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HomestyleHonouring Korean culture by selling K-perfume

Honouring Korean culture by selling K-perfume

NEW YORK – Inside Elorea, a sleek new Korean perfumery in Manhattan’s Nolita neighbourhood, you will find paintings and pottery by Korean and Korean-American artists, a cafe offering a chocolate and perfume pairing, and shop attendants dressed entirely in black, eager to explain the brand’s gender-neutral fragrance collections.

“Even though I’ve never heard of a Korean perfume brand, I just figured it’s going to be on another level,” said Mr Albert Chun, 36, a customer whose parents immigrated from Seoul to Oakland, California, in the mid-1980s.

“We’re such proud people,” he added with a half-laugh.

Mr Wonny Lee, who, along with his wife Su min Park, founded Elorea as an online perfumery business in 2022, said: “In our heads, in everyone’s heads, Korea is the capital of the world in terms of beauty.”

Korean beauty, or K-beauty, is just one stream in the surging “hallyu” or Korean wave, sweeping over the world through K-dramas, K-pop and Korean technology.

This wave of cultural and material exports has helped South Korea transform itself into a global economic powerhouse.

And yet, when Ms Park, 35, and Mr Lee, 36, walked through a department store in Seoul in 2019, they were surprised to find a lack of Korean perfume brands.

“Korea and Asia in general have very deep and rich relationships with scent, but it’s just so underrepresented in the current market,” Ms Park said.

With Mr Lee’s background in e-commerce and marketing at Samsung, gaming-accessories manufacturer Turtle Beach and direct-to-consumer footwear company Greats, and Ms Park’s experience as a photographer and art director with clients including apparel label Ann Taylor, accessories label Alexis Bittar and haircare brand Fekkai, the couple decided to create their own Korean perfumery.

But what exactly constitutes a “Korean perfumery”?

“We didn’t want to just slap, like, ‘K’ in front of it because we’re Korean founders,” said Mr Lee, whose parents immigrated from Seoul to Queens in 1984.

Ms Park, whose family left Seoul for Brooklyn in 1998 when she was 10, agreed, noting how some beauty companies might call a product “Japanese” simply because they use cherry blossoms in their branding.

“We had to dig deeper,” she said. “We have to talk about our history. We have to talk about our culture and what it means – what the scent means.”

Everything in the store rings with symbolism.

The curved base of the shop’s display table is modelled after a traditional Korean roof tile. The store’s stark black-and-white scheme expresses the Korean flag’s philosophy of “taegeuk”, or “great polarity”.

Elorea’s name is a portmanteau of “elements” and “Korea”.

The four scents in its foundational collection, The Elements, are inspired by the four trigrams adorning the Korean flag, representing earth, sky, fire and water.

According to Mr Lee, the perfumes in this range mirror the four major olfactory classifications on typical fragrance wheels: floral (sky), fresh (water), woody (earth), and warm and spicy (fire).

“I was staring at the Korean flag, and I was staring at the fragrance wheel,” he recalled. “And I was, like, ‘There’s no way this can be; it’s too perfect.’”

Ms Park spearheaded Elorea’s second fragrance line, The Forgotten Words, basing the collection on words that are native to Korea but no longer in common parlance.

The perfume called “Gentle Shower” is redolent of the Korean word “jambi”, which, according to her, means a sudden rain that allows farmers to rest.

One of the scent’s top notes is perilla leaf, a minty, liquorice-like herb frequently used in Korean cooking.

For Ms Park, Elorea provides an opportunity to reunite with the country she was estranged from when she was young. “Part of me was always back at home,” she said.

Elorea allows Mr Lee to cultivate a greater sense of Korean pride and identity as someone who, because of racism he experienced as a boy and his desire to fit in, did not always want to be Korean growing up.

He recounted a conversation he had with his friend, chef Hooni Kim, 51, whose restaurant Danji was the first Korean restaurant to win a Michelin star in 2011.

Kim asked Mr Lee: “Why are you so into telling Korea’s story?”

Mr Lee responded: “I personally feel like Elorea is my ask for forgiveness to my younger self, my deepest apology.”

The couple have intentionally incorporated the work of other Koreans and Korean Americans in their store, including custom drinks from popular Korean coffee brand Gute Leute, and a bright blue painting by Korean artist Son Il hanging by the front door.

More than just a perfume store, they hope that Elorea will provide an evolving, multisensory space to showcase and celebrate Korean culture.

“We want to work with entrepreneurs, we want to work with artists,” Mr Lee said. “Because at the end of the day, their success will be our success.” NYTIMES

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