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The Deep Dive

Misandry controversy rattles Korean retailers; CEO of No.1 fashion app steps down

Korean companies on thin ice as gender conflict heats up

By Jun 04, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

Musinsa founder and chief executive, Cho Man-ho to step down as CEO
Musinsa founder and chief executive, Cho Man-ho to step down as CEO


Gender-discrimination controversies are rattling South Korean retailers, with two companies recently accused of misandry in publicity campaigns.

In March, Korea's No. 1 online fashion platform Musinsa faced allegations of gender discrimination when it distributed discount coupons exclusively for female users. 

Male users, who account for almost 70% of Musinsa's total users, were not pleased with what they viewed as a discriminatory policy and more so, the company's response to their discontent.

“Musinsa suspended a user's account for 60 days when that user made a complaint about the platform giving out discount coupons to only female users. That type of response will make the platform lose credibility,” said a Musinsa app user.

A month later in April, the rift between Musinsa and its core users deepened. The platform came under fire when it announced a collaboration with a domestic credit card company.

The problem was the campaign's publicity poster.

Male users criticized the poster saying that it suggested misandry, given that the hand gesture was similar to the logo of the radical feminist online community, Megalia, known for mocking men.

Musinsa's male customers expressed their fury by giving the fashion app extremely low ratings and uploading posts on online communities, which went viral -- further fueling the controversy.

Musinsa's collaboration image with Hyundai Card (right) stirred up a heated debate over the hand gesture's similarity to the Megalian logo.
Musinsa's collaboration image with Hyundai Card (right) stirred up a heated debate over the hand gesture's similarity to the Megalian logo.


With two gender-based conflicts occurring back to back, Cho Man-ho, the founder of the country's first online fashion unicorn startup Musinsa, decided to step down as chief executive. 

In an email addressed to the company’s executives and employees on Jun. 3, Cho said: “I’m truly sorry to the customers who were disappointed by the recent incident and to the brands on the Musinsa platform that were hurt by it."

Industry watchers say Cho's resignation was inevitable as Musinsa is an online platform that grew with the support of millennials and Gen Z, or MZers, who are their core customers. The company's revenue could have taken a serious hit without resolving the issue.

Cho launched Musinsa as an online fashion community in 2001 when he was a senior in high school. He then rolled out Musinsa magazine, which introduced trendy urban fashion and styles, gaining popularity among street style enthusiasts.

In 2009, Cho launched an online shopping mall that became today’s Musinsa -- the country's leading fashion platform with over 1.2 trillion won in transactions as of 2020. 

KOREAN COMPANIES ON THIN ICE

But Musinsa is not the only company in the hot seat of an ongoing gender-based debate in Korea.

Recently, convenience store chain GS Retail was boycotted because its publicity poster for a camping event was interpreted as degrading to men -- also because it featured a hand gesture similar to Megalia's logo.

“The retail industry has been treading on thin ice as of late. Now they are meticulously examining their advertisements images to steer clear of accusations of misandry," said a retail industry official.

The hand gesture on GS Retail's camping event poster also raised criticism for its similarity to Megalia's logo.
The hand gesture on GS Retail's camping event poster also raised criticism for its similarity to Megalia's logo.


Following the backlash, GS Retail took disciplinary action against the poster designer and dismissed the head of the marketing team. The poster has since been discontinued by GS Retail.

MUSINSA CEO STEPS DOWN AFTER 20-YEAR TENURE

Cho will be stepping down from his 20-year tenure as CEO. He will no longer be part of the company management, but will serve as chairman of the board and focus on devising a mid-to-long-term strategy for the company and work to foster Korean fashion brands’ growth.

“We’re now at a point where we need a new leader who is more capable of managing the entire organization and overseeing businesses," Cho said.

Also, Cho will issue 100 billion won ($89.5 million) worth of personal shares to Musinsa employees -- seen as an effort to console company members who may have been shaken by the controversial events.

Going forward, Cho plans to sell some of his shares to invest around 50 billion won in a fashion fund managed by Musinsa Partners, the investment arm of Musinsa.

Write to Bae Jeong-cheol at bjc@hankyung.com

Danbee Lee edited this article.

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