South Korea was first introduced to luxury brands in the 1990s. Since then, a great interest in luxury products, or myungpoom, and foreign products, called waejae, has developed. Despite the strong preference for fashion products from the United States and Europe, Sang A, a brand founded by a woman born and raised in Korea, is recognized as a myungpoom in Korea. This new luxury brand is also known for its designer handbags in the United States and is quite successful in both countries. In a comparative study of Sang A and the internationally well-known luxury brand Jimmy Choo using literary research, Internet research, field research, and interviews with Sang A bag consumers, I identified several key elements of success for the two brands: niche market targeting, storytelling, a ‘hungry attitude,’ high prices but accessible discounts, thorough management of distribution channels, and image-making through star power. This article implicates that Korean consumers have complex desires that go beyond simply wanting foreign goods.
Korea’s love for myungpoom and waejae.
The term ‘luxury designer brand’ typically refers to brands or fashion houses with a long tradition, such as Chanel or Dior, which provide hand-made, intricate clothes and other fashion items to the privileged classes. However, new luxury brands–—either created as a sub-line by existing brands or completely new young brands–—have been surfacing over recent years (e.g., Donna Karan, Tory Burch). This article examines luxury brands in the modern age, and the success of two new luxury brands in particular: Sang A and Jimmy Choo. It studies the creation of luxury brands and offers lessons for designers, fashionistas, and entrepreneurs who want to follow in their footsteps.
South Korea opened its doors to the international market in the 1980s. Likewise, many luxury brands branched out to the country as recently as the 1990s or 2000s, yet there is already a love for luxury that is so strong companies consider it a major characteristic of the market. The Korean word for luxury product or designer label is myungpoom ( ), which literally means ‘excellent or famous goods’; it can also be translated into ‘masterpiece.’
There is a distinct group of people who are so fond of myungpooms that there is a new word, derived in the 1990s, myungpoomjok, to indicate these myungpoom-ers who like to constantly shop and wear these items–—preferably goods that others can also easily recognize to be myungpoom goods. Perhaps because of the late start of the inflow of international brands and products, Korean people also have a high preference for waejae ( ), or foreign products. Hence, most of the myungpooms are international brands from France, Italy, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Korean designer brands exist, but not many of those have the same high status.
However, there is one Korean brand that Korean people are happy to call myungpoom: Sang A. Sang A Im-Propp is a former musical actress, TV actress, and Korean singer who moved to New York and eventually started a handbag line. Aside from the fact that Sang A was started by a Korean, it is actually a brand born and developed in the United States and made in Italy, which has been quite successful so far thanks to the fact that many well-known celebrities have chosen to carry the bags at highly publicized events. Many Korean designers and brands advanced to the United States and France in recent years in an effort to create a Korean fashion myungpoom, but no designer born and raised in Korea has been as successful as Sang A Im-Propp in terms of myungpoom image.
Jimmy Choo is another relatively new luxury brand that has achieved great success worldwide, including in Korea. The brand was co-founded by an Asian, as the name suggests, but is now a British luxury brand. It was jointly founded by a shoemaker born in Malaysia and a British fashion accessories editor. A few years after its successful launch, Equinox Luxury Holdings bought out the shoemaker Jimmy Choo and helped turn it into a worldwide brand. It is one of the most favored luxury shoe brands for women globally.
Extant studies related to myungpoom have usually focused on luxury brand loyalty (Kim & Kim, 2009), consumer perceptions toward luxury products (Choi, Hong, & Lee, 2010), luxury brand counterfeits (Lee & Kim, 2007), or luxury product addiction (Lee, 2006); however, there is lack of concentration regarding new luxury brands and case studies of Korean brands. In an age when the Korean government is seeking ways to break into the international luxury fashion market, it is significant to analyze a Korean luxury brand and compare the analysis to an overview of a well-known European brand.
Women and luxury brands
Luxury can mean many things, such as excellent craftsmanship or aesthetics that lead to excessively high prices or products sold in exclusive places, but the one common characteristic of luxury is that it is tied to the social hierarchy. Premium goods are just goods that are better than others, but luxury is something that shows rank in society (Kapferer, 2010). A study on luxury goods concluded that luxury goods have higher psychological, social, and symbolic aspects, while non-luxury goods have higher functional aspects (Vickers & Renand, 2003). A notable trend in the luxury market is the expansion of luxury brands and the appearance of new ones.
The authors of Trading Up define ‘new luxury’ as products that have higher levels of quality, taste, and aspiration than general goods in a category but are not too expensive to be out of reach (Silverstein & Fiske, 2008). This article takes a more literal perspective and defines new luxury as successful luxury brands or products that have a short history and are fairly new to the market. This article focuses on Korea and a case study of the Sang A brand, along with an overview of Jimmy Choo, another new luxury accessories brand. However, it must be noted that not only Korea but also the Asian market in general has a strong interest in luxury products.
