How Oakley designer George Yoo got caught up in K-wave

April 6, 2015
Oakley designer George Yoo at company headquarters (Brian Han/Korea Times)

Oakley designer George Yoo at company headquarters (Brian Han/Korea Times)

K-pop star Lee Hyori wearing a pair of sunglasses worked on by Yoo (Courtesy of Oakley)

K-pop star Lee Hyori wearing a pair of sunglasses worked on by Yoo (Courtesy of Oakley)

By Brian Han

At Oakley, Inc. headquarters in Southern California, more than half of the eyewear designers on the team are of Korean ethnicity, according to George Yoo, 29, who happens to be one of them.

The stereotype that Asian Americans define success by careers in business, medicine or law is quickly becoming an outdated one.

“It’s become kind of normal now to have a good amount of Koreans in the design field,” says Yoo. “I can’t pinpoint the exact reason for it, but my guess would be that we have a good sense of taste. You can see evidence of that with Korean culture booming.”

With the emergence of K-pop, South Korean films and fashion — also known as K-wave (Hallyu) — it’s becoming clear that Korean culture is rapidly entering the global consciousness and some people can’t get enough of it.

For example, Korean language courses at U.S. universities and colleges have experienced a 45 percent increase in enrollment in the last five years according to the L.A. Times. Even established luxury brands like Chanel have taken notice and the French company plans to hold a fashion show for the first time in Seoul this year.

Granted it’s not as if Yoo got caught up in some kind of wider cultural movement that pushed him towards more creative fields. Instead his interest in the career came out of a class field trip he took at a young age.


An Oakley ad featuring Korean actor Lee Jong-suk. (Courtesy of Oakley)

“I remember it vividly,” Yoo recalled. “Back in elementary school there was a girl in our class and her mother worked at Disney as an animator. Watching what they did blew me away and I thought, ‘There’s a job like this?’ I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up.”

At the age of nine he already had his mind set, but his decision wasn’t met without resistance.

By this point, a common conclusion would be to assume the pushback came from his Korean parents who wanted him to become a lawyer, doctor, businessman, etc.

In reality, this wasn’t the case at all.

Most of the criticism came from his high school teachers when he happened to get caught drawing in class.

“It was a tough time,” he said. “I remember they’d scold me saying, ‘What are you going to do with that later in life?’”

Luckily his home life provided an emotional balance that might have been lacking in other places. Much of his parents’ understanding came from the fact that Yoo’s father was a technical illustrator and would make blueprints for industrial vehicles including bulldozers and airplanes.

“Since he was in that field, my parents realized right away I had a thing for art and were fully supportive,” he said. “That’s a big part of a person’s life. If you don’t have that support, I’d imagine it’s really hard to motivate yourself.”

The deep familial bond allowed some of his father’s aspirations influence his own.

“My father’s dream when he was younger was to be an automotive designer, but back then in Korea, there was no such thing. That inspired me to take that path.”

Yoo started his career interning for Mazda and BMW then after proving his talent, he took on the role of a creative designer at Mercedes Benz.

Despite his interest in cars, it didn’t translate in a professional setting so he packed up and headed out to Oakley five years ago.

“The approach to design is a lot more aggressive here and as a result things get done a lot quicker,” Yoo said. “When I was working at places like Mercedes, it could take up to five years before seeing a design on a car. For exotic car companies, the process can take up to a decade.”

Another perk is that he gets to see a lot of celebrities and athletes wearing products he helped design from K-pop’s Lee Hyori to Olympic snowboarding gold medalist Shaun White.

The lifestyle keeps him more than occupied as he and the team are responsible for not only keeping up with the latest trends, but also creating them as well. One would imagine Yoo would find some activity that is completely unrelated to unwind, but once again that’s not the case.

Even though he doesn’t work professionally with cars anymore, it’s still an important part of his free time.

An example of some of the work Yoo creates during his free time (Courtesy of George Yoo)

An example of some of the work Yoo creates during his free time (Courtesy of George Yoo)

“Even though I left that industry years ago, I find a certain type of freedom when I’m drawing cars,” he said. “It takes away the stress and it almost feels mindless. When you work for a big company, you have to change things all the time and do your best to keep everyone happy. It’s definitely gratifying in its own way, but when I do this, I don’t have to change a thing. I make exactly what I want.”

Yoo seems to be one of those rare individuals who’s discovered a passion that happens to drive both his career and personal goals, but he admits that it won’t be that simple for other Korean Americans.

“Art still isn’t a common career path for Korean Americans, but it’s becoming an option for a lot more of us,” he said. “At the hagwon I teach at in Orange County, the parents still play a big role in determining the direction of their children’s lives and art isn’t usually at the top of that list. Either way, we’ll definitely see more and more of us breaking into creative fields and I think we’re just seeing the beginning of it now.”

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