Long before BTS and Blackpink became two of the biggest bands in the world, the first generation of K-pop stars was making waves back home. When the genre was still a relative blip on the international radar, the artists’ approach to fashion remained raw and unfiltered. There was no Farfetch to express deliver emerging designer pieces, and big houses were hardly sending samples to Seoul. As a result, singers and stylists relied more on local finds and their own ingenuity to put looks together.
Of course, their unpolished style is now a powerful source of nostalgia. These are the talents that young Korean tastemakers and influencers grew up carefully watching. Here, seven style icons from K-pop’s past, who paved the way for today’s stars.
Hyori began her career in the late ’90s as a member of the girl group Fin.K.L, itself an ample source of visual inspiration. But the singer truly came into her own when she launched her solo career in 2003. Stylized in the mold of stars like Jennifer Lopez, she caused shockwaves in conservative Korea—so much so that her music video for “Hey Girl” was banned on some networks due to its provocative imagery. Clad in the characteristic fashion of the 2000s—a sports jersey cut into a strapless mini dress, perfect white tanks cropped to bare her navel—she called for women to embrace their strength by living and dressing boldly.
Uhm Junghwa is an industry legend. A singer and actress, Junghwa took off in the late ’80s and early ’90s, thanks in large part to her fearless style. From the vinyl hot pants and matching Gogo boots she wore in 1996 to the strappy white Fifth Element-inspired look, seen below, Junghwa embraced her sex appeal in a way few Korean artists had publicly done before, inspiring a generation of young women like Lee Hyori.
Called the Queen of K-pop, BoA was equally beloved in Japan, becoming the first Korean artist to truly break through in both countries. Often compared to Britney Spears—the two once shared a stage—BoA’s style is refreshingly minimal. Low-slung pants, a statement belt, and shining straight hair were all she needed.
It’s hard to believe that Lee Jung-hyun, or “Ava” as she was sometimes known, falls under the K-pop umbrella. Avant-garde by pop standards, Ava is credited with bringing techno to Korea, underscored by her incredible, chameleonic style. Most memorable are the cyberpunk looks she wore to promote her single “Wa.” Each ensemble was laced with East Asian design references: a floor-length silver chainmail skirt with a feather-trimmed black tank top, a silver chainmail qipao and gloves, head-to-toe black latex, and so much more.
A contemporary of Fin.K.L., S.E.S. was formed in 1997 by SM Entertainment, the label that would go on to produce some of the biggest girl groups in K-pop history. The trio operated as one unit that shared a simple yet whimsical aesthetic—white collared robe coats with CGI butterfly wings—that has maintained its charm.
Kim Wan Sun
Kim Wan Sun, an ’80s icon known as the Madonna of Korea, wore high-rise, stone-washed jeans and a permed bouffant like no Korean singer before her. But it is her pared back style of the early to mid-90s that still draws the eye. It earned her a devoted following in Taiwan, making her one of the first Korean artists to go global.
In their short time together, Pipi Band sparked Korea’s quietly thriving indie rock scene. Lead singer Lee Yoon-Jung stood out for her rebellious, punk-inflected style: short and spiky red hair, plaid pants, and a brown leather blazer unbuttoned at the sternum; a gingham mini dress with an oversize men’s blazer, sunglasses, and combat boots. No surprise that, once the group disbanded, she went on to become a stylist for artists of the next generation.