It’s a fight for survival behind the glitz and the glamour of the fashion industry. As new Netflix Korean drama The Fabulous shows us, those who aren’t fierce enough to assert themselves among aggressive competition will fall through the cracks with a hard landing. Such is the cutthroat reality faced by this series’ four protagonists, who find solace and support in each other: the wide-eyed publicist Pyo Ji-eun, freelance photo retoucher Ji Woo-min, fastidious designer Joseph and up-and-coming model Yeo Seon-ho.
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As a public relations manager for a luxury fashion brand, Ji-eun (Chae Soo-bin) struggles to keep afloat. Between adhering to the demands of higher-ups, careening from launch to launch and pleasing recalcitrant media, she’s nearly at the end of her rope. Woo-min (SHINee’s Minho), on the other hand, is devoid of purpose and jaded by the monotony in his job retouching photos. He’s lured to stay in the industry by its accompanying party scene: dimly-lit clubs, pool parties, booze-filled functions. Joseph (Lee Sang-un) is a fashion designer, pressed for innovative ideas in an attempt to lead a new wave of trends before they’re washed away in the fast-paced cycle. Meanwhile, Seon-ho (Park Hee-jung) struggles just to stand out from a sea of supermodels only to get fired before she’s even afforded the opportunity to walk the runway.
Despite the odds that seem to relentlessly stack relentlessly against our four leads, their love for their work trumps all. Ji-eun’s perseverance, in particular, is inspiring and feels like a breath of fresh of air in Chae’s oeuvre – the steadfast, confident Ji-eun is a far cry from the bubbly, innocent characters she played in Rookie Cops and A Piece of Your Mind. Minho slips seamlessly into the flashy life of Woo-min, which is no surprise considering his impressive experience as an idol-actor. The galvanic chemistry he shares with Chae on screen – both as friends and as something more, as Woo-min pursues a second chance at romance – is easily the most thrilling aspect of the series, even if the progression of their relationship has its cliché moments, like a sabotage attempt by a jealous ex.
Before The Fabulous, Park Hee-jung was a model herself, which gives her the perfect foundation for her performance as Yeo Seon-ho. Her remarkable performance here sheds necessary light on the dehumanisation of models and its detrimental impact on these individuals. Park is making her acting debut in this show, and she does unfortunately come across as stiff and awkward in certain moments. But her nuanced portrayal signifies a promising future on the small screen.
Lee Sang-un, however, isn’t given the chance to imbue Joseph with the same nuance thanks to writing that’s predictable at best and stereotypical at worst. Though it is monumental for a queer character to appear so front and centre in a Korean production, Joseph’s primary traits are that he’s the verbose, effeminate diva of the group. None of these characteristics are inherently bad, but in the K-drama world where queer representation is emerging more frequently than ever, hackneyed if not offensive portrayals such as Joseph’s continue to contribute towards an inaccurate caricature of a diverse group.
Safe to say The Fabulous is far from the perfect K-drama. Millennial and Gen Z viewers in particular, though, should find something resonant in it – perhaps its message that youths, with much life left to live, are not alone in the struggle to find who we are and where we stand in this world. As The Fabulous tells us: adversity is fleeting, but friendship, love and passion are forever.
The Fabulous is now streaming globally on Netflix.