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Masks as fashion statement through art collaboration

Dec 30, 2020 (Gmt+09:00)

Art director Jemma Han (Courtesy of KOTRA)


Face masks have become essential in the COVID-19 era to prevent the spread of the virus. But aside from protecting users against the pandemic, masks have found additional value as a fashion statement, leading to the rise in a new market for fashion masks.

South Korea-based fashion mask company Green Ocean Global Co. launched in July with aspirations to export its products to overseas markets. As a new company with no track record, however, this turned out to be nearly impossible.

That wasn't the only problem. In addition to hitting a roadblock with exporting the masks, the company also needed to upgrade its design to attract overseas consumers.

Fortunately, Jemma Han, an art director and a bestselling author, came to the rescue. Han put Green Ocean Global in touch with popular local artists and under her direction, unique designs alongside classic paintings were used to create fashion masks.


Fashion masks created via collaboration with South Korean artists (Courtesy of KOTRA)

With the design under control, the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) stepped in to handle the sales with its US-based employees taking charge.

“We became confident in tackling overseas markets thanks to Director Han and KOTRA,” said Green Ocean Global Chief Executive Kim Hoon-jae.

KOTRA employees in the US open up a pop-up truck to sell fashion masks. (Courtesy of KOTRA)


KOTRA rolled out the fashion mask collaboration project in November to help establish an export channel for fashion mask makers in an era where masks have become indispensable. The agency laid the groundwork for collaboration between small- and medium-sized companies and local artists.

Director Han calls this project an art collaboration that unites art and business. Han is credited with fostering art collaboration in Korea, having arranged hundreds of meetings between export companies and artists during her five-year term as KOTRA’s art director.

Traditionally, art collaboration is thought of as a marketing scheme by which large business groups commission famous artists to sell their products. But Han says it isn’t just for large business groups.

“A lot of small businesses dismiss the idea of art collaboration because the mention of the word art makes them think expensive,” Han said in an interview with The Korea Economic Daily on Dec. 29.

Many SMEs assume that royalties would be prohibitive for works of famous painters such as Vincent Van Gogh, Han said.

“But actually, there are no royalties if it has been 70 years since the artist's death,” Han explained.

For the latest fashion mask project, well-known paintings, including Van Gogh's The Starry Night and Gustav Klimt's The Kiss, were rendered on the masks.


Fashion mask using Van Gogh's The Starry Night


“SMEs can make a profit by selling products fused with art and also gain publicity,” said Han, adding that “good business is the best art” – a quote from legendary US artist Andy Warhol.

Han has been successful with her past art collaborations. Previously, she recommended that a Korean perilla oil company use French painter Jean-François Millet’s iconic work, The Gleaners, on the product label. The company hit the jackpot in the European market, largely thanks to consumers’ familiarity with the painting.


Perilla oil with Millet's work on the label



Another case includes a medical aesthetic equipment company using French neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ work on its device, which grabbed buyers' attention.

Han says that art collaboration is a marketing approach where the artist’s story and work enhance the product and help attract consumers. Each company and product has a fitting design, and Han's responsibility is to find a good match and connect the company’s product to an artist's work.

Director Han says cooperation between companies and artists is crucial to mutually benefit from the art collaboration.

“Companies and artists need to drop their egos and acknowledge each other as partners to deliver the best results,” Han said.


Write to Kyung-min Kang at kkm1026@hankyung.com

Danbee Lee edited this article.

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