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When Korean boy band BTS attended US music awards shows in 2017, fashion and beauty publications took note. Vogue proclaimed “BTS Shut Down the AMAs Red Carpet in Saint Laurent” while Bustle wrote “BTS’s 2017 American Music Awards Outfits Make ’90s Boy Band Fashion Look Sad.” As newly ordained stars in the global pop scene, there was considerable interest in what the band would wear. On the red carpet at the BBMAs and AMAs, the seven members of BTS looked totally comfortable in their Saint Laurent suits. The band may have been unfamiliar to many US viewers, but they’re no strangers to superstar style. And it’s fans that help BTS and other K-pop stars (called “idols”) stay in designer everything, down to their pajamas on casual live broadcasts.
K-pop idol fashion is documented on social-media style accounts by admins that can instantly recognize clothing and create collages that pair paparazzi-style photos taken at the airport, video screenshots, or social-media images with official clothing and accessory marketing that shows the designer, price, and sometimes even the provenance of clothes and accessories. Soshified, the largest international fan community dedicated to idol group Girls’ Generation (the community has been in existence for a decade), has a whole Style section of its website devoted to clothes and accessories worn by the girl group’s members, complete with shopping links. While providing fashion info about a girl group’s style to a largely female audience (at least outside of Korea) makes sense, K-pop fans are just as interested in knowing what their favorite boy bands are wearing. Style accounts for megagroups BTS and EXO have over 100,000 followers on Twitter, but seemingly every active band, even those with smaller followings, has its style intensively tracked by at least one Twitter or Instagram account.
The centrality of designer fashion to K-pop has grown over the years, raising the bar for every time an artist leaves the house for work-related events and travel. Girls’ Generation’s stylist Seo Soo-kyung told The Korea Herald, “Before [landmark K-pop group] Big Bang, K-pop artists’ costumes were literally costumes. Stylists’ job was to kind of copy the lines of famous designers and recreate them into stage outfits.” Big Bang’s more natural style featured “outfits freshly out from a designer’s collection,” according to Seo, meaning that fans could buy the same clothes their favorite idols wore.
Haru98, from Twitter’s iKON_Wardrobe, which tracks the style of YG Entertainment’s seven-member boy group iKON, told Racked that the band’s clothing for music videos, photoshoots, and travel is usually either purchased by YG stylists or borrowed from designers — mainly Korean brands such as Haleine, Acmé de la Vie, and Pragmatic. K-pop fan Jess, who has been following boy bands, including GOT7, B.A.P., and VIXX, for several years, told Racked, “airport fashion on male stars can be well over $50,000 for one outfit.”
K-pop idols are wearing outfits that cost as much as some of their peers’ annual salaries to catch a flight. The Korea Herald reported that Korea’s National Tax Service released figures showing that K-pop idols made an average of $42,000 in 2013.
For every group collecting bigger paychecks, there are smaller acts scraping by without even turning a profit. Popular girl group AOA worked for three years to pay off debts to FNC Entertainment before finally collecting their first paycheck in 2016; perhaps most shockingly, three years to pay off debts related to music production, promotion, training, housing, and food is considered fast in the industry. Hip-hop group Block B filed an injunction against the first company that employed them in 2013: They said they were not paid in the course of several years of labor and that band members’ parents supplied stage costumes and cash to support promotions.
Even the biggest K-pop boy bands collect salaries far smaller than one would expect from their sales figures. In 2015, EXO sold over 1 million albums, but user MyRoad2Pro on OneHallyu’s forums broke down the millions of dollars their albums earned to show that band members may have only received $73,604.40 each from their new music (with endorsements being far more lucrative for the band), while top girl group Apink likely had $2,926 net debt per member before endorsements got the band into the black. Not every artist turns a profit — EXO and Apink were two of the most successful groups in 2015, and the salaries for K-pop stars mostly go down from there.
How do K-pop stars, who make far less than you’d expect, manage to stay dressed in designer clothes? Alex, from BTS fashion Twitter account Beyond The Style, told Racked, “I [think] it’s, like, 30/30/30 percent,” with clothing coming equally from purchases by the band’s stylists, loans from designers, and gifts from fans.
IKON_Wardrobe’s Haru98 says that idols, in addition to buying their own outfits, receive gifts of clothing from fans, friends, or family. On the occasion of a band member’s birthday, fans — usually working together under the direction of a star’s fan sites — will give artists presents, including expensive clothing. The idols typically wear these gifts for more casual public appearances, such as going to the airport or appearing on the radio (where they are usually photographed and filmed for a live video feed by the station).
Fan sites double as personal photographers-slash-paparazzi (although they’re usually on very good terms with the artists they cover) and fan clubs. Their admins take photos and videos of the band members they follow, edit the images, and sell things like photo books and DVDs of their original work to help buy gifts for the idols they follow. In addition to selling fan goods, fan sites also collect donations in order to provide artists with luxury clothes and accessories, donate to charity in the name of the artist, provide food at radio and TV broadcast appearances by the band, and secure celebratory advertising for their fave on everything from the sides of buses in Seoul to billboards in Times Square.