Asian countries favor foreign merchandise, especially European luxury brands because they are international symbols and stand for the best in terms of product and image quality (Chadha & Husband, 2006). Consequently, the Asian luxury goods market made up 37% of the global market in 2006; considering the amount they spend abroad on luxury shopping, it can be said that Asians are responsible for half of the consumption of luxury brands (Chadha & Husband, 2006). Many economists claim that Japan is the secondlargest luxury market in the world after the United States, with China ranking third (Chevalier & Lu, 2010).
The economic rise of Japan took place in the 1970s, at the time when the country noticeably started to purchase European luxury goods. This phenomenon grew throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when one out of every three women in Japan owned a luxury piece. Now, even fishmongers in Japan keep their cash receipts in Louis Vuitton bags (Chadha & Husband, 2006). Thrift and frugality have traditionally been core values in China, but due to double-digit economic growth and drastically improved standards of living for much of the Chinese population, consumption has become a big part of Chinese people’s lives.
Nowadays in China, consumption not only fulfills basic needs, but also social needs such as a desire for identification, status, and social recognition (Faure & Fang, 2008). The new middle class of China are also becoming luxury customers, similar to Korea. They purchase Louis Vuitton bags as major investment pieces to feel cosmopolitan, modern, and sexy (Chevalier & Lu, 2010). A 2012 study on luxury consumption in China found that middle-class consumers consider luxury brands to be highly valuable possessions, and their main reason for purchasing luxury brands is to conform to social expectations. It also found that those who want to express uniqueness tend not to purchase the best-known, popular luxury brands (Zhan & He, 2012).
What women want
Women are the main consumers of fashion purchases and have a weakness for luxury. The motivation for purchasing luxury goods can be divided into two categories: internally driven desires and externally driven desires. Internally driven desires aim for selffulfillment and personal satisfaction while externally driven desires aim to impress others and signal wealth or status in a conspicuous way (Truong, 2010).
Most women say they dress to express themselves and their individuality, but the truth is that other people’s opinions penetrate deeply into the intentions of the wearer and influence clothing selection. Even as adults, women often dress to fit in with various groups (Woodward, 2007). Therefore, they now purchase luxury brands as a normal part of fashion consumption even though there are differences in price range and frequency of purchases.
Different levels of conspicuous luxury purchases exist. Consumers who are already wealthy and of a certain status do not need to prove their wealth with such obvious products and rather prefer to purchase and wear brands the masses may not recognize but their peers will (Kapferer, 2010); for example, a Bottega Veneta bag with signature skilled weaving but no logo instead of a Louis Vuitton with an obvious logo print.
Whether women want to appreciate themselves or show off their status to others, there is a consistent subconscious desire to be treated well. Some luxury brands offer great customer service and even after-service. This adds to the high satisfaction level of the luxury brand shopping and ownership experience. The quality and design of luxury goods also play a part in the decision to make an expensive purchase.
Generally, the excellent-quality leather, stitching, and details of luxury fashion products make them a worthwhile investment for consumers. Many women look back on their teenage years and are embarrassed at the fashion slaves or victims they were. Consequently, as adults, they do not want to keep up with every single trend, yet they do not want to appear unfashionable either (Woodward, 2007). Classic, high-quality luxury products therefore play a big role in any woman’s closet. The handcraft, use of top materials, and inimitable characteristic of luxury goods–—on top of the repeatable, classic attraction–—make it a mandatory part of the wardrobe for many women.
Newfound love for luxury in Korea
Korea is a unique luxury market with its own characteristics. A review of the market and psychology of its consumers is necessary to understand why Sang A is a Korean brand with distinctly Korean characteristics and how Sang A succeeded as a luxury brand, not only in the United States but also in Korea, where consumers are reluctant to accept Korean brands as myungpooms. According to McKinsey research, two main factors that drive people to purchase luxury products are pure love for luxury and peer pressure.
Korea is a traditionally groupist culture, like other Asian countries, rooted in a Confucian notion that discourages strong individuality (Kapferer, 2012). Because of this, Korean people have a strong desire to fit in and be like others (Ha & Park, 2011). These days, it is the norm for people to have an interest in luxury and show off their new purchases; this has led to an influx of luxury brands in recent years. One of the major Korean department store chains, Shinsegae Department Store, offered fewer than 20 luxury labels in the early 2000s, but by 2009 featured almost 300 (Salsberg & Shin, 2010). A professor at Sookmyung Women’s University blames the excess of myungpoom in Korean society on the need to show off oneself and on people’s instinct to be extravagant.
