“I am ginseng,” boomed the voice of Tilda Swinton to partygoers in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur, where Sulwhasoo, the Korean beauty brand, was throwing a lavish dinner to celebrate its new partnership with the 152-year-old institution. A promotional video featuring Ms. Swinton played overhead, depicting a ginseng root spinning in circles.
The British actress had been named Sulwhasoo’s global ambassador, but couldn’t attend because she was filming. Still, the evening’s guest list was a who’s who of Korean excellence, including the global pop star Rosé, of K-pop group Blackpink, the Academy Award-winning actress Yuh-Jung Youn, writer Cathy Park Hong and the Michelin-starred chef Junghyun Park, who had prepared the ginseng-inspired menu. The rapper Anderson .Paak was the D.J. for the after-party.
“Sulwhasoo is my mom’s favorite brand,” said Ashley Park, 31, a star of “Emily in Paris” on Netflix. “It’s a smell I associate with her: ginseng. It’s like, ‘That’s mom.’”
Ginseng, an ingredient often used in traditional Asian medicine with a distinctly earthy smell, is a key ingredient used by Sulwhasoo in many of their more popular products.
“When it comes to Sulwhasoo and the ingredients that we use — it’s mostly edible ingredients,” said Kyung-Bae Suh, 60, the chairman and CEO of Amorepacific, which was founded by Mr. Suh’s grandmother, Dok-Jeong Yun, in 1932 (Amorepacific is the parent company of Sulwhasoo). “They can be used in food, medicine. The philosophy behind it is that inner health and inner beauty is very important. If your inside is beautiful and healthy, it’s going to manifest on your surface, on your face, on your skin.”
This thinking embodies, in many ways, the larger ethos behind Korean beauty, or K-beauty as it is more commonly called, which has become increasingly popular in America in the last two decades. According to data from Kotra, Korea’s trade promotion agency, in 2018 Korea’s cosmetics exports were estimated at around $5.95 billion, up 22 percent from the year before. Often exoticized for its unfamiliar ingredients, such as snail mucin and donkey’s milk, K-beauty espouses the idea that cosmetics need not be about correcting your imperfections, but rather about cultivating what comes from within.
Over 90 percent of Sulwhasoo’s sales still come from Asia, but the brand is now looking to expand its presence in the United States and Europe, where it is less known. Mr. Suh recognizes this as Sulwhasoo’s “big push,” with celebrities such as Rosé and Ms. Swinton, and a subtle redesign of the brand’s packaging (its signature amber hue now has an ombré fade). Both signal Sulwhasoo’s desire to capture a younger and more Western customer base. It’s a new page for a relatively dignified brand, which in its 25-year history has avoided any form of celebrity endorsement until 2018.
Still, there are reasons to be skeptical of the benefits touted in luxury skin care (a bottle of Sulwhasoo’s best-selling Ginseng Renewing Serum costs $210). Despite South Korea’s overwhelming number of beauty products and its industry’s unparalleled innovation, South Korea is still often referred to as the plastic surgery capital of the world. According to a 2019 report from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, Korea had the highest rate of plastic surgery per capita in the world, with 13.5 cosmetic procedures performed per 1,000 individuals.
“If there is a ‘secret’ to Korean beauty, it would be the medical advancements they’ve made in low impact or less-invasive surgery and injectables,” said Euny Hong, journalist and author of “The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture.”
“Snow, flower, beauty”
The history of Amorepacific dates back to the 1930s, during the Japanese occupation of Korea, when Ms. Yun sold camellia hair oil in Kaesong, a city now part of North Korea, to help support her family. Women at the time traditionally wore their hair parted down the middle, braided and coiled into a bun with a hair pin; the oil kept the hair in place and retained its luster. Pure camellia oil — the hard-earned result of manually pressing hand-peeled and ground camellia seeds — was valued for being scentless and for keeping hair shiny for a longer period of time.
As the mother of six children, Ms. Yun juggled parenting with the responsibilities of her nascent business, often bringing her infants on the road to breastfeed while pedaling her wares. By the end of the 1930s, business was robust enough for her to set up her own storefront, called Changseong Shop.
In 1945 World War II would intervene. Ms. Yun’s second son, Sung-whan Suh — who had become a valuable employee, entrusted with bicycling to Seoul to buy ingredients — was drafted into the Japanese army. A year later, he returned and took over the family business, renaming the company Taepyeongyang (“Pacific Ocean” in Korean). It was an allusion to his ambitions to grow the company beyond Korea’s own shores.
The next decade proved to be challenging, marked by the divisive violence of the Korean War. Sung-Whan Suh relocated his own family to Seoul, launching a popular face cream and hair pomade. Many Koreans, however, preferred beauty brands from the West and Japan when they could afford them. Ambitious and with an eye toward longevity, Sung-Whan Suh created a research and development lab in 1954 in hopes of competing and harnessing the power of ingredients found in Korea, including ginseng. Today, Amorepacific’s research and development lab employs over 500 people.
In 1987, the company launched Sulwha, an herb-based cosmetic. It wasn’t until 1997 that the brand landed on the name Sulwhasoo.
“‘Sul’ means snow, ‘wha’ means flower, ‘soo’ means beauty. Snow, flower, beauty,” explained Ga-Yoon Jung, senior vice president of marketing at Amorepacific. “But it doesn’t mean the literal flower and snow. The snow flower is the first flower that blooms right after winter.”
That same year, Sung-Whan Suh’s second son Kyung-Bae Suh took over as CEO of Amorepacific. By then, South Korea’s economy was booming, and investing its money in film, television and pop music in what would become known as “the Korean Wave” or “Hallyu.”
Today, Mr. Suh is one of South Korea’s wealthiest citizens. In 2018, he debuted Amorepacific’s new headquarters, a stunning 22-story building in Seoul designed by the architect David Chipperfield, who is being awarded the Pritzker Prize later this year. He is also an avid collector of contemporary and Korean art.
Neither the museum nor Mr. Suh would disclose the terms of their sponsorship, but the association came about after Max Hollein, the Met’s director, flew to South Korea last summer. Sulwhasoo plans to underwrite two additional community-oriented programs with the Met. “They wanted to be involved where they could offer support for our programming — and it wasn’t a one-off event or exhibition,” Mr. Hollein said.
For Mr. Suh, who feels the Met’s sense of heritage aligns with that of his family’s company, the choice to partner with the museum may also be guided by his own experience: In 1983, it was the first museum he ever visited outside of Korea.
Because of its history, the popularity of Sulwhasoo — a prominent brand in Amorepacific’s portfolio — also carries a kind of nostalgia for Korea’s difficult past. “I think that’s been comforting for many Korean people, given how quickly the economy grew,” said Joyce Kong, a former Korean beauty consultant. Both represent the changes South Korea has experienced in the last century. “To them, Sulwhasoo is still tethered to this old world.”