A Guide to Shopping in Korea

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Over the past decade, Korea’s shopping scene has become an undeniable powerhouse in the Asian market. Seoul’s Myeongdong is a perfect illustration of Korea’s flourishing retail economy. However, shopping in Seoul can be a much richer experience than if you venture out of Myeongdong into other areas of the city and even the country. Much like its residents, Korea has a great deal of character, and each of its cities’ neighborhoods has its own distinct personality and flare. So, this month we’re taking you with us on a stroll through some of Korea’s toniest shopping regions.

Garosugil—Yuppie Trendsetters and Bohemians

If Carrie Bradshaw had lived in Seoul, she would have undoubtedly been the poster child of Garosugil. This tree-lined promenade speaks to yuppies and bohemians with a bit of cash to throw around. Celebrity sightings aren’t uncommon in this area; in fact, yours truly spotted Dakota and Elle Fanning gallivanting down the street last winter.

People shopping here crave eclectic wares that showcase their knowledge of haute couture trends rather than their desire for brand names. However, that’s becoming less true now that “fast fashion” houses, Zara, Forever 21, and H&M, have stationed themselves here. Regardless, “You can trust that the shops’ buyers have done their homework, “says DJ Jenny Jo, host of Arirang Radio’s Sunnyside Up.

“It’s the perfect place to get a glimpse of what is or will be hot in fashion. You’ll catch fashion forward ladies and gents as well as wannabe fashionistas who come out just to be a part of the crowd and see what they should be wearing.”  So, even if you aren’t here to shop, you can still get inspired by the trendsetters and entertained by the more ridiculous get-ups. People often report that Garosugil has a transporting effect. “It feels like a Korean version of a small street of stores in Europe, and it reminds me of my days traveling in Italy and Greece,” says Jo.

An example of Garosugil’s niche aesthetic is Kim’s Boutique, a wholesaler and retailer of haute hippie styles designed in house by the brand’s owner.  The jumpsuits and sundresses are artistic with rich, nostalgic colors and retro-glam drop prints.

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A frequent shopper of the area, Jo has several recommendations of her own. “I can always count on walking out of MAGMAG with at least one fashion goodie. Spicy Color is always a fun place to pick up something different and funky, and Flow is great for more Euro-style items.”

Apgujeong and Cheongdam—Swanky Professionals and Sophisticated Jet-Setters

There is no shortage of designer goods in Apgujeong and Cheongdam, so bring your wallet. In fact, bring one month’s rent.

Although relatively close in proximity, Apgujeong is slightly different from its sister district, Cheongdam, in that it is home to more specialty shops and department stores. For example, there’s the pearly-scaled Galleria, arguably Apgujeong’s most identifiable department store. Outside, little boutiques are interspersed around the artery known as Rodeo Street, titled after Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills though comparing the two is a bit of a stretch.

In Cheongdam, shoppers will see a sprinkling of major Korean brands like Codes Combine alongside international design houses like Zegna, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, and Isabelle Marant. The list doesn’t stop there as more and more high-end retailers open up shop in the area. This month alone, a new Chloé will open in Cheongdam just weeks before the unveiling of Korea’s own Abercrombie & Fitch – not exactly designer but appropriate for the surroundings.

Shopping consultant Todd Sample, recently featured in ELLE Korea’s “Gentleman’s Closet,” believes one of the key benefits of shopping in the area is its concentration of quality menswear stores. Some of his favorite places to shop include shoemakers Zimmermann & Kim, whose shoes are impeccably handmade, and custom-suit tailor Lussosso, whose craftsmanship always exceeds Sample’s expectations. He also encourages men to check out Berluti, where he says “the shoes resemble sculptures which from one angle look like they’re made from wood while from another angle seem to be sculpted from caramel.”

Of the area, Sample maintains, “The number of brick and mortar shops devoted to hip off-the-rack clothing, shoes, and accessories for men has increased significantly in recent years. If cash is no object, then I would recommend Boon the Shop, Galleria East Department Store, 10 Corso Como, or one of the luxury brand flagship stores which line the neighborhood’s Rodeo Street.”

Sample acknowledges that this neighborhood and the word “deal” don’t go together. Nevertheless, he recommends seeking out “family sales,” named for what was originally intended for family members of employees who were privy to markdowns on select items before the general public.  Nowadays, “family sales” have widened their berth to include those in-the-know through store memberships. High-end brands use these sales to move the previous season’s product as quickly as possible; thus, customers may find better prices.

Dongdaemun—Creative DIYers and Night Owls

Dongdaemun packs a one-two punch because the district is separated into two divisions with two respective sets of hours. In the first section, tourists and everyday customers can get in their retail therapy between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5 a.m. at department stores like Migliore, Doota, Hello apM, Good Morning City, and Lotte’s new Fitin.

Right across the street in the second area, vendors sell in bulk to buyers from all around Asia who descend upon the district at night to haggle for wholesale items.  The hours of the second market, 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., are meant to juxtapose those of the first division. As the sun goes down, the lights come on, and the Dongdaemun Night Market emerges. Because it is a wholesale market, some vendors frown upon selling individual pieces.

