2021 is the year that the fashion world truly embraced K-Pop stars. BTS was named ambassadors of Louis Vuitton, Blackpink’s Lisa walked for a Celine fashion show, and her fellow members fronted campaigns for luxury brands like Chanel and Tiffany & Co. But nobody has left a bigger impact than Kai, the sensational “dancing machine” of EXO.
This year, Kai was the only South Korean idol in Lyst’s round-up of celebrities whose fashion choices have resulted in the biggest spikes in searches and sales. According to the fashion shopping platform, he ranked fifth, making him more influential than stars like Harry Styles, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and both the Biebers.
To K-Pop fans, the news may not entirely come as a surprise. Since debuting as part of the boyband EXO, Kai has set himself apart with his charismatic stage presence, dancing skills, and sense of style. He was noted for his impeccably polished airport fashion, which included blazers, turtleneck sweaters and well-cut trousers that suited his svelte figure. It wasn’t long before he caught the attention of Gucci, who named him as brand ambassador in 2019.
Now that Kai has just made a comeback with his second solo album, Peaches, it may be easy to overlook his style credentials in favour of his musical and performance ones. That’s why we’ve highlighted some key moments in his career that solidified his rightful status as a fashion icon.
Every time Exo’s Kai oozed unparalleled fashion cues
His first campaign for Gucci
Kai made his debut as Gucci ambassador in the Italian fashion label’s Fall/Winter 2019 eyewear campaign, starring alongside Chinese actress Ni Ni. The images, shot by American filmmaker and photographer Harmony Korine, offered us our first glimpse of Kai as the face of an international luxury brand. He easily embodied Gucci’s distinctive, vintage-inspired aesthetic as he sported the brand’s retro glasses and tailoring. He would again be tapped by designer Alessandro Michele to front Gucci’s S/S 2020 eyewear campaign, this time showing off his modelling skills in a fashion film.
His collaboration with Gucci
After sitting front row at runway shows and modelling for fashion campaigns, Kai took things to another level in 2021. He teamed up with Gucci for a limited-edition capsule collection, making him the first Korean celebrity to ever do so. (In fact, few other Gucci ambassadors have ever been given the honour.) The Kai x Gucci collection, as it was called, revolved around his fondness for teddy bears; the childhood toy motif was stamped across monogrammed handbags, leather goods, sneakers and clothing for both men and women. When the collection launched, it sold out almost immediately. According to Lyst, it also led to an increase in searches for Gucci by 264 per cent — proof of Kai’s global influence on fashion trends.
Seoul Fashion Week
In September 2021, Kai was chosen as the ambassador of Seoul Fashion Week. It’s no small feat to be picked among many celebrities to represent South Korea’s biggest fashion event, much less for its 21st anniversary. In a video promoting the event, Kai remarked on his own relationship with fashion: “I use clothes to express myself. I used to only think about how to sing or how to dance, but now that I’ve been a singer for ten years, I came to think about how to express myself as an artist.”
His Gucci Aria campaign
Gucci again selected Kai to star in its campaign — not just for eyewear, but for its Aria Fall/Winter 2021 collection, which marked the Italian fashion brand’s 100th anniversary. For it, Kai was photographed amongst a dreamy winter landscape wearing noteworthy styles, such as Gwyneth Paltrow’s iconic red velvet suit. He also did more than model for the accompanying fashion film, which featured him doing what he does best: dancing.
His solo music promotions
Since making his solo debut in 2020, Kai has explored this relationship with fashion even more. The singer plays an active role in styling his music videos and album concepts, working alongside his team. “I go around picking clothes myself,” he said. “Concept is the most important thing. We have to think about whether we want to play it safe or take up a challenge.” Clearly, he’s gone for the latter. When promoting Mmmh, Kai’s outfits leaned towards androgynous and included traditionally feminine pieces like lace blouses and corsets. He has continued to push style boundaries in his Peaches era, for which he has boldly worn skirts by buzzy fashion brands like Peter Do. With a daring and unconventional approach to style, it’s no wonder he’s one of K-Pop biggest fashion influencers.
Hero photo: Courtesy SM Entertainment
This story was first published on Lifestyle Asia Singapore.