Honoring Korean culture, selling perfume
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Honoring Korean culture, selling perfume
Customers try scents at Elorea’s new store in Manhattan’s NoLIta neighborhood, July 27, 2023. The Korean perfumery, whose name is a portmanteau of “elements” and “Korea,” is just one stream in the surging “hallyu,” or Korean wave, sweeping over the world through K-dramas, K-pop and Korean technology. (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)

by Miya Lee

NEW YORK, NY.- Inside Elorea, a sleek new Korean perfumery in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood, whose name is a portmanteau of “elements” and “Korea,” you will find paintings and pottery by Korean and Korean American artists, a cafe offering a chocolate and perfume pairing, and shop attendants dressed entirely in black, eager to explain the brand’s gender-neutral fragrance collections.

“Even though I’ve never heard of a Korean perfume brand, I just figured it’s going to be on another level,” said Albert Chun, 36, a customer whose parents immigrated from Seoul to Oakland, California, in the mid-1980s. “We’re such proud people,” he added with a half-laugh.

“In our heads, in everyone’s heads, Korea is the capital of the world in terms of beauty,” said Wonny Lee, who, along with his wife, Su min Park, founded Elorea as an online perfumery business last year.

Korean beauty, or K-beauty, is just one stream in the surging “hallyu,” or Korean wave, sweeping over the world through K-dramas, K-pop and Korean technology. This wave of cultural and material exports has helped South Korea transform itself into a global economic powerhouse.

And yet, when Park, 35, and Lee, 36, walked through a department store in Seoul in 2019, they were surprised to find a lack of Korean perfume brands.

“Korea and Asia in general have very deep and rich relationships with scent, but it’s just so, so underrepresented in the current market,” Park said.

With Lee’s background in e-commerce and marketing at Samsung, gaming-accessories manufacturer Turtle Beach and direct-to-consumer footwear company Greats, and Park’s experience as a photographer and art director with clients including Ann Taylor, Alexis Bittar and Fekkai, the couple decided to create their own Korean perfumery.

But what exactly constitutes a “Korean perfumery”?

“We didn’t want to just slap, like, ‘K’ in front of it because we’re Korean founders,” said Lee, whose parents immigrated from Seoul to Queens in 1984. Park, whose family left Seoul for Brooklyn in 1998 when she was 10, agreed, noting how some beauty companies might call a product “Japanese” simply because they use cherry blossoms in their branding.

“We had to dig deeper,” Park said. “We have to talk about our history. We have to talk about our culture and what it means — what the scent means.”

Everything in the store rings with symbolism. The curved base of the shop’s display table is modeled after a traditional Korean roof tile. The store’s stark black and white color scheme expresses the Korean flag’s philosophy of “taegeuk,” or “great polarity.” The four scents in Elorea’s foundational collection “The Elements,” are inspired by the four trigrams adorning the Korean flag, representing earth, sky, fire and water.

According to Lee, the four perfumes in “The Elements” mirror the four major olfactory classifications on typical fragrance wheels: floral (sky), fresh (water), woody (earth), and warm and spicy (fire). “I was staring at the Korean flag, and I was staring at the fragrance wheel,” Lee recalled. “And I was like, ‘There’s no way this can be; it’s too perfect.’”

Park spearheaded Elorea’s second fragrance line, “The Forgotten Words,” basing the collection on words that are native to Korea but no longer in common parlance.

The perfume called “Gentle Shower” is redolent of the Korean word “jambi,” which, according to Park, means a sudden rain that allows farmers to rest. One of the perfume’s top notes is perilla leaf, a minty, licorice-like herb frequently used in Korean cooking.

For Park, Elorea provides an opportunity to reunite with the country she was estranged from when she was young. “Part of me was always back at home,” she said.

Elorea allows Lee to cultivate a greater sense of Korean pride and identity as someone who, because of racism he experienced as a boy and his desire to fit in, didn’t always want to be Korean growing up. He recounted a conversation he had with his friend, chef Hooni Kim, 51, whose restaurant Danji was the first Korean restaurant ever to win a Michelin star, in 2011.

Kim asked Lee, “Why are you so into telling Korea’s story?”

Lee responded, “I personally feel like Elorea is my ask for forgiveness to my younger self, my deepest apology.”

The couple have intentionally incorporated the work of other Koreans and Korean Americans in their store, including custom drinks from popular Korean coffee brand Gute Leute, and a bright blue painting by Korean artist Son il hanging by the front door.

More than just a perfume store, they hope that Elorea will provide an evolving, multisensory space to showcase and celebrate Korean culture.

“We want to work with entrepreneurs, we want to work with artists,” Lee said. “Because at the end of the day, their success will be our success.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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