The massive political, social, and economic changes that have transformed the country may also be somewhat responsible–— possibly explaining why Korean women with whitecollar jobs purchase Ferragamo shoes on installment plans. One study found that luxury brands in Asia are symbols people wear to redefine their identity and social position (Chadha & Husband, 2006). Economic changes are recent, meaning very few families have had money for many generations.
One characteristic of luxury fashion in Korea, as in many Asian countries, is that consumers use luxury goods to show off their wealth and Western know-how–— unlike the United States where it is a means to a lifestyle, or Europe, where the luxury market is mature and people incorporate it into their lifestyle (Okonkwo, 2007). The power of luxury brands is very strong in Korea, and the favorites are fashion brands: the Burberry trench coat is so widely worn and sought after in Korea that ‘Burberry’ is the Korean word for trench coat.
A 2005 study showed that the luxury items Korean people purchased the most were wallets and handbags because unlike clothes, which people change daily, wallets and handbags can be carried constantly, leading to more exposure (Kim & Lee, 2005). In 2009, sales of luxury fashion apparel grew less than 5%, with some brands seeing a decrease of sales compared to 2008, but the sales of luxury bags and shoes grew by 10% to 13%, and sales of watches and jewelry more than doubled.
Being less of a status symbol, people are willing to trade down on apparel, but continue to trade up on accessories (Salsberg & Shin, 2010). However, conspicuousness does not just take one form in Korea. The general public takes a great interest in the luxury products that appear on TV shows and are worn by celebrities in daily life. People have picked up on the tendency for the very rich or well-known to wear clothes or accessories that do not show off the logo or label; therefore, consumers now want more subdued, subtle styles, but with a clear signature characteristic in terms of style or material.
The making of new luxury brands
The real challenge for luxury brands lies in how to fulfill the need for conspicuousness without overexposing the brand such that it loses its status power. Brands able to overcome this will survive long term. Even luxury companies were affected by the economic crisis in the late 2000s, but those with a true luxury strategy persevered (Kapferer, 2010). New luxury brands are usually planned to offer extravagance from the beginning stages, unlike the old luxury brands whose tradition, history, and significance developed naturally over time.
In this age of materialism, capitalism, and marketing, the process of making luxury brands is important: attracting a customer to the brand could lead to a lifetime of purchases and possible purchases by the next generation, too. Signature materials or designs are an important element, perhaps even more than a logo that can easily be copied, because they are less imitable and hold significance that only those who are aware of the brand–—people higher up the ladder of social hierarchy–—can recognize, leading to a higher level of appreciation and status (Kapferer, 2010). Customer relationship management (CRM) is a marketing method that focuses on customer-centric service for higher customer satisfaction.
Tiffany and Co. and Lexus are two luxury brand companies that have implemented analytical CRM for long-term profitability. The Luxury Institute (2010) presented a guideline of 10 steps for creating a CRM culture specific to any brand. These 10 steps were intended to do more than simply collect customer information and send out scheduled e-mails through an objective, computerized process: they aimed to fundamentally change the experience for customers by focusing on culture and values, specifically listing ‘Select and hire scientifically as well as intuitively’ and ‘Train and certify on culture as well as policies and procedures.’
The Luxury Institute (2009) also published 12 rules for the 21st century enterprise, which can largely benefit from cooperation and collaboration with customers. The three most important rules for success, according to luxury executives, were: To change key assets from bricks and mortar to people and relationships; To change from fearing and ridiculing customer dialog and metrics to embracing and acting upon them; and To change disconnected customer interactions to seamless customer journeys. The Luxury Institute White Paper (2009) proposed that luxury brands may not need a specific slogan or positioning like commercial brands, but require creation of an identity–—not only by name, but also by personality, style, and values.
Sang A: Korean-style luxury, made in Italy
Established in 2006, Sang A is already positioning and developing itself as a new luxury brand. Founded by Sang A Im-Propp, a Korean designer who was a musical star, pop star, and actress in Korea before she moved to the United States in 1999, the brand is known for contemporarily-designed clutches and handbags made of exotic materials. Sang A was selected as the second generation of CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) Fashion Incubators, a program to help young designers make a big leap to the next level, and following an interview in March 2011, The BLOCK magazine referred to her as a luxury bag designer–—a title consistent with Korean newspaper articles.
Sang A’s eponymous brand is especially known in her native country for being carried in the hands and on the shoulders of famous Hollywood celebrities and extremely wealthy Korean women. For the purposes of the research presented herein, Sang A was examined through books, newspaper articles, Internet research, fashion magazine articles and blogs, and in-depth interviews with customers.
