Sat, 26 Apr 2003

Horde of the rings: Korea's new urban chic

Horde of the rings: Korean phone fashion, the new urban chic

Marshall Towe Contributor Seoul

Stroll down Seoul's Rodeo Drive -- a name borrowed from the trendy Beverly Hills original -- and you'll soon realize that brand names and high fashion are an obsession in the Korean capital. In a country that is equally fixated on the latest technology, however, it can be your sense of cellular style that separates you from the mobile masses.

Last December, the Ministry of Information and Communications revealed that 32.3 million of Korea's 48 million people subscribes to a mobile phone service. For many, from schoolgirls to yuppies, to the glitterati, there's a whole range of fashion issues to be addressed.

An old model? Last week's ring tone? Inappropriate accessories? If any of the above apply, it's a case of "Sorry, darling, so yesterday."

On the streets of Seoul, fashion sense has extended beyond clothing, hairstyles, handbags and shoes, to encompass that ubiquitous device: The mobile phone.

"Of course, the mobile has now become an accessory in and of itself," says Benny Hwang of Office H, a Seoul-based fashion industry promotion company.

So what are the current rules for a handset that will keep the fashion police at bay in Seoul's most chic districts?

A cool mobile has the right look: Clunky boxes are out, out, out; futuristic minimalist units and clamshell designs are in, in, in. Color? Wintry metallic and plain white are safe bets, but the more daring Seoulite is likely to be sporting a crimson and gold mobile, or a model trimmed in silver and blue. It's all about look -- which is why the TV advertisement for the latest phone from LG is set in a designer boutique.

A cool mobile is a personalized mobile. Simply stop by a street artist in one of the country's many university districts, and for a mere 10,000 won (US$8.33) they'll paint your handset unit with the color or design of your choice. Tiny customized photo stickers are also attached for added personalization. And should you need to touch up your makeup, the screen on the latest Samsung mobile doubles as a mirror in stand-by mode.

A cool mobile is an accessorized mobile: The craze for mobile phone decoration is breathing new life into the key-chain industry. As in Japan, kitschy cute is hot. Most commonly seen dangling from handsets are branded character products: Teddy bears, Winnie the Pooh, Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty. In neo- traditional mode, a solid golden pig -- an ancient symbol of wealth and good luck -- may presage the arrival of a lucrative future accessory: Mobile jewelry.

"I definitely think about how my cell phone looks as well as the functions it provides," says marketing executive Jeong-hyun Lee, 25, "and we all get envious if a friend upgrades her model."

Naturally enough for a telephone, style doesn't end with the look. A cool mobile also has to get the audio right. Ring tones range from the twitter of birdsong to a gurgling waterfall, to the recorded voice of a loved one -- "Honey, pick up the phone!"

While these natural sounds have a certain timeless quality to them, the same cannot be said for pop songs. Downloadable songs are available from mobile websites, but woe betide if you have last month's hit as your ring tone. Ring-to-me/Ring-to-you services allow you to pick a different tune for each of your most regular callers.

Korea's fast-moving phone fashion is not only seeing a new industry spring up around accessories, it is also generating demand that has handset manufacturers rubbing their hands with glee.

In South Korea, a new handset hits the market every three or four days. Samsung Electronics notes that the replacement rate for mobile phones at the end of 2002 were 1.5 years for the general population; but for trendsetters, this had narrowed to three months as cutting-edge users snapped up the latest models.

Samsung saw domestic handset sales numbers surge from 13.7 million in 2001 to 15.6 million in 2002. LG Electronics, the No. 2 player in the market, has also seen domestic mobile sales jump, resulting in revenues of 9.4 trillion won in 2001, and 11.6 trillion won in 2002.

A mobile is not a cool mobile if it isn't embedded with the latest gadgetry. The kind of futuristic functions that were once limited to the imagination of science fiction writers exist in the here and now in Korean handsets. Some contain digital cameras: See something you like? Snap it, and email it to a friend. Aspiring filmmakers will appreciate the portability of handsets featuring embedded camcorders. And -- this being 21st Century Asia -- the inevitable has arrived: The karaoke handset. For legions of schoolgirls, subway sing-alongs make the journey to classes much less mundane.

Because a cool mobile is not a cool mobile unless it is subscribed to the latest services, once you have the look and the sound, you will want the services. Most users sign up for a suite of services from the big carriers, such as "TTL" from Korea's leading service provider SKT, and "Drama," the package supplied by the second leading provider, KTF. The most popular services in October 2002 were ring tone downloads, games and character downloads for SKT; while for KTF, they were karaoke songs, promotional events and music downloads.

There's even a budding movie industry for films shot exclusively for mobile users. Right now, the hit show is a romantic comedy available in 19 episodes at 200 won per download.

Both SKT and KTF also provide certain subscribers with exclusive access to lounges in downtown districts, where they can enjoy coffee, karaoke and other relaxing services.

Why this kind of marketing has become vogue is explained by the numbers. SKT saw overall revenues climb 38 percent year-on- year in the fourth quarter of 2002, while revenues were up 20 percent from 2001. The Ministry of Information and Communication anticipates the size of the market increasing to 36.4 million users in 2003, with a value of 5.2 trillion won.

Mobile games, mobile messaging, mobile location finders, mobile dating services, mobile restaurant directories, mobile music downloads... The mobile has morphed into telephone, Gameboy, Filofax, map, address book, camera and Walkman in one.

In the Korean mobile market, it's clear that there's a convergence of phones and fashion, trends and technology. If you're out on the town in Seoul, remember fashion expert Hwang's warning: "It's not just a phone, it's a statement."

In other words, it's one thing to be called -- but quite another to be called old-fashioned.

-- The writer is Vice President and Managing Director of Southeast Asia, QUALCOMM