It’s an August morning in the Gangnam district of Seoul, South Korea, where a pair of A-list, Emmy-nominated Squid Game stars have convened at a five-star hotel. After wrapping a photo shoot, Jung Ho-yeon is on Zoom, flashing a wide smile and raising both hands to form a heart shape to describe the experience, one she says was made even sweeter because it offered the chance to reunite with pal Lee Jung-jae.
They’ve not had much face time lately, as Lee has been busy promoting his directorial debut, Hunt, while she’s been filming Alfonso Cuarón’s Apple TV+ series Disclaimer opposite Cate Blanchett. They will get another chance to hang together Sept. 12, when the Squid Game crew descends upon Los Angeles to attend the Emmy Awards, for which the Netflix series is nominated for 14 trophies including best drama series and individual nods for Lee and Jung.
Win or lose, Hwang Dong-hyuk’s South Korean series already delivered something not built for a shelf: record-setting viewership for Netflix as the most watched series in the streamer’s history, with 1.7 billion hours viewed. Starring in the world’s most popular TV show furthered Lee’s global fame — the Seoul-born 49-year-old was already a massive star in his homeland with more than three dozen credits — while cementing a new career path for 28-year-old model-turned-actress Jung with her first major credit.
And Jung’s hand gesture can easily be applied to her work. Her character, Kang Sae-byeok (Player 067), was the heart of the blockbuster series, while Lee’s Seong Gi-hun (Player 456) was the soul, as well as the last man standing at season one’s end. Creator Hwang has told THR that season two will focus on the journey of Gi-hun after he became a “totally new person” by the finale.
Their time onscreen as competitors in the deadly game has ended, but their careers as in-demand fashion stars live on — and are thriving: Jung serves looks as an ambassador for Louis Vuitton, while Lee has an enviable pact with Gucci. They signed with the fashion houses last fall, not long after the show took off. Ahead of the Emmy Awards, the actors chatted with THR (with the help of translator Hyewon Park) about all things style and their shared roots in the modeling business.
You both started your careers as models; how did that influence your style and fashion sense?
LEE JUNG-JAE I wasn’t really a fashion model. I modeled for commercials mostly, and when you’re doing commercials, you have to make the product stand out and the model shouldn’t overshadow the product. So I didn’t have to dress fashionably back then. I have to say that I really didn’t do modeling because I wanted to.
JUNG HO-YEON When I was modeling, I had a lot of opportunities to try outfits with different concepts, so one thing that I’ve learned is to not be afraid of exploring different styles and choosing to experiment, even off camera.
How did your style evolve when you started acting?
LEE When I first started acting in the early 1990s, actors [in South Korea] had to prepare their own clothes for TV shows and films. From ’93 to about the year 2000, I did my own styling, and when I picked out my clothes, I tried to choose garments that best fit the character. I wanted to go for color schemes that would highlight the emotions of my character in a particular scene. That was the time when I put the most thought into fashion.
JUNG I don’t think the evolution had anything to do with switching to acting because in my early years as a model, I used to be really out there. I would put on really fierce makeup and outfits. But as I went through my career, I got really exhausted and gave up on dressing fashionably. I used to wear only sweats and casual clothes. Around five years ago, I found a balance where I’m fashionable but not too much, with just the right amount of hipness.
How would you describe your red carpet style today?
LEE I’m a person that doesn’t like boring things. There are many different styles of red carpets, and it all depends on the ambiance of the event. If it’s a really formal event, I would go with fewer accessories. If it’s not that formal, I try to go for an uplifting kind of wardrobe.
JUNG For the red carpet, I listen to my team about their opinions and I would describe it as a very natural yet detailed style.
How would you describe your style when you’re not working?
JUNG I literally wear the same thing every day — either jeans or Adidas track pants — and then I just change the T-shirt. I also have a deal as an ambassador for Adidas, so it’s very easy.
