Retail in Asia

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How Gentle Monster rode the K-Pop wave to $160 million

Gentle Monster Sunglasses

Warby Parker — and its many clones — took the world by storm in 2011 with a disruptive direct-to-consumer, buy-a-pair-give-a-pair model, and this caught the eye of Hankook Kim.

“It was really growing. At that point, every company was introducing this new idea of easy, simple customer service that offered free try-ons, free returns,” said Kim, who’s now the founder and chief executive of South Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster.

“When I first began looking into eyewear and researching the market, I found that it was a very union-controlled industry that was not explored as an artistic form,” he recalled. Instead of creating a Warby Parker clone, he decided to try a different style and aesthetic for Asia.

“Here, having a small face is the biggest compliment,” Kim says. “There were no competitors for oversize glasses, which make heads look smaller.”

The result was a look more Acne than Warby Parker, with coke-bottle-thick frames etched in gold and abstract cat-eye styles made with titanium rims. The brand’s physical retail experience was also unique.

“I wanted the products to look as if they were being exhibited,” Kim says. And indeed, Gentle Monster’s calling card has become its in-store concepts. Also, as Gangnam Style and Korean culture became a global phenomenon, Gentle Monster also benefited from strategic celebrity endorsements on local celebrities.

By 2014, the company was generating $40 million in revenue, with a mix of wholesale and direct retail, primarily in Korea and China. In 2015, that number quadrupled to roughly $160 million.

Gentle Monster’s projected revenue for 2016, with 10 direct-to-consumer retail stores now in its arsenal — seven in South Korea, one in Beijing, one in Hong Kong and one New York, with Shanghai and Los Angeles on the way — is $250 million. About 70 percent of the business is direct, with 30 percent coming from wholesale partners.

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