in China.
Only 5 percent of South Koreans felt “buying luxury goods is a waste of money”, while nearly 70 percent found enjoyment in the “functional or emotional value of wearing luxury items”.
The study also found young South Koreans in their 20s and 30s to be an emerging target group for luxury brands, as they had fewer financial responsibilities and were more eager to express themselves through how they dressed.
Today, studies show that luxury lovers have become even younger.
Generation Z, born between 1996 and 2005, is especially prone to splurging on luxury goods for instant gratification, as they see little point in saving up for big-ticket items such as a house or a car.
Even school-going teenagers feel the peer pressure to carry designer labels. A 2020 poll of 783 middle and high school students found that 56.4 percent of them have bought luxury products.
Experts attribute this to the bandwagon effect of social media and how teenagers get influenced easily to follow trends and emulate the styles of their favorite YouTubers or K-pop stars.
The big brands have certainly noticed the power of K-pop as the Korean Wave went worldwide, with many appointing Korean idols as their global ambassadors to increase sales.
Each of the four members of girl group Blackpink endorses a different luxury brand – Jennie for Chanel, Lisa for Celine, Rose for Saint Laurent and Jisoo for Dior.
Two members of boyband BTS have also bagged endorsements – Jimin for Dior and Suga for Valentino.
Some of those who cannot afford to splurge on luxury brands have turned to fakes.
Dongdaemun Saebit Market, the country’s largest fake designer goods bazaar, is a vibrant open secret that operates only at night.
It sells various grades of counterfeit goods, from cheap knock-offs from China to high-quality “A” products that are made locally and cost less than 10 percent of the originals.
The market of yellow tents is said to be booming simply because the originals are too expensive.
While there is no legal penalty for wearing fakes, one’s reputation could take a serious bashing if exposed.
YouTuber Song Ji-ah, who shot to fame after appearing in Netflix reality dating show Singles Inferno, found out the hard way, getting cancelled after hawk-eyed netizens claimed that some of the outfits and jewelry she wore looked fake.
The 26-year-old beauty content creator, who had made a name for herself flexing luxury brands including Chanel and Dior, ended up posting an apology and deleting all her posts on YouTube and Instagram.
Experts said active users of social media are always under pressure to show off new luxury items to appeal to their fans and attract more views.
Rapper Dok2 was recently revealed to have owed 320 million won in taxes and 16.6 million won in national health insurance premiums – ironic for someone who has long bragged about his lavish spending, including buying a Bentley and a Ferrari for his birthday.
Another rapper named Sleepy confessed that he felt the pressure to flex even though he had only 70,000 won left in his bank account.
Even for ordinary South Koreans, it is not uncommon for them to survive on ramyeon (Korean for instant noodles) for months to afford a branded bag.
Others rely on easy installment options offered by a multitude of credit card issuers, with nary a thought on whether they can pay off the whole sum.
Mounting debt for young people is becoming a concern in South Korea, with a recent study showing that debtors aged 19 to 39 chalked up an average debt of 84.5 million won per person in 2021, up from 34 million won in 2012.
The thrill of buying and flexing is transient, but the consequences can be long and painful.
I would rather not be a slave to luxury, and spend the money instead on memorable experiences such as travel, as there is no end in sight for the slippery slope marked “fake it till you make it”.
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