When it comes to culture, I consider myself a first adopter. I get in early. I take a view. I go to the cinema on opening weekends. I get to the theatre when the previews are on. I’m up to speed on the fungi apocalypse and Pedro Pascal. I like to think I know what’s going on.
But lately, I’m getting rather sloppy. I’ve found myself behind the curve. Seasons of Yellowstone are still sitting waiting. I’ll never grapple with The Mandalorian. These are tiny oversights in the bigger picture of my failing cultural savoir faire. Last week, at the fashion shows in Paris, I cowered in ignorance as a new cultural colossus took its place centre stage.
K-pop stars and actors have been a presence on the front row for a while now, but their presence at this month’s shows seemed to represent a tectonic shift. For starters, their arrival at any event or party totally eclipsed the existence of anybody else. Jared Leto? Whatever. Move along. Every K-pop star was attended by throngs of screaming groupies. Every interaction illuminated by a billion flashing bulbs.
Sitting at the Loewe show, I found myself next to a sweet, stylish, elfin-looking man in a pair of leather shorts. His arrival had commanded a commotion of gawpers and gawkers, and so, like that old fool in Notting Hill who asks Julia Roberts whether she makes a decent income as an actor, I ploughed in and asked him: “what do you do?” Asking extremely famous people how they make a living is never very cool, but it at least prompted some kind of conversation as well as ironing out any further awkward exchange.
I discovered that this baby-faced front row idol was Lee Tae-yong, or Taeyong, the South Korean rapper, singer and songwriter and leader of the K-pop boy band NCT. He describes himself as being an “editor” on Instagram, where he has more than 10mn followers. Which I suppose he might be, if being an editor means posing for pictures and having your every move become a viral meme. Naturally, I asked him for a selfie and watched in fascination as my Instagram went mad. His fans were unfailingly charming. They all thanked me for sharing the picture, and wrote awed messages that suggested I had been the beneficiary of some act of transubstantiation, or touched by a religious sage.
I had no clue about Taeyong. The K-pop phenomenon is one on which I draw a total blank. And as one of the ancients in the fashion industry, I’m not quite the demographic to whom he should appeal. But is it OK to age out of culture? Does it matter if you haven’t a K-pop clue? Can you even pretend to feel relevant when you no longer recognise half of the celebrities on the front row? It wasn’t only K-poppers. I struggled to put a name to any face. I did spot Catherine Deneuve at Louis Vuitton, but most shows left me feeling contemptibly old.
For some, a lack of engagement in popular culture is a badge of honour. An esteemed colleague and commentator at this paper tells me with some pride that he never listens to music recorded after the 1970s, and that most of the people about whom I write are a total mystery to him. He’s probably too busy grappling with global economics to engage with the musical oeuvre of BTS. But I am less comfortable thinking my cultural barometer might be frozen in the past.
The most important marker of a show’s success right now concerns its pull with influencers, far more so than the clothes. Loewe enjoyed a Taeyong moment, but there were many other singers at the shows: NCT’s Winwin went to Valentino, the rapper known as BM went to Balenciaga and Blackpink’s Jennie took her 75.2mn Instagram followers to sit front row at Chanel. Dubbed the “global generation”, several of these influencers grew up in countries outside South Korea. They are part of a diaspora that has absorbed, interpreted and consolidated a vast amalgam of cultural themes. For brands seeking traction in new markets, K-pop stars are the domineering cultural force: its idols are youthful, speak to a massive audience, appeal to the LGBTQ community, and are both politically liberal while embodying an almost disconcerting positivity.
Should I stick to Shostakovich and age out at this point? Or is now the time to double down and learn one’s Blackpink from one’s fromis_9? It’s curious and a little alienating to be so ignorant of people who are such well-known global stars: like being one of those bemused elderly onlookers who walked past Savile Row while the Beatles played their rooftop gig in 1969. On the one hand, these mononymic heroes represent a generation of young talent with whom it seems a bit desperate to engage. On the other, these teenage media behemoths are now dictating every incoming trend. As such, we have a responsibility to keep up with the times. K-pop has been tickling the cultural ascendancy for a while now. It has finally come of age.
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