Bask in aespa's Digital Glow

Bask in aespa's Digital Glow

Story by Crystal Bell / Photography by Mok Jungwook / Makeup by Jo Eun Bee / Hair by Yoon Seo Ha / Digital garments by The Dematerialised

Step into aespa’s world and you’ll find yourself in a dimension beyond reality. Here in this pixelated wilderness, extraterrestrial flowers bloom in darkness and danger serpentines through the bush. There are no rules, no limits — just stars that plaster celestial mosaics in aubergine skies, illuminating the breadth of digital expanse.

This is Kwangya, an intermediary metaverse at the center of aespa’s story. While it’s not unusual for K-pop acts to spawn entire universes and convoluted narratives, aespa’s concept is as real as it is fantastical. As AI chatbots continue to incite intrigue and anxiety in the public consciousness, and with people spending more time on their phones than ever in an endless loop of scrolling and liking, Kwangya begins to look less like an imaginary realm and more like an allegory for the virtual vastness of the internet. Online, anything is possible; it’s a place where you can exist outside of the confines of the real world, for better or worse.

This is what makes aespa so singular, leader KARINA tells PAPER. They exist as both real-life idols and cyber-punk heroines with digital avatars algorithmically created from their data. For the purpose of this call, I’m talking to KARINA, GISELLE, WINTER and NINGNING, international pop phenoms and million-sellers; somewhere across time and space, their virtual personae — æ-KARINA, æ-WINTER, æ-GISELLE and æ-NINGNING — are wandering Kwangya. KARINA describes their æ members (pronounced like "eye") as their best friends, culled from their online identities and personal data. "They’re not our identical copies," she explains over Zoom, via an interpreter. "But they’re very similar to us."

As their online extensions, the æs appear alongside aespa in music videos, promotional advertisements and more. Yet, beyond the mythology (of which there are entire primers you can read to further grasp the lingo), the women of aespa are more than just pixels on a screen. Truthfully, I can't even see them. They're pointedly camera-off for this interview, deep in preparation for their very first concert, SYNK: Hyper Line — a two-night stint at Seoul's Jamsil Arena. In a few days, WINTER will shock the on- and offline crowd with her electrifying guitar riffs; NINGNING will twerk across the stage; KARINA and GISELLE will debut new solo material; and they'll all get weepy when their fans softly serenade them.

Digital garments: The Dematerialised

But right now it's still a hypothetical — a dream they've been working toward since they were trainees under SM Entertainment. Their first impressions of one another are still as vivid as the day they met: KARINA, tall and mysterious; GISELLE, charming and feminine; WINTER, small and shy; and NINGNING, quirky and bubbly. The chemistry was instant, having quickly bonded over the uncertainty of their situation.

The standard idol trainee system is a notoriously difficult crash-course in singing, dancing, rapping and social media etiquette. It's long nights and early mornings, the kind of grind that makes you question how much you really want it. Surviving that makes every other challenge look small by comparison. "As we were preparing for the concert, I realized that the training period was a very significant and meaningful part of my life," NINGNING says. Youngest member NINGNING trained for five years before debuting with aespa in November 2020. "It's an opportunity for artists to grow individually as artists, where they work on their skills and develop certain assets," she says.

"Because every idol goes through this training period before they debut, this is what makes K-pop artists so skillful," KARINA says. She's often called an all-rounder, or an idol who's proficient across all disciplines, from rapping to singing to standing out in a crowd. "I think this is why K-pop is such a phenomenon."

They were all drawn to the entertainment industry at an early age. GISELLE was born in Seoul and attended international school in Tokyo, where she excelled in the arts. "That was the only thing I enjoyed doing in school," the 22-year-old metropolitan says. She grew up speaking Japanese, Korean and English, and her interest in languages led to her fondness for polyglot wordplay. After joining SM as a trainee, she developed her skills as a rapper and lyricist. Similarly, NINGNING always knew she wanted to perform. She competed in the second season of China's Got Talent at eight years old before becoming part of SM's pre-debut trainee team called SM Rookies a few years later. As a magnetic vocal prodigy, she "loved being on stage and interacting with the audience," the 20-year-old recalls. "The thrill of being on stage and doing what I like in front of a crowd is what motivated me to become an idol." The powerhouse vocalist sees this part of her career as a stepping stone to standing on even bigger stages. "When you're a K-pop idol, you definitely have a lot of opportunities to perform."