A total of five interviews were conducted with people who had purchased a Sang A bag either in Korea or the United States, with each interview lasting around 60 minutes. The interviews focused on reasons for choosing Sang A, brand image, and shopping/post-shopping experiences. The results of this analysis revealed three distinct characteristics of Sang A: niche market targets, storytelling, and a ‘hungry attitude.’ Each characteristic was found to have some aspects that corresponded to the making of a new luxury brand suggested by studies as shown above.
Niche market targeting: Only the most luxurious, exotic materials
Like most Korean women, Sang A Im-Propp always had handbags on her mind. She decided that using only exotic materials would fulfill the desires of a niche market, a group she wanted to target (Kerry, 2011). This resulted in differentiated positioning. Sang A Im-Propp personally loved exotic materials such as snake and crocodile skins, and the choice of material ultimately played a big role in creating a luxurious, high-end image. Material is such an important element of fashion–—and luxury fashion, in particular–—that Paris’ Rue Saint-Honore´ became the hub of the international fashion industry in the 18th century due to its supply of textiles, which were the most expensive in the world (Okonkwo, 2007). Likewise, exotic materials became the signature of Sang A, with a small logo only on the inside of the bag.
She wanted to feature young, rebellious designs rather than traditional, classic ones; therefore, fan shapes and metal squares became part of her signature look. The item category is another factor that helped launch Sang A to the luxury brand level. Extremely wealthy people have a wide range of luxury goods, but the majority of consumers limit their purchase of luxury goods to status markers such as belts, watches, and handbags. Accordingly, bags are a category in which almost all luxury brand consumers make multiple purchases, and are especially popular in the Korean market. Interviews were conducted with one woman in her 60s, two women in their 50s, and two women in their early 30s–—all Korean consumers. Only one woman in her 60s and one woman in her 50s purchased their Sang A bags in Korea, while the other interviewees made their purchases in the United States. The interviews revealed that the bags represented much more than superficiality to the customers: they were a symbol of status, their values, and their world.
The older women said they preferred understated designs without logos, but appreciated high-quality materials, which is why they thought the Sang A bag reflected their values well. The women in their 30s said they liked the design and quality, too, but confessed they would not have bought the bag without brand recognition. Sang A bags were well-known in their circle of friends, and they liked the fact that people of a certain level could recognize their high-quality purchases: Sure, I like the fact that it is not covered in logos. I used to like Gucci bags with the Gs all over it or Louis Vuitton bags with the LV monogram all over it, but I’ve sort of graduated from that now. It’s too obvious and immature. There are so many fakes out there, too. I want to carry something that not everybody can recognize. A Sang A bag is less obvious but people my age who are interested in fashion and myungpoom recognize it. When somebody of a certain level recognizes that I am carrying an expensive bag and compliments me on it, I feel good. I feel appreciated and special.
One woman in her 50s said she liked the exotic materials Sang A used, but that she actually bought her expensive Sang A bag because she wanted something that was different and would make her look sophisticated and young: The salesperson explained the materials were exotic and rare, but I have shopped at countries in Southeast Asia where exotic skins like snake and crocodile skin were actually very cheap. I didn’t pay all that money just because of how it looks. I liked the fact that it symbolized something not everyone has. It’s also by a young new designer, and that makes me feel young. Sang A Im-Propp said on the entertainment TV show Strong Heart in August 2011 that her brand first became well-known in the United States when famous pop singer Jessica Simpson bought a clutch bag from her line and took it out with her that night.
Since it was her first public appearance in a long time, shots of Jessica Simpson holding her bag appeared in numerous magazines and websites. Soon afterward, Sang A bags started to sell at a much faster pace than before. The star effect exists in Korea, too, and is probably much stronger.
Korean people are highly influenced by celebrities and figures in the public eye, such as Lee Seo-hyun, the daughter of Samsung Group founder Lee Gun-hee. As a very influential public figure and business woman–—who is also a graduate of Parsons The New School for Design, like Sang A Im-Propp–—when Lee Seo-hyun is seen holding a Sang A bag, the status of the bag is instantly elevated. Sang A Im-Propp may not intentionally offer her bags to public figures and focus on star marketing, but the selection of her bags by celebrities clearly has an effect on the building of her brand. The quality and design of the product, as well as certain famous customers, give the brand a big boost in the right direction; however, Sang A is still a growing brand and the designer herself points out that it cannot stay niche forever (Kerry, 2011).
