The Forever 21 Heirs Attempt to Cash In on the Korean Skin-Care Craze (2024)

The proprietors of the new chain Riley Rose are betting that millennials will go to the mall for K-beauty products, as long as it’s Instagrammable.Photograph courtesy Riley Rose

Last year, the sisters Linda and Esther Chang noticed that more and more non-Korean people seemed to be into Korean beauty products, like face masks made with snail mucus and Corsx, a brand of acne patches whose mascot is a cartoon man with glasses. The Changs had amassed hauls of these lotions and balms during annual trips to South Korea, the homeland of their parents, Don and Jin Sook Chang, who founded the fast-fashion chain Forever 21. The sisters were working at the company—Linda, who is thirty-five, as head of marketing and Esther, who is thirty-one, overseeing visuals—but, as so many millennials do, they decided to start a side hustle: Riley Rose, a beauty and life-style emporium that endeavors to make millennial and Generation Z consumers look away from their mobile devices, if only momentarily.

“We wanted the store as well as all the products in it to feel very Instagrammable,” Linda said recently, before a party celebrating the opening of Riley Rose, at a mall in suburban Los Angeles—the first of nine store locations due to open across the country before the end of the year. “There’s a giant selfie wall with seats so that people can sit there and take photos of themselves.” The wall is hot pink and festooned with white letters that spell out “WISH YOU WERE HERE.” “Hopefully people will be Instagramming a lot,” Linda said.

Shopping, an activity once imbued with at least a vague sense of romance and adventure—farmers’ markets rife with potential life partners, boutiques stocked with jeans well-fitting enough to change fates—now mostly follows a pattern: scroll, click, buy. Even the beauty industry, which for decades relied on in-person department-store demonstrations to win over consumers, is booming in the virtual world: a study by Fung Global Retail & Tech found that, in 2015, consumers spent more than twenty-four billion dollars online on beauty and personal-care products. One of the year’s fastest-growing makeup brands, ColourPop (its parent company makes Kylie Jenner’s “lip kits”), has no brick-and-mortar component, and online retailers like Peach & Lily and Soko Glam offer a slew of K-beauty products. In a world of one-hour delivery and free returns, why suffer the social anxiety of leaving the house for a new pack of moisturizing face masks when it can arrive in the time it takes to unwrap, apply, and soak up the last one in the medicine cabinet?

Well, for the ’gram, of course. Riley Rose looks like an old-fashioned soda-pop shop: white-tiled façade, its name in neon script. Inside is sensory overload, Disneyland for people into skin care, sweets, and the Zeitgeist. Whereas Forever 21 slings styles recognizable from the runways and social media, the majority of Riley Rose’s products come from outside the U.S., giving them a competitive advantage over, say, Sephora, or the cosmetics section of a department store. At the new shop, Hello Kitty matcha marshmallows share shelf space with foaming cleansers by Dr. Frog, a skin-care line trending among Seoul’s scenesters. Syringe-like tubes of glitter makeup sit twenty paces from a “zen” section of green-tea body scrubs and crystal-infused candles. There are socks embroidered with bowls of soup that say “I’m crazy pho you” and jet-black face masks infused with activated charcoal. “I don’t think retail is dead, I don’t think traffic is dead to the stores and the malls,” Linda said. “I think you have to build something new and different for people to come.”

A Riley Rose store looks like an old-fashioned soda-pop shop: white-tiled façade, its name in neon script. Inside is sensory overload, Disneyland for people into skin care, sweets, and the Zeitgeist.Photograph by Emma McIntyre / Riley Rose / Getty

Beyond new photo opportunities, Riley Rose provides a gateway drug for consumers curious about K-beauty. The Chang sisters learned from their mom, early on, the value of maintaining their natural glow instead of covering it up with makeup. “We were into skin care way before color or cosmetics,” Linda said. “Using face masks, in Korean culture, we’d do it every other day. But that’s only become a recent thing in America”—a trend that dovetails with the West’s interest in self care, meditation, and an amorphous sense of wellness.

Riley Rose’s lights are bright to the degree that even the young look old, which might explain why, instead of candy, rows of fatigue-camouflaging products wrap around the checkout area. (Actual candy, including more conventional confections from Dylan’s Candy Bar, gets more prominent real estate.) At the back of the store, a long, marble “kitchen island” is studded with round mirrors and even more bright lights. It’s where shoppers are meant to test out products on their own. “We don’t want to be super heavy on”—Linda’s voice dropped a register, the auditory equivalent of air quotes—“ ‘professionals that do your makeup.’ ” She’s excited about expanding the kitchen section, which currently includes a rose-gold French press, a rose-gold colander, and a pale pink mug that reads, in rose-gold lettering, “I’m a lot cooler on the Internet.”

Linda wore a sleek black pantsuit; her younger sister swooped past in a polka-dot print dress. Explaining the name of their joint venture, Linda said, “Riley sounds like a girl that’s more of a tomboy, rose is more feminine. I’m technically the Riley, and Esther’s the Rose. You can see there are areas that are more modern and Scandinavian, which is more my style, and then there’s very feminine and pretty.”

I asked Linda to walk me through her favorite section of the store. “I’m a big office person,” she said, striding over to a display of planners with gold-foil pages and uplifting sayings on their spines (“You’re absolutely brilliant”). Next to them was a plastic case of “Positive Pens” emblazoned with similar niceties (“Today is a good day”). Though consumers might wander into Riley Rose lacking something—clear skin, voluminous hair, inspirational stationery—its products and strategic signage endeavor to banish bad vibes, FOMO, and self doubt. What other peddler of lipstick would hang a neon sign above the exit that reads “Makeup fades, memories last”?

A cynic would say that’s just a cue to take another selfie, not that the shoppers at the opening bash needed any. As attractive male waiters passed out flutes of pink champagne topped with dollops of cotton candy, and a small army scooped rose-flavored ice cream into the shape of rosebuds, two women held their ice creams in front of a claw-foot tub filled with balls of soap. One pulled out her phone, tapped the camera, and asked the other, “Does my hand look skinny?”

The Forever 21 Heirs Attempt to Cash In on the Korean Skin-Care Craze (2024)


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