Meanwhile, a kindergarten crush inspired WINTER to consider fame. "I grew up watching a lot of television," the 22-year-old says. "And I had a huge crush on the Korean actor Kwon Sang Woo. I told my mom that I wanted to marry him; she insisted that you have to become a celebrity if you want to marry another celebrity, so that really motivated me. I've also always been fascinated by people on stage, so eventually I realized I wanted to be there as well." WINTER's piercing vocals and cold expressions make her fascinating to watch. Like the title of their latest song, she can be both "Salty & Sweet."

KARINA played three instruments in middle school: Piano, guitar and flute. She always loved music, but didn't think of it as anything more until she saw a televised performance of Girls' Generation's "Into the New World" in 2007. (And in a full-circle moment, she now performs alongside Girls' Generation members Taeyeon and Hyoyeon as a part of SM's rotational girl group, Girls on Top, with WINTER.) That image, of nine young women spinning and kicking in unison on stage, redefined how she saw idols. "When I think of the word 'idol,' I think of the verb 'idolize,'" the 22-year-old dancer says. "When you idolize someone, you look up to them and you're often inspired, or you look up to them out of admiration." Yet, that's just what you see on the surface.

If she were to close her eyes and think of the word idol, a galaxy would appear inside her eyelids. The first picture she'd conjure up is a star. It twinkles and gleams, but you can never get close enough to see it for what it really is: a fiery orb of gas and space dust suspended in a distant void — too many lightyears away to actually perceive. "When you think of a star, which is what idols are often called, they shine and sparkle," she says. "They can be cold and also hot. There's an allure, but also a distance. So an idol is someone who expresses all of those emotions, good and bad and happy and sad. To the fans, we sparkle, but we're not always as bright as we seem to be."

Celebrity is, in part, a beautiful illusion. Putting on a persona is part of the job. It's also the reality of being online in the 21st century, where we spend four to five hours a day on our devices compartmentalizing our personalities between platforms. They've hinted at this in their music. Their English single "Life's Too Short," which they debuted at Coachella in 2022, grapples with social media toxicity. "Some peoplе are so mean, all behind a phone screen," GISELLE sings, "when we're tryna live our lives." It's a rare moment of vulnerability from a group known for their fierce anthems and hyper-confidence.

In a little over two years, aespa has become one of the leading girl groups of their generation. Their sinuous hit single "Next Level" topped the charts in South Korea in 2021 and catapulated them to global fame. Indicative of the group's eclectic sound, "Next Level" fused elements of electronic music and funk, and the song became so popular, it was played in noraebangs and wedding halls across the country. Its follow-up, the no. 1 single "Savage," cemented them as unstoppable, powered by an addictive refrain, hyperpop dance break and WINTER's now-iconic "oh my gosh, don't you know I'm a savage?" Their Savage EP sold more than 1.42 million units in its first week alone. They bested their own record with 2022's Girls, which cracked the Billboard 200 and delivered "Illusion," a potent pre-release track that builds on the group's bold sonic identity and penchant for sticky, hypnotic hooks.

Their success transcends the charts. Their faces are all over sheet masks, makeup products, outerwear, fine jewelry, sneakers, finance apps and they're global ambassadors for luxury fashion house Givenchy. Last fall, they attended Paris Fashion Week on behalf of the brand. For GISELLE, whose love of fashion started when she was a headstrong toddler who couldn't be told what to wear, it was a pinch-me moment. She describes the "surreal" experience as a turning point. "I saw so many fans who didn't share the same culture and the same language show their love and support for us," she says. "It made me feel really grateful and happy. There were so many international fans who showed up, and that's when I realized, Wow, our platform and our identity is a lot bigger than I expected.”

"That's what motivates us to work really hard at what we do because someone else can look at us and build their dream around us," KARINA adds. "We all grew up as fans of other artists, so we know what it's like."

That relationship between an artist and their fans is unlike any other bond. It's impenetrable and all-consuming, prevailing across both real and virtual lines. With their new digital capsule collection — a partnership among luxury e-commerce platform The Dematerialised, PAPER, SM Entertainment and Warner Music Group — aespa is expanding their reach even further into the future frontier of fashion. When it comes to digital fashion, the landscape is its own boundless Kwangya, and it's radicalizing how people interact with their clothes. In the metaverse, designs aren't limited by fabrics and physics. You can express yourself however you want.

So aespa co-designed a line of looks, accessories and æ-pets inspired by their own personal tastes, and their fans will soon be able to make them part of their own digital collection.