Sang A is currently available via specialty retailers around the world including Neiman Marcus in New York, Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, and select boutiques in Europe and the Middle East, but there are no major flagship stores that can take the brand to the next level. In Korea, the bags are only available at two places: the multi-brand store 10 Corso Como in Cheongdam-dong and the main branch of Shinsegae Department Store in Hwaehyeon-dong. There are less than 10 bags on display at each of the two stores, and no large brand-name sign or dedicated Sang A sales clerks on site. The general salespeople available do not have an active attitude toward the product or explain the bags’ exotic materials and special details, so the shopping experience is based solely on what consumers have seen in the media and their opinions about the brand upon entering the store.
The main reason for this distribution form could be a lack of assortment in the brand. With the start of a contemporary line in 2012, Sang A needs to expand the brand further, step by step, while maintaining the image of luxurious, exotic, and status products, as well as establish boutique stores where consumers can enjoy a more special and full experience.
Storytelling: Sang A Im-Propp’s story
Sang A Im-Propp’s personal story is inspiring. It is the American Dream: the story of a successful life and the story of a Korean making it overseas, all in one. The American Dream is becoming more and more unreachable, with people realizing that not all who work hard will be rewarded; indeed, only a lucky few actually make it. Korea is an especially U.S.- oriented country, with many American troops stationed there to help protect the balance of power between North and South; due to that familiarity, young and old Koreans are interested in life in the United States.
Sang A Im-Propp’s story is a big part of her brand. Her past life as a star is glamorous, her struggles when she first moved to New York make her relatable, her successful business makes her admirable, and her newfound friendships with people we read about in the newspapers and magazines make her alluring. Her story is exposed via her website, interviews, and the book she wrote and published in Korea, Sang A: New York Narrative, 99-09. Whether intentional or not, the story is beautified to sound even more glamorous than it may be. Sang A Im-Propp was best known for musicals and did not really make it as a pop star, perhaps because she relocated to New York in the early stage of her pop career; yet, she is called a former pop star. She mentions difficulties she endured during her time at school and working as an intern in some interviews, but her website and book skip this part and focus on the positive aspects.
A 30-something consumer interviewed for this article said she did not think Sang A Im-Propp’s story influenced her decision to purchase her bag, but she did think it was inspiring, and the bag reminded her of it: I think it’s great that she boldly decided to stay in New York when she was just starting a new career and branching out in Korea. I also find it inspiring that she developed a new talent and has created a second successful career using it. I love all the luxury bags I own because of the workmanship and quality, and sometimes just seeing the quality of the bag stimulates me and makes me be more passionate and work harder, but the Sang A bag has the quality and a story, so it stimulates me on another level.
A big part of Sang A Im-Propp’s story involves intuition. Having created a brand on her own and still personally creating designs, Sang A Im-Propp is known to have relied on her intuition for many decisions, including hiring people. One of the rules for CRM presented by the Luxury Institute is to select and hire scientifically and intuitively; Sang A Im- Propp revealed in her book that she chose her first employee based on how she felt after meeting him by chance. In addition, she instills a strong focus on people and relationships, another aspect stressed by the Luxury Institute for luxury brands of the 21st century.
Creation of identity–—including personality, style, and values–—is also a key for new luxury brands, and the story of Sang A Im-Propp and use of her instincts naturally builds up this identity. She has a strong insistence for her ways and vision. However, as pointed out by the Luxury Institute, it is not one or a few special talents that lead a luxury brand to success. The talent and story of Sang A Im-Propp may have helped her brand position itself in the luxury bag market, but she should now focus on creating a good system to maintain this position while developing into a bigger and stronger brand.
Hungry attitude: Better, stricter, more
Sang A Im-Propp tells her employees to maintain a hungry attitude. ‘Hungry attitude’ is not actually aterm that she coined, but rather is a widespread term used in Korea. The country developed rapidly and is now ranked 11th globally in terms of economic power. Up until just a few decades ago, however, many people were starving and had to work just to eat. Hungry attitude means working as if your life depends on it, and many successful people claim this as the secret behind their success. Sang A Im-Propp had a hungry attitude to succeed when she started her business, and still maintains this attitude and instills it in her employees.
This is a very Korean characteristic: Korean people generally pursue diligence and perseverance. Sang A Im-Propp says in her book and interviews that she demands more effort and better quality from those who work with her. The Luxury Institute claimed training employees on culture was important, and the Sang A brand trains a humble culture: not one of extravagance, but hard work and a mind of service. Publicly claiming to have a hungry attitude is an element that may impress those who are not Korean, and one that can make Korean people feel proud. It is a new concept to those who have not lived in Korea, but an admirable idea, as diligence is respected worldwide.
