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[Weekender] Geeks have never been so chic in Korea

S. Korea's mainstream casts favorable light on nerdy personalities with stylish homages to their quirky, brainy charms

By No Kyung-min

Published : May 18, 2024 - 16:01

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Karina of the girl group aespa (Instagram @aespa_official) Karina of the girl group aespa (Instagram @aespa_official)

The stereotypical nerd with glasses who gets straight As in school has never been so fashionable in South Korea.

Once relegated to the corner of the school cafeteria, geeky individuals have stepped into the limelight, as the mainstream warms to the intriguing blend of their characters and fashion, encapsulated by the term, “geek chic.”

The term is not new. But the fashion is undergoing a revival amid a growing appreciation for nerd-like qualities, making geeky style elements all the more popular.

Korean actor Lee Do-hyun in Korean actor Lee Do-hyun in "Sweet Home" (Netflix)

Reappropriating nerdiness

Both geeks and nerds alike demonstrate a passion and expertise in specific subjects.

The notions of geekiness and nerdiness mirrored in Korean slang terms such as "beomsaengi," meaning nerd, or "jjindda," a derogatory term for a socially awkward person, are experiencing a cultural reset. Once viewed as social oddities, their idiosyncrasies are now celebrated as expressions of intellectual depth and quirky charm, regarded as cool, particularly among younger Korean women.

"A moderate level of nerdiness, marked by a meek demeanor, tech-savviness and expertise in specific fields, is seen as quite appealing these days," Choi Hye-min, a 24-year-old recent graduate of a women's university in Seoul, shared with The Korea Herald. "Their preference for social solitude also seems to suggest a prioritization of intimate connections over social engagements."

While this positive depiction of nerdy characters has been amplified through drama series, exemplified by Nam Joo-hyuk in "Start-Up" and Lee Do-hyun in "Sweet Home," Choi also cited local indie singers.

"Korean indie bands like Nerd Connection and 10cm embody nerdy aesthetics in terms of their refined fashion and their unwavering dedication to music," Choi said.

For instance, Kwon Jung-yeol from 10cm has amassed a solid fan base not only through his music but also his style and geeky persona -- a former Yonsei University student in round, wire-rimmed glasses and checkered button-down shirts.

However, for some individuals, there is a gap between geek chic and authentic nerdiness.

Kim Jun-min, a 24-year-old university student in Seoul, underscores this disparity.

“Nerdy guys portrayed as attractive often only display the most appealing aspects of being a nerd,” she said. “Hence, it's difficult to say that this cultural trend fully encompasses and respects nerd culture as a whole.”

In this light, a superficial, curated depiction of geekiness may verge on the appropriation of only postively viewed aspects of nerdy identity.

Pushing back on this, a video from the Korean comedy channel, Psick University, on YouTube performs a spoof of a hagwon lecture about the "genuine definition" of nerds in South Korea. This discussion seems to have been spurred by a remark by actor Yoo Teo on a celebrity talk show, who, despite being considered handsome, identifies himself as a "nerd."

In the clip, the lecturer, identifying himself as a "genuine nerd," argues that traits of true nerds include "feelings of inferiority" and "low self-esteem," along with "a lack of ability to interpret social cues," juxtaposed with a deep knowledge of engineering science.

Seulgi of the girl group Red Velvet (Instagram @hi_sseulgi) Seulgi of the girl group Red Velvet (Instagram @hi_sseulgi)

New forms of beauty

Despite these criticisms increasing numbers of people have been attempting to embody geeky identity visually.

On Korea’s biggest online fashion platform by sales, Musinsa, geek chic is trending, an official there told The Korea Herald.

“The defining feature of the geek chic look is glasses, whether rimless or horn-rimmed,” as spectacles stand out as the visual embodiment of intellect and quirkiness, the official explained.

During one month ending May 7, there was a 378 percent on-year increase in searches for "rimless glasses," with a corresponding 40 percent rise in transactions in the eyewear category, the official revealed.

Another online fashion platform, Ably, reports similar trends: an 80 percent on-year increase in searches for "geek chic" transliterated into Korean during the first half of April, with searches for "geek chic eyeglasses" in particular, surging by 490 percent since February.

Industry insiders attribute the surge in popularity of the geeky aesthetic here to the relentless pursuit of novelty and a growing interest in expressing one's individuality within niche aesthetics. The quirky sensibility of geeky identity provides a distinctive style statement, reflecting an effort to diverge from Korea's conventional, narrow beauty standards, they said.

Young celebrities like Karina of aespa, G-Dragon of Big Bang and Seulgi of Red Velvet, among others, are at the forefront with their embrace of geeky stylistic approaches, such as rimless glasses, blazers and checkered button-downs.

As an example, Seulgi channels geek chic in her outfit, exuding the aura of a well-behaved schoolgirl. She wears bold black-rimmed glasses, a retro-inspired gray cardigan and black skirt, topped off with pink socks peeking out of her chunky black mary janes.

Before the resurgence of the trend, its prototype was introduced in 1996 by fashion designer Miuccia Prada, who unveiled the "Banal Eccentricity" runway show for Italian luxury fashion house Prada, an attempt to blur the lines between geeky attire and high fashion.

Though labeled "ugly chic" by fashion critics, the show challenged conventional ideas of beauty and ugliness by integrating outdated, cheap and banal elements.

Fast-forward to today, while designer brands like Gucci are remaking nerdy looks with a modern twist, Prada's subsidiary brand, Miu Miu, founded by Miuccia Prada, stands as the prime example of the nouveau geek aesthetic.

Their 2023 fall-winter collection, dubbed "nerdcore at its finest" by Vogue magazine, showcased disheveled models sporting cardigans, pencil skirts and boxy jackets, complemented by statement glasses.

Miu Miu's geeky theme continued to demonstrate its enduring appeal as it transitioned into the next season. Statement eyewear emerged as a focal point, infusing a hint of nerdy chic into otherwise ordinary ensembles.

According to the brand’s official website, the brand's 2024 spring-summer collection embraces diversity, championing the plural "beauties," instead of "beauty," and celebrating "unique characters.”

A model walks the runway during a fashion show for Prada's 1996 summer and spring season. (Prada) A model walks the runway during a fashion show for Prada's 1996 summer and spring season. (Prada)

A model walks the runway for Miu Miu's 2024 fall and winter season. (Miu Miu) A model walks the runway for Miu Miu's 2024 fall and winter season. (Miu Miu)