"It was really fun being able to have that open creativity and experimenting with different textures and colors and designs that you normally wouldn't be able to apply to actual clothing and fabric," KARINA says. "These are pieces we normally wouldn't be able to wear in the real world." She co-designed an extravagant earpiece, something that wouldn't normally fit on her "really small" ears. WINTER's futuristic hair clips are as delicate and deadly as her image. She calls them bold and experimental, slightly out of her personal comfort zone. GISELLE's choker necklace combines angel wings and devil horns. "I like that they're the same shape drawn from different perspectives," she says. "I don't normally wear necklaces because they can feel uncomfortable, but I think this is a very cute accessory," she adds with a laugh. NINGNING's tie taps into her personal love of Y2K fashion. (She was wearing butterflies before they came back into style.) "I wanted to reinterpret a tie in a metaverse way," she says. "So the texture and the material itself is very new and something that you can only try in the digital world. I wanted to make it really fun and girly by adding a butterfly charm, which represents my identity."

KARINA hopes this collaboration inspires their fans to curate their own style in the metaverse. "We learned a lot about digital fashion and the virtual world, which is something that we're constantly exploring as a group," she explains. "Although it's not a super conventional form of fashion that everyone is familiar with, this project is a good opportunity for our fans to learn more about digital fashion and perhaps have the opportunity to try it themselves and create their own designs."

The metaverse, like aespa's intradimensional Kwangya, can be difficult to fully grasp. It's more of an experience than a tangible reality — a spectacle so far removed from our mundane existence that it might as well be fodder for one of NINGNING's favorite fairy tales or the star in KARINA's sky unbound by gravity. On Earth, we have limits. That’s what aespa is here to challenge. Because the internet may be an infinite wonder where data and possibility roam freely, but the real world is full of potential. “There's a lot more we're excited to show,” GISELLE says of aespa’s next chapter. All we can do is log on and stand in awe of their glow.

Today, Warner Records’ first K-pop act aespa, PAPER, The Dematerialised, SM Entertainment and Warner Music Group have released their digital capsule collection, alongside the unveiling of their first PAPER cover. The collection is available at The digital capsule collection co-designed by aespa, PAPER and The Dematerialised includes three tiers of products. Items from the digital capsule collection are available for purchase via credit card or cryptocurrency payments.

The most exclusive pieces from the collection are four, one-of-a-kind æ-fits. Each æ-fit is designed around the members of aespa — KARINA, WINTER, GISELLE and NINGNING — and worn by each member on the five PAPER covers rolling out this week. Each æ-fit comes with a ticket to an aespa concert, exclusive PAPER digital cover, bespoke virtual dressings inclusive of an AR filter and additional perks from DMAT. There is only one of each design and four designs in total, each priced at 2,000 EUR.


The next tier of the virtual collection consists of four æ-accessories. Created around each aespa members’ signature symbols, the individual æ-accessories are an anti-gravity collection of powerful bijouterie. All æ-accessories come with an AR filter to wear the piece, an exclusive PAPER digital cover and additional perks from DMAT. There is a supply of 200 for each accessory and each is priced at 100 EUR.


The widest available component to the digital capsule collection are unique generative æ-pets. Inspired by the first alien featured in the 1998 “Dreams Come True” music video by S.E.S. and reimagined by aespa, each æ-pet is uniquely generated by AI algorithm. Owners of the æ-pets can use them as a profile picture, play with their unique filter on TikTok and Instagram, and share their special powers online. These one-of-a-kind friends are here to make your metaverse journey extra mægical. There are 10,000 unique generative æ-pets, each priced at 25 EUR.


The project is minted on the Polygon blockchain, a leading carbon-neutral Layer-2 Ethereum scaling platform. Polygon’s tools ensure that aespa, PAPER and The Dematerialised’s digital capsule collection is as sustainable, inclusive, and accessible as possible. More information on Polygon’s sustainability efforts, including their carbon-negative footprint, can be found here.

Photography: Mok Jungwook
Style and visual direction: Kim Wook
Makeup: Jo Eun Bee
Hair: Yoon Seo Ha

Digital capsule collection production: The Dematerialised
DEMAT founders: Marjorie Hernandez and Karinna Grant
CGI and cover design: William Stapel
Garments and æ-pet design: Carola Dixon
Garment design: Jiyoon Myung and Joyxxi
3D accessories and AR: Romain Gauthier
AR: Schirin Negahbani
Head of production: Veselina Tsankova
Product manager: Alexandra Ilg
Head of partnerships: Gila Bonakdar
Head of marketing: Ann-Britt Dittmar

Editor-in-chief: Justin Moran

aespa management: Choi Seongwoo, Park Sungjun
aespa creative direction: Park Junyoung, Kim Hyunwoo, Mo Nari, Jo Woocheol, Son Saerom and Kim Wook
aespa IP business management: Park Seolah, Chun Jihong and Gil Minhyeong