Meanwhile, it is a familiar story and way of life to Koreans, who have heard the story many times but never grow sick of it: Yes, I heard that Sang A teaches those who work with her to have a hungry attitude. I think this is a very Korean way, and a way that really works. The first Korean man to win the marathon at the Olympics won because he had a hungry attitude. He was poor and ate just instant noodles, but he trained hard with this strong attitude and he won. Many famous Korean people have overcome their limits with this attitude. I am sure this is one of the major reasons why Sang A was successful in the United States, a big and foreign market.
The Sang A brand offers free after-service for 1 year. After-service is an important aspect for luxury brands that makes the customer feel like they are getting quality service and are appreciated and remembered for their purchase. The Sang A customers interviewed said they were very satisfied with the after-service system. Luxury brands have always had after-service, but they were late to jump on the Internet bandwagon. At first, luxury brands did not consider the Internet a proper distribution channel, but with the success of some online luxury shopping malls like Net-a-Porter, many brands have started to open their own online stores.
Sang A has a website including an online store and sends promotional e-mails to customers, but has no apps. It also has a Facebook page that allows two-way communication with customers, but with a more personal feel than an official representation of the brand because the founder makes posts about her life and experiences. This may be part of the effort to use Sang A Im-Propp’s story, or it may be due to the fact that the brand has not developed into a large scale yet, so there are a limited number of posts that can be uploaded about the bags or brand.
Sang A is a brand with a story, based on Korean values and hard work, and blessed with the good fortune of being chosen by famous people. Less than 10 years into the brand, it is establishing a position as a new luxury brand, although it needs to improve the shopping experience, scale of stores, and electronic communication for further, long-term development.
Jimmy Choo: British luxury label to the stars
Jimmy Choo is a world-famous brand that began offering luxury women’s shoes in 1996, expanded to handbags in 2001, and later added sunglasses, accessories, and fragrances. Like Sang A, the Jimmy Choo brand has a story that provokes the interest of consumers. It was co-founded by a couture shoe designer of Malaysian descent, Jimmy Choo, and a Vogue Magazine accessories editor, Tamara Mellon. Choo was a hard-working craftsman based out of a small store on a small street, and Mellon was a young woman with a privileged background and a vision.
The partnership between the down-to-earth, ordinary Asian man and the glamorous young British woman is intriguing: the two characters balance each other, making the brand seem genuine and of excellent quality, while being luxurious at the same time. The brand really began to boom in 2001 when Equinox Luxury Holdings Ltd. bought out Jimmy Choo’s 50% ownership. The shoemaker now works on the exclusive, hand-made Jimmy Choo Couture line under the J. Choo Ltd. license. For the purposes of this research, Jimmy Choo was examined through literary and Internet sources and in-depth interviews with customers.
A total of five interviews were conducted with Korean women between the ages of 25 and 52 who had purchased Jimmy Choo shoes or a Jimmy Choo bag. Each interview lasted around 60 minutes. The interviews focused on reasons for choosing the Jimmy Choo brand, brand image, and shopping/post-shopping experiences. The results revealed that, like Sang A, consumers were attracted to the story of the brand and its image; however, other factors also contributed to its success as a new luxury brand, such as high prices with accessible discounts, thorough management of distribution channels, and image-making through star power.
High prices with accessible discounts: High-end products for average consumers
When consumers think of Jimmy Choo, they think of high heels or bags that are glamorous, different, and expensive–—and this makes them desire the brand more. As one interviewee in her early 30s put it: Some Louis Vuitton bags have an inexpensive price to start with, for a luxury brand. I got a big monogrammed bag for 1.5 million Won (around U.S. $1,500). But when you think of Jimmy Choo, you immediately think of bags that are at least 2 million Won (around U.S. $2,000). Plus, not many people carry the bags, so carrying a Jimmy Choo makes me feel more special. I usually buy Jimmy Choos on sale, whether in Korea or overseas, but I still feel like I bought an expensive item because not many people own it and people think it’s really expensive.
Established in 2009, Family Sale–—a popular Internet club in Korea–—started out as a website to share information on luxury brand family sales: where brand-related personnel and their families are invited to special shopping opportunities via which they can get the brand’s products at a discounted price. The pieces sold are usually leftover inventory or goods that were on display and cannot be sold at the normal price. However, the club eventually grew to include a variety of topics such as information on sales in general, questions and answers about shopping or styling, sections where members can show off their newest buys, information on new restaurants or places to go, and an online flea market where members can sell and buy second-hand goods.