Still, it’s a misconception that shopping in wholesale area of Dongdaemun is stressful and difficult, and there are some tips to consider. First, visit Dongdaemun midweek to beat the crowds and bargain for the best prices. Secondly, keep an eye out for specific vendors. If the vendor uses only swatches in his display, then he only sells bulk amounts for wholesale. On the other hand, if a vendor has large bolts of fabric in view, he will likely sell you anything you need. Another slightly theatrical tip is to pretend you’re a buyer purchasing samples. It helps if you dress the part and have one friend act like he or she is your interpreter. A less ballsy option is to peruse the sale racks outside each wholesaler’s kiosk. These pieces are stragglers from previous seasons and are always available for purchase individually. Last, but not least, simply being considerate with the vendors can go a long way.

Ewha Women’s University—Cutesy, Preppy Students and Bargain Hunters

Like Hongdae, the lively shopping scene around Ewha Women’s University relies heavily on its proximity to the school. Ewha’s Fashion Street is dense with retail and equally packed with female students. You’ll find an assortment of studious yet feminine looks that range from preppy and casual to chic and saucy.

In stores with less brand identity, you can find bargain bins stocked with “made in China” bags and accessories for as low as 5,000 to 10,000 won. At Tom’s Project, ladies can buy exclusive looks in Fall 2013’s hot colors like oxblood, forest green, and royal blue.

Most of the goods in Ewha are geared towards budget-minded women, but there are a couple secluded patches of stores where men can find menswear vendors. It’s worth adding that the famous Ahyeon-dong Wedding Street is within walking distance to Ewha. This is the place to go for custom-made wedding gowns for brides-to-be. Being so close to Ewha means a student could potentially move seamlessly from one stage of her life to another without having to travel too far.

Hongdae—Hipsters and Clubbers

Hongdae is a special blend of people, mostly students. The area is known for its many restaurants, shops, and clubs that serve to complement Hongik University’s young, artsy persona.

Hongdae’s target-demographic remains the young and hip Instagram generation – those snapping vintage-filtered photos while wearing the skinniest of skinny jeans.

For one-stop exposure to the urban Hongdae look, head to Åland, Hongdae’s multi-level hipster headquarters. Another popular location is the Hongdae branch of Style Nanda, where women can find offbeat yet trendy clothes, accessories, cosmetics, and more. But in general, Hongdae’s shopping scene is dominated by boutiques and small retailers like hat vendor A to Z.

As a person who eschews most retail norms by designing and making most of her own clothing, former Project Runway Korea All-Star contestant Ara Jo knows a thing or two about what a difficult challenge it can be finding unique clothing in Korea. She points to Hongdae as a place that is young and fresh with tucked-from-view shops and vintage stores.

“I sometimes stop by a vintage shop called TLAK,” she says. “Another favorite of mine is MIN. You can find it on the main road. From the outside it seems like just another punk-themed shop, but once you enter this tiny treasure, you’ll be amazed.”

Clubbing is a major draw in Hongdae. Accordingly, club-goers can pick up pieces to complete their nightlife ensemble. For example, closer to the university, ladies getting ready for a night out can stop to swap out their flats for some stylish pumps at STIU’s flagship store.

Jo explains that people are willing to dress more expressively in Hongdae because of the area’s many dance clubs. She sums it all up in one word, “Music!”

“From underground [artists] to professionals, rock to hip-hop, musicians represent themselves [through their elaborate styles]. I believe this affects people who come to Hongdae. That is why it is so different [from other shopping locations in Seoul].”

“If you want easy, one-stop shopping, go to Myeongdong. But if you are in love with finding [unexpected] fashions, Hongdae is for you.”


Busan Centum City

Of course, not all of the shopping in Korea takes place in Seoul.

Busan’s Shinsegae Centum City holds the Guinness World Record for being the biggest department store in the world. In this massive commercial compound, shoppers are given more than just an abundance of options for clothes shopping. Centum City comes fully equipped with its own water park, ice skating rink, and driving range. In addition, shoppers can enjoy various dinner theater shows or revel in the relaxation of Centum City’s deluxe hot springs after a day of making big purchases.

Incheon’s Sinpo-dong

Incheon’s Sinpo Fashion and Culture Street in Sinpo-dong is full of shopping energy and vitality. This neighborhood is home to nearly one hundred stores dedicated to men’s and women’s professional and casual wear as well as sporting goods, bargain items, and outdoor products.

It is an appealing and convenient shopping environment for travelers visiting the Incheon Port, so stores are friendly towards foreigners. In view of that, shoppers can expect to find items priced from low to high to extravagantly high depending on the product. In terms of products, prices, and crowds, this is somewhat comparable to Seoul’s Myeongdong and Namdaemun Market.

While visiting Sinpo Fashion and Culture Street, shoppers can get a taste of tradition at the nearby Sinpo International Market. Every day, market vendors whip up traditional Korean street food dishes specific to the region like steamed mandu that comes in five colors or the legendary Sinpo-style dakkangjung, meaning sweet and sour fried chicken.
For more information on the stores mentioned in this article, visit our website,10mag.com, for expanded content and a complete directory.