The newly arrived visitor to South Korea, gazing out of his/her hotel window at the inevitable mountain ridge that backdrops the major cities of the peninsula, may do a double take at a bizarre sight unfolding in the distance.
On a far-off slope, what appears to be a massive multicolored snake – one with scales of bright yellow, shocking pink, deep purple and ruddy crimson – is emerging from the tree line.
What could it be? A miraculous sighting of the mythical rainbow python of Dragon Mountain?
Closer inspection reveals it is, in fact, a line of hikers. The row of middle-aged, hobbyists of both genders is notable for its trail-pounding energy and cheery spirit, but what is more striking is its attire. Each hiker is sporting hi-tech, Himalayan-standard mountain gear – in the kind of loud, gaudy livery that would stand out at a Brazilian carnival.
It is this lucrative market that Kang Tae-sun, CEO and chairman of Black Yak, Korea’s leading outdoor clothing/mountaineering kit brand, has been mining since 1973.
It has proven a good market. This year, Kang was honored alongside such business visionaries as Jack Ma, Bill Gates and Elon Musk by the United Nations.
And while the global leisure and tourism sector globally bleeds under the assault of Covid-19, Black Yak revenues are down minimally as Koreans escape into the socially distanced great outdoors.
There’s money in them thar mountains
Kang, a youthful-looking 69, was born and raised on Jeju, the sub-tropical island off the Korean peninsula’s southern coast. The island’s dominant feature, visible from virtually all points of the compass, is its dormant, cloud-capped volcano, Mt Halla.
“Jeju has Mt Halla – there is nothing else there!” Kang told Asia Times on the sidelines of the JeongSeon Forum, an environmental conference held in the mountainous Gangwon Province in late August. “So I had a chance to climb mountains when I was young and I became familiar with mountains. I led an eco-friendly life.”
Kang became a keen hiker and rock climber, but there was no possibility in the Korea of his youth of buying technical gear. In the days before a leisure sector came into being, he had to make his own.
Millennial Jeju, fully built out with tourism infrastructure, is famed as a holiday destination among South Koreans, Chinese and Japanese. But in the 1970s, it was no place for an enterprising young lad to make his fortune.
For that, Kang moved to Seoul. In the capital, in 1973, he opened up the prototypical Black Yak: A shop selling camping and hiking gear.
His customers were not hobbyists. “Back then, annual per capita GDP was less than $5,000, so ordinary people did not invest in leisure gear,” Kang recalled. “Only professors and government outdoor surveyors could afford that kind of gear.”
In a country undergoing a hyper-speed process of industrialization and urbanization, a service sector barely existed. One of the few leisure activities available to Koreans – thanks to the vertical physical infrastructure of their national geography – was hiking.
“Korean people experienced remarkable economic development, but not many people enjoyed hobbies or leisure,” Kang said. “For people who were conservative about their health, the easiest way to keep healthy was hiking.”
Author Mark Clifford, in his entertaining 1998 insider’s account of economically bubbling Korea, Troubled Tiger, quotes an expatriate who joined weekend hiking expeditions with local colleagues in the 1970s and 80s and witnessed the fast-paced enrichment of Koreans and growth of consumer culture.
When he first joined them on the trails, hikers would take a can of tuna and a bottle of soju, a rough Korean spirit, up to the forested ridges as their lunchtime picnic. A few years later, it was slabs of pork to grill, and cans of beer to drink. And just a few years further down the line, it was steak to dine upon, and flasks of Scotch for refreshment.
Naturally, it was not just picnic rations that were upgraded as the economy surged. It was hiking gear, too.
The leisure sector takes off
In his efforts to sell outdoor gear to his countrymen, Kang was aided by local culture. Among status-conscious, socially competitive Koreans, it is essential to always look the part – be it the tailored suit for the office, the streamlined lycra outfit for cycling or the branded gear for golfing.
And high-altitude hiking gear is high-priced. Kang launched his first brand in 1976.
“The hiking or mountaineer population expanded remarkably,” Kang said. “To go up in the mountains, people think they have to buy outdoor gear and equipment, and with economic development, people who could think about health or hobbies were mostly middle aged, so they could afford high-priced products.”
In 2005, South Korea’ government finally granted the workaholic nation a two-day weekend, giving the leisure industry a long-awaited kick in the pants.Kang built Black Yak from the ground up on the basis of his home market.
It ascended from strength to strength: In 1994, the company acquired a license for the weatherproof but breathable fabric, Gore-Tex. Today, many of its products blend four fabrics in hybrid constructions designed for, and tested in, the most extreme conditions.