The unique K-pop gifting relationship between fans and idols is perhaps most clear when it comes to luxury watches. While part of the appeal of Cartier White Buffs for Detroit rap artists is that the stars can demonstrate the depth of their bank accounts by buying them, many of the high-end timepieces in the K-pop world are known to be fan gifts. We know this because fan sites post proof photos showing neatly arranged rows of gifts in the wake of events such as artist birthdays, in part to reassure fans that the money they collected, whether from purchased photo and video goods or outright donations, was spent appropriately. In many cases, more expensive gifts, such as watches, are photographed separately and highlighted in posts when the artist uses the garment or accessory. A series of tweets by fan site NUNA V recently compared a coat, watch, tie, and bag gifted to BTS member Kim Taehyung (stage name: V) with screen captures of him using the items during an episode of Run BTS!, the band’s web variety show.
Providing one’s favorite star with a high-end watch holds special interest for fans. A Twitter account periodically revives its joking demand that EXO’s company, SM Entertainment, buy member Do Kyungsoo (stage name: D.O.) a Rolex. D.O. stopped accepting gifts from fans in 2016, and SM Entertainment hasn’t been exceptionally generous when it comes to profit-sharing, so he’d likely need to buy that Rolex himself, but bandmates Baekhyun and Kai have each received a Rolex timepiece from their fan sites. BTS member Jungkook was still in high school when he received a Rolex from his erstwhile fan site Direct Kill. On an article about the gift, a Korean commenter (English translation via Pann-Choa), wrote: “As expected from my man.” It’s not the fact that a star has the cash to buy a luxury accessory that’s important to fans, it’s that he somehow owns it — even if it’s a gift.
That’s not to say that all K-pop fans are chipping in for Rolexes. Don’t try to connect K-pop’s gifting to vague (verging on Orientalist) notions of collective culture. Commenters in Korea are often dismissive of lavish presents and sometimes aghast at the idea of providing a star luxury goods. Posts on Korean forums such as Pann (translated at Pann-Choa) and on English-language K-pop forums such as Reddit show similar levels of bafflement at the lengths to which fans will go to provide clothing, accessories, and even food during events for band members. A massive investigation of fan gifting in 2013 led to articles on jo gong culture. The term “jo gong” was used historically to refer to the tribute a vassal state gave its feudal overlord; such a parallel raised the ire of online commenters, who wondered why fans would treat themselves like vassals of a celebrity, even taking on side jobs and risky loans to contribute to gifts for celebs.
The same attitudes that result in stars receiving designer underwear from their fan sites also cause tremendous scrutiny of any behavior that appears to indicate which gifts they want to receive. For instance, EXO’s Sehun and Chanyeol were criticized for liking fancy watch posts on Instagram. (K-pop fans spoke to Racked on the condition that they could use nicknames, social-media handles, or their first names; most K-pop fans in and out of Korea don’t use any part of their real name online. In light of the fact that top stars can get hate for pressing “like” on Instagram posts showing fairly standard material goods, it’s no wonder that fans are wary of surrendering their privacy.)
Stars such as G-Dragon from Big Bang, SHINee’s Taemin, and JYP Entertainment as a whole don’t accept gifts from fans. Some bands and artists followed suit; most recently, BTS announced that they will no longer accept fan gifts as of March 2018. Just this week, EXO’s Xiumin posted that fans had filled his house with so many gifts that he found it difficult to walk around, and asked that they understand his decision to decline all future presents. That’s not to say that fans will stop spending on birthdays and anniversaries of the artists’ debut performances: That money will likely now be directed fully into the aforementioned advertising and charity projects, such as when fans donated blood to celebrate TWICE member Chaeyoung’s birthday, donated money to help low-income children with hearing impairment for Hoya from Infinite’s birthday, and supported the Korea Childhood Leukemia Foundation for Kai’s birthday.
At this point, K-pop fans are so coordinated that some groups could probably pick up seats for their favorite bands in the US midterm elections. Fans are tweeting, voting, and calling to help their favorite K-pop artists gain traction outside of Korea — having a globally recognized designer look has been part of how K-pop smashed through the language barrier to reach an international audience. Even when bands can’t speak every language, their clothes say enough to get their music a listen around the world.
As IATFB, founder of the satirical K-pop news and commentary site Asian Junkie, reflected in a post on EXO’s gifted Rolexes, “Nobody is forcing fans” to give lavish gifts, “but the idols know damn well that crazy teens will do whatever it takes because they’re delusional.” But, IATFB explains, “That’s essentially the whole pop business model to begin with, so if the fans are dumb/dedicated enough to gift them cars and shit, so be it.”
K-pop fan Jess, who is not a teen and who has participated in several birthday projects aimed at sending idols messages and images rather than luxury gifts, is unbothered by the K-pop gifting culture. Aware of the salaries K-pop groups probably earn, she says, “All of those gifts mean idols don’t have to buy stuff on their own and can use their money for other things.”