Seoul, South Korea: The hospital is right by Hermès and Dior in the Gangnam luxury shopping area made famous by popstar Psy's 2012 YouTube hit. But while Psy's ironic video includes crazy dancing in a futuristic city filled with shiny cars and skimpily clad performers, it never mentions the one reason that draws so many visitors to Seoul: plastic surgery.
To visit Korea's ID hospital and to talk to Dr Sang Hoon Park, its founder and director, is to have the future of beauty hit you in the face. And to find Asian women with bandaged faces shopping unselfconsciously in Seoul's vast duty-free stores is to understand that here, cosmetic surgery is just another commodity, not a secret solution to a perceived personal problem. When a re-modelled nose or chin becomes an object of desire, plastic surgery becomes a luxury product that can be marketed like conventional high-end retail.
"There are different patterns of consumption," Dr Park explains. "Clients can go to the beach abroad in California, so we are competing with the travel companies. If they've got, say, $5,000 as their company bonus, they could buy a Louis Vuitton handbag or they could get surgery here. That's the competition and why we can say that this is luxury beauty."
As I walked through the hospital in its restful, feminine shade of pink (only 10 per cent of patients are male), Dr Park explained the different types of patients he receives; those who were dedicated to major surgery, and those who made travel their priority, with simple surgery and skincare added as part of an overall experience. "In that case, they can go shopping and even go on holiday with bandages on, so there are many things to consider — which is first?" he said as we surveyed the two-night recovery rooms, more attractive than those in many boutique hotels.
Brought up with a jolt by a glass table filled with jaw bones, like in a horror movie, Dr Park calmed me down by explaining that many Asian clients choose to have their jaw line changed. "The typical Asian face is very strong - not the kind preferred in Asian countries, because they want more lean and cute faces," he said. "For example, some patients in their 40s lose the fat on their faces and look more aggressive and hostile and they want to look more soft and feminine. We reduce the cheekbones and then smooth and sculpt them. In the United States the high cheekbone is preferred, so people in the United States cannot understand why Asians get these kind of changes!"
Surrounded by many other clinics in this neighbourhood of body sculptors, it is the 16-floor ID Hospital - which also offers cosmetics and products to reduce post-op swelling — that provides a glimpse into the future of beauty. With a second branch opening in Shanghai this year, Dr Park says that his hospital is designed as an "Asian", not "Korean", centre, because only half of his Asian customers are local. Of the overseas clients, 50 per cent are from China, Malaysia and Japan, with just 10 per cent from America.
"Cultural and ethnic backgrounds are so different; they all have their own standards and their own taboos and we have to know about them," he says. "In China, if the nose is too high and the nostril open, they say, 'Money is going out.' They never want to show their nostrils to other people. That is their culture and I have to know that."
In an era of selfies and digital manipulation of photographs, this focus on cosmetic surgery looks like pre-production (as opposed to post-production), in an attempt to make faces and bodies permanently more attractive — at least to the owner of the flesh and bone. But how does Dr Park adjust the body language to each patient?
"I'm not the painter, it's not my canvas, so it's totally their preference," he says. "I start by asking what they think about their problem, then I ask what solution they want, then I give them a professional opinion of the options. Some patients have thought about the surgery for a long time, they've done other consultations, they've visited 10 clinics before they decide. The choice of this surgery is a big event in their lives."
Changing faces may soon be a big issue in the cosmetics industry. Will future customers spend their money on products, or on permanent re-modelling that hopefully turns their dream into reality?
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