As South Korea went global and started to earn a reputation as one of Asia’s hottest spots, Kang, like other consumer-focused Korean business owners, was soon eyeing opportunities beyond his own shores. In 2006, the brand “Black Yak” was registered in China, the EU, Korea and Japan.
“We first targeted the national market but we wanted to extend sales, so we made inroads in China and made production and logistics facilities there first,” he said. “But I thought that if we only sell to Asian markets, it could limit our efforts to raise brand awareness, so we moved into European markets as well.”
Early attempts fizzled.
“First we tried to sell products designed in Korea,” Kang recalled. “But it was not easy as the culture and history and the preference of the consumers was totally different.”
Which brings the discussion back to color, among other things.
“Different places like different patterns, different styles and different fits – and the color preference is different!” Kang said. “Korean people like vivid colors, Americans and Europeans like blander colors.”
In 2013, Black Yak started outsourcing design work to Germany and Switzerland.
“We are selling products developed in Germany and Switzerland in the US, while products designed in Korea are sold in Asian markets,” he said.
Currently, Korea takes up 60% of sales, China 30% and the EU the 10%. In 2019, Black Yak enjoyed revenues of approximately 400 billion won ($335 million) and employs 320 staff. Production has been outsourced to China, but the firm’s headquarters is in southern Seoul, and its 33,000-square-meter main logistics center is south of the capital.
Black Yak products – and those of sub-brands Black Yak Kids, Nau (a US-based eco-friendly clothing brand), Healcreek (UK-based golfing wear) and Mountia (an outdoor leisure brand) – can now be found in several hundred branded stores across Korea, as well as in department stores.
Black Yak gear can also be bought in 141 locations in China, in 62 stores in Europe, and two in the US. And true to its Himalayan inspiration, the company maintains one store in Nepal.
Going green, doing good
In 2013, Kang made an overseas acquisition: Nau, a Portland, US-based lifestyle/eco-friendly clothing brand.
“It is important to pursue profits, but it is also important to go green,” Kang said. “In the future, if a company does not pursue an eco-friendly business strategy, it will not survive, so that is why I decided to invest in Nau – there is no Korean company like it.”
For the last three years, Kang has been marketing a range of t-shirts made of recycled plastic bottles. Though the manufacturing process adds 20% to the garment cost, he says the company discounts the products as a form of social responsibility.
Black Yak has also sponsored the planting of trees in Pyongyang, North Korea, launched mountain clean-up drives and funded the construction of a school and a hospital in Nepal.
As a result of these various initiatives, which support the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Kang was named – along with Bill Gates of the Bill Gates Foundation, Elon Musk of Tesla, Jack Ma of Alibaba, James Quincy of Coca-Cola and Ma Huanteng of Tencent Holdings – as one of 29 “Most Excellent Sustainable Business Leaders” by the UN.
The challenge now is to push his consumer base down through current demographics, given that the most active, visible cohort of Korean hikers is in their 50s and 60s. To do that, Kang has turned to technology.
Black Yak has developed an app, “100 Korean Mountains” (a concept borrowed from Nike’s running club). Some 170,000 users have downloaded the app, though Kang reckons that the numbers will climb to 200,000.
Already, 8,000 users have completed the 100 climbs, so the company is now working on a new app, covering hikes and climbs on Korea’s sprinkling of offshore islands.
It is not simply about selling gear. “It is a strategy to expand our status and position – it’s a marketing platform,” said Kang. “It could lead to sales.”
He reckons that Black Yak, together with the realities of Korean geography and young people’s values, offer him a rich opportunity.
“The younger generation has various hobbies – biking, golfing, skiing, scuba diving – but 70% of Korean land is mountainous, so naturally we have many chances to be familiar to people who do mountain biking or who exercise on mountains,” Kang said. “And the young generation value environmental values, so we are trying to develop products for them.”
As a result of Koreans’ attachment to the great outdoors, Kang has not suffered as severely as many other tourism businessses.
“With Covid 19, we have to follow social distancing,” he said. “So camping and backpacking are gaining popularity these days.” Due to this, he says, business is down just 5-10%, on year.
And Kang himself – who still takes weekend hikes on the mountain ridges behind his home in southern Seoul – has never lost his affinity for high places.
“I hope consumers feel their happiest when hiking or climbing in our Black Yak brands,” he said. “I see happiness when I see people yelling on mountain peaks. That is what inspires me.”