LEE I mostly go for colorful clothes. And people already are aware that I’m a fashion icon, that I dress well, so I can’t really go anywhere without paying attention to my style.
Can you talk about working with your stylists, Gianna Hwang (Lee’s stylist) and Aeri Yun (Jung’s)?
JUNG We decide together, and sometimes it can be confusing because we have so many ideas, but it’s good because we always listen to each other. We share photos, like Audrey Hepburn. Or, back in the day, we used to draw and sketch ideas and share those and talk about what we like.
LEE We’ve been working together for six years now. She’s a very meticulous person; she prepares very thoroughly so that I can have multiple style options to choose from.
You both have deals with major luxury houses. Why did you decide to partner with a brand?
LEE When Gucci changed designers [naming Alessandro Michele creative director in 2015], I thought that Gucci was taking a very bold direction in terms of color and design. It came across as very new and innovative and sophisticated. I had a very good impression of the brand already, but then I started reaching for Gucci a lot. It was at that point that they reached out to me for a partnership, and I was very happy.
JUNG First of all, I knew [Louis Vuitton creative director] Nicolas Ghesquière very well from when I was a model, and I really admired his designs because I thought it was a great combination of both modernness and antiqueness, in a way. I also admire the fact that he gets a lot of inspirations from art and pays so much attention to the structure of his outfits. I really wanted to work with Louis Vuitton because of his signature design philosophy. And just because, I mean, it’s Louis Vuitton!
Any favorite pieces that you’ve worn for the brand?
LEE It’s very hard for me to choose one, but when I first became the Gucci ambassador, we had a photo shoot for the official announcement. They sent me three looks, and one of them was a black suit with fur. At first I thought it looked too fierce and it might not go well with me. But when I tried it on, it looked great and I had a lot of fun [wearing it].
JUNG I can’t choose just one, but I really like my SAG Awards dress. And I just so appreciated that [Louis Vuitton] made for me a daenggi hair ribbon, a traditional Korean hair accessory. I suggested to my stylist that we could do it, and she asked them to make the accessory and they did. That was quite an experience, to represent tradition in that way as a Louis Vuitton ambassador.
Have you ever noticed the impact something you’ve worn has had among fans or the public?
LEE I’ve been doing a lot of promotion [for Hunt], and I went on a TV show wearing a pink jacket and an ivory-colored blouse. I unbuttoned the top three buttons and wore a really bold pearl necklace. People were really interested in that and it was covered heavily by the media. I think that may be one of the most influential items I’ve worn.
I know many people list you as a style icon, but who is yours?
LEE Timothée Chalamet. He dresses in a very interesting, intriguing way.
JUNG There are so many! I really like Jennifer Aniston’s ’90s style. She’s amazing. I also like Winona Ryder and Cate Blanchett. I am always googling photos of ’90s style because I think the actresses looked so iconic in that era.
What clothing items do you have your eye on for fall?
JUNG A knitted vest, corduroy pants, loafers and neckties.
What’s your essential travel item or two?
LEE I always bring my laptop and tablet PC, because I have to write and watch films.
JUNG Buckwheat tea and Cup O’ Noodles.
Is there anything else you are into, like cars or timepieces?
JUNG A Contax T3 film camera.
LEE I like vintage items, so I have a few vintage watches and cars.
If you have a visitor to Seoul, what are some places you would take them?
JUNG Comfort Seoul, a cafe and bar with a view of the city; Namsan, a park where I like to go walking; and Nemojip Korean BBQ, a super-good Korean barbecue restaurant.
Everyone will be paying attention to what you wear at the Emmys. Have you selected your outfit already?
JUNG We don’t have it yet, but I will say that it’s going to be chic. And detailed.
LEE Since the Emmys is such a major, major awards ceremony, Alessandro Michele, Gucci’s creative director, asked me the style I wanted and he gave me a few options. I picked one out and he’s going to make a custom look for me that I will wear.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.