Less than 4 years since it was founded, Family Sale already has over 290,000 members. Searching ‘Jimmy Choo’ on the Family Sale club website led to results of over 30 posts in just 1 month (April 2013). The posts showed off a recent buy, provided feedback on a Jimmy Choo family sale, and advertised a pre-owned Jimmy Choo product through the flea market. A strict club rule is that members may not sell a product they bought at a discount for a higher price through the flea market. They must include the purchase price and sell it at a cheaper price, or at the same price plus just delivery charge if it is a new product.
One post, for example, is by a member who wanted to sell Jimmy Choo heels that she bought at a family sale because they are too big for her. (Returns and exchanges are often not possible for family sale purchases.) She states that she purchased the heels, which originally cost 1,680,000 Korean Won (around U.S. $1,680), at a 70% discount for 489,000 Won (around U.S. $489) and wanted to sell them for 494,000 Won (around U.S. $494) [489,000 Won plus delivery service of 4,000 Won]. The Family Sale club clearly shows that a lot of Korean people are interested in luxury products and shopping, and judging by some of the posts, a large number of luxury brand consumers are not extremely rich. They may not have a high income, but they save less and have a high expendable income with luxury brands being a priority.
Joining clubs like Family Sale and getting information on discount opportunities is therefore one way of buying highend brands at their income level. Another point that is apparent from the Jimmy Choo posts on Family Sale is that Jimmy Choo products can be purchased at a largely discounted price in Korea. Although this may be a turn-off in some cases, the brand remains appealing because it maintains a high-end image: I know that you can get Jimmy Choos for an 80% discount, but most people don’t know that. It’s not like they are easily available at secondhand stores or outlet stores. The brand still has a luxurious image, so when I see a Jimmy Choo product available at a low price,
I think it is a steal. I don’t think it makes the brand seem cheaper. Jimmy Choo is also one of a few luxury brands that has collaborated with non-luxury brands: namely Hunter, the British wellington boots company, and H&M, the Swedish fast fashion company. These two pairings did not damage the luxury brand image of Jimmy Choo, but rather improved its image and increased desirability. The Hunter collaboration was such a success that the Jimmy Choo wellington boots are now permanently available in a variety of colors at Jimmy Choo, regardless of season (Stankeviciute & Hoffman, 2010).
Strict distribution channels: Thorough management, counterfeit control
Often, when a brand becomes available at a cheap price, it can have a negative effect on brand image. Full control of distribution is part of a luxury business model suggested by Kapferer (2012), who claims the experience of one-on-one service and interaction must be exclusive. However, Jimmy Choo does not seem to suffer from negative side effects. According to interviews with Jimmy Choo consumers, this is largely due to the fact that Jimmy Choo is not easily available at cheaper stores and counterfeit products are not prevalent. This point was especially important to a woman in her 50s: When you get to be my age, a lot of people carry counterfeit bags. Since we have enough money now, nobody suspects that they are counterfeit. We have the big cars and everything, so buying a cheap version that looks the same makes sense.
However, the people who carry a lot of counterfeits can easily recognize one when they see one. I take pride in the fact that I only carry genuine products, and that is why I like Jimmy Choo. I have never seen a Jimmy Choo counterfeit, and neither have any of my friends. Jimmy Choo has 100+ stores in over 30 countries worldwide, but it is strict about quality control and counterfeit control, in particular. The company not only guards the brand against knock-offs that could be mistaken for the genuine product, but also against lower-priced commercial brands releasing similar designs. In an effort to protect its intellectual property, the Jimmy Choo brand owns over 50 registered U.S. patents for various designs, including footwear, handbags, and eyewear.
Most luxury brands do not have any patents because the general notion is that designs cannot be protected and the United States Patent and Trademark Office rejects most applications. Jimmy Choo maintains its luxurious image online. The brand has an official website, including an online boutique, and its products are available for purchase via several shopping hubs such as Net-a-Porter, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Polyvore. It also has a Twitter presence, with the majority of tweets being about the brand or shoes, such as the introduction of a new design, an upcoming event, and pictures of celebrities wearing the product. Jimmy Choo has both an Instagram and Facebook account, with the latter celebrating 1 million fans in 2012. The online activities of Jimmy Choo are more corporate than Sang A. People know that the shoemaker Jimmy Choo is no longer the main man behind the brand, but the story of the brand’s beginnings is not that important anymore because the image of Hollywood and prestige related to the brand is stronger.
Image-making through star power
Unlike luxury brands with decades of tradition behind them, the Jimmy Choo brand differentiated itself as a trendy and glamorous accessories brand, presenting shoes with very high yet comfortable heels in bright colors and with dazzling jewel appointments. Its active product placement on the popular TV drama Sex and the City largely helped establish an image as a new icon for young, modern, successful urban women (Lim, 2009). One young woman in her mid-20s admits she was influenced by the show: I loved the TV series Sex and the City, and I think it is probably why my friends and I like Jimmy Choo.
