While the emergence of Korean pop culture has catapulted K-beauty into the spotlight, attention has been, for the most part, on Korean cosmetics. In recent years, however, niche Korean fragrances have come to the fore, eager to compete with dominant global fragrance brands such as Diptyque, Le Labo, and Jo Malone.
Established by luxury veteran Sung Soo Kim, Saranghaeyo is a Korean fragrance studio with a showroom in Dongdae-mun in Seoul and distribution across a diverse network of specialty boutiques, fragrance chains, and Lotte and Hyundai department stores across Korea.
Outside of Korea, Kim is determined to keep his fragrance studio Saranghaeyo low-key whilst delivering high impact in the growing niche fragrance market.
Kim, who began his career in fashion merchandising in the United States, is a former executive at LVMH, where he spent 16 years in charge of local markets and duty free and eventually as regional director for Asia Pacific including Greater China, Japan, and Korea. Kim relocated to Korea in 2012 as country managing director for Bvlgari, overseeing the luxury house’s portfolio including jewellery, watches, and perfumes.
In 2020 Kim launched Saranghaeyo with nine perfumes, inspired by specific moments and destinations. Today the brand offers 12 scents, with stockists in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Romania, and Bulgaria.
RiA: Tell us about the name ‘Saranghaeyo’ and founding the brand.
Sung Soo Kim: I started to think about my venture in 2005. When I worked for LVMH, I did not think I would stay for 16 years. But I was in a very unique situation, being Korean, working for a French company, and looking after Asia Pacific, Korea, Japan, Greater China.
This was also around the time of the birth period of K-culture and I projected this Korean wave would continue to gain traction around the world. I thought ‘Saranghaeyo’ was a beautiful, memorable name for my business. I wanted the branding to be neutral and chic, not too feminine nor too masculine.
RiA: Why perfume?
Kim: As a perfume businessman, I noticed this growing trend in the niche category. Increasingly younger customers all over Asia are becoming more sophisticated in how they select their cosmetics, fragrances.
Perfumes were a large part of my work for almost 20 years. I started developing scents one by one with a Korean perfumer, but the infrastructure of the perfume industry in Korea is quite weak, so we had to work with a number of factories.
With Saranghaeyo I wanted to talk about real life stories, moments experienced by myself. There are always scents one attaches to these places, moments, people. Fragrance is so powerful in that way.
Even before I created the scents, I did a road show around perfume stores in Korea to build our distribution network. On day one we were in 10 department stores and 15 perfumeries around the country. In six months Saranghaeyo sold over 1,000 bottles, which was quite good according to my projections at that time.
RiA: Did you see a gap in the market for this category?
Kim: When I was at LVMH, [I looked after] designer perfume brands like Givenchy, Kenzo, Emilio Pucci, and Fendi but I always admired niche brands and dreamed someday that I would create something unique. But making perfume is not only like mixing oils or creating the scent – it took much more time to create context and project this into a scent.
My target market was very clear for me from the start: a perfume user for a minimum of five years, who knows the difference between niche and designer fragrances and appreciates its value. Saranghaeyo fragrances are not as expensive compared to global niche brands. I want my perfume users to dream of niche fragrances, and be able to use them to express themselves in a very qualitative, meaningful way.
Everyone can have an equal opportunity to experience niche fragrances. My philosophy for production is I try to use the best companies in Korea, from the contents and the bottles to packaging, using the most detailed finishes, so that we can be as competitive as we can be in terms of quality and interface in other markets.
RiA: Tell us about your offline and online strategy.
Kim: For Saranghaeyo, I don’t want to do mass distribution. I would like to be in very small perfumeries and stores that share our philosophy.
The power of offline stores is in attracting customers and allowing them to try the perfumes, even if they don’t buy it at the store. They can then go home and purchase on e-commerce.
I also created discovery sets, priced very fairly, for customers who don’t live in Seoul and cannot come to the showroom, and this has helped make the fragrances more accessible.
RiA: How are you charting your expansion across Asia and the rest of the globe?
Kim: Aside from Korea, we are now in Taiwan and Eastern Europe. We are sold in Taiwan through media commerce and select offline stores. In Eastern Europe, it is conventional retail and e-commerce. Saranghaeyo is in a number of perfumeries. I was in Bucharest last month and observed the Korean wave in Eastern Europe area was quite impressive. I will keep putting emphasis on the area.
Hong Kong, for me, is an advanced market and we are doing more selective distribution to be able to communicate the brand person-to-person and hear feedback. I am also working on Japan and Vietnam where consumers appreciate the culture and perfume.