Honestly, I had not even heard of Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo before I watched the show. Now, I can recognize all the designs that were on the show. I love Jimmy Choo sandals in particular, but I only buy the well-known designs, like the strappy fur sandals or snakeskin sandals, because I secretly want people to recognize that they are Jimmy Choos. She continued to say that she noticed many stars wore Jimmy Choo sandals to award shows and official events, and this helped create a glamorous brand image. All of the women interviewed said they associated the brand with Hollywood celebrities, and this led to a positive image. This coincides with the glamorous image of Sang A that suddenly spread when famous celebrities were seen with her handbags.
The Sang A brand attends to three subconscious desires of consumers. First, it fulfills the desires of a niche market with high-quality exotic materials. Second, it tells an inspiring story all people love to hear, making the brand more relatable and admirable. Finally, it works hard with a hungry attitude for its customers and offers after-service and Internet access to the brand. The combination of these three characteristics creates a brand that people look to for a subdued expression of status, selffulfillment, and great service.
The aesthetic result of Sang A Im-Propp’s philosophy and ways is rebellious, trendy but extremely high-quality bags that look and are expensive, and still look great even when they are scratched and crumpled after long use. Just like the tanning effect of Louis Vuitton bags that prove they are real and create a worn-yet-stylish look with more use, Sang A bags have a signature appearance that lasts. Sang A Im-Propp may not have set out to create a luxury brand, but her natural taste and tendencies as a Korean who loves foreign, high-quality things led her to look for the best materials, demand new designs, hire and select on intuition, create a hard-working service culture, develop relationships, create an identity, and establish differentiated positioning–— which ultimately follows the formulae of new luxury brands.
However, Sang A is still a small brand, with further advancement and utilization needed in the online sector; its Facebook page could be more focused on the brand and promotional material as the brand develops and is able to create additional content. Until then, Sang A should utilize its appearance on blogs. This would be especially effective in the Korean market because the Internet is highly developed in Korea and Korean people turn to online information for reference when shopping, as illustrated by the Family Sale club example. While the Sang A brand touches the subconscious desires of consumers, the Jimmy Choo brand stimulates consumers in a more obvious way.
First, the high prices with accessible discounts lure consumers to make purchases because high-quality, highpriced products are placed within their reach. Second, thorough management of distribution channels maintains a prestigious brand image and makes the shopping experience pleasant and luxurious. Finally, image-making through star power makes the brand products desirable and associated with Hollywood and international stars. Jimmy Choo products themselves are very luxurious and glamorous, keeping in tune with overall brand image. Many of the shoe designs come in bright colors and include rhinestones and expensive materials such as silk or exotic leathers; the bags are fashion-forward and available in a variety of sizes, featuring studs, sparkles, and other glamorous elements.
While Sang A Im-Propp may not have intended to create a luxury brand, Jimmy Choo is a different story. Tamara Mellon had the founding vision for a luxury shoe brand, and that was only reinforced when Equinox Luxury Holdings joined in. The whole package–—from being available in select stores, to strict counterfeit and design control, to active promotion and product placement, to expensive prices, and association with celebrities–—is based on a goal to manage and develop Jimmy Choo as a luxury accessories brand. The managerial implications, based on the Sang A case study, are that fashion companies should focus on the specific tendencies and needs of each unique market and create products with stories and depth consumers can relate to. Most Korean companies aim for success, but their goal is success and making a myungpoom, and they are so blinded by this that they focus on outdoing their competitor rather than having their own story, unique style, certain work ethic, or signature color (Naoki, 2009).
Perhaps this is the reason why there is no successful Korean international luxury brand that easily springs to mind, while there are several from neighboring Japan, such as Comme des Garc¸ons and Issey Miyake. Many successful brand owners or designers say they simply design things they themselves want. Staying true to herself, staying true to a perspective, and having a philosophy appear to be the things that helped Sang A Im-Propp create a luxury brand and lead her to succeed in both the United States and Korea.
According to the case of Jimmy Choo, there are added implications that making strategic moves to develop and maintain a certain image and stimulate consumers can be very rewarding. Some Korean brands recognize the star power effect in Korea and attempt to create it by hiring a famous celebrity to model for them at a fashion show, for example, but it does not always lead to successful results because the selected celebrity does not fit the brand image. Brands aiming to create a luxurious and celebrity-related image should develop a detailed plan and use models or product placement considering context and image. Jimmy Choo’s successful product placement on Sex and the City helped establish an image as a brand desirable for urban, international women in their 20s to 40s, while developing a high-end image, too.