Crowds pass under Myeong-Dong’s neon lights. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Thanks to K-Pop (“Gangnam Style,” anyone?), South Korea is quickly becoming a major arbiter of cool and style. The epicenter of that cool is in their capital, Seoul.
The Seoul “look” features a long-sleeved top, often with feminine touches like cute prints, delicate collars, or touches of lace. And because this is a year-round style rule, Seoul is the place to find blouses in light and heavy fabrics alike and a destination to stock up on transitional day-to-night pieces like silky tuxedo-style blazers.
There are several neighborhoods where you can experience Seoul street style in all its glory. Gangnam – yep, the same neighborhood from the PSY song – is the Beverly Hills of Korea, with plastic surgeons’ offices and Louis Vuitton stores on practically every corner.
Strolling the streets of Gangnam. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Expect super high heels and plenty of conspicuous designer labels on display. If you came to Seoul hoping to shop your heart out, this is the place to do major wallet damage – hit Chanel, Gucci, Prada, and all the other top European fashion houses. Keep in mind, though, that the prices are about the same here as they are at any other Chanel anywhere in the world. Even if the exchange rate works out for you, Koreans are luxury lovers and brands aren’t going to give them a break on prices.
If it’s a mall you’re after, there are several good ones in Seoul, but the most iconic one is Shinsegae, whose name means “New World.” This seven-floor mall has a killer food court and grocery store on the first floor, so gear up for shopping by trying some snacks. If you come later at night – usually after the dinner rush – many of the food court stalls sell their day-of food for half price, and they’ll wrap it to go.
Shinsegae carries plenty of recognizable U.S. and European brands like Michael Kors and Dolce & Gabbana, but since you’re in Korea you should check out the homegrown talent. Clothes that don’t fit the Korean ideal – sleeveless or revealing too much skin on top – will often be on clearance, meaning there are good bargains to be had, which is good since Shinsegae is on the pricier side (think more Barney’s than Nordstrom). Each floor has areas to sit and relax – true to the cliché, they’re usually full of husbands who look bored, but you should be able to pop into a seat and relax in between shopping sprees without anyone bothering you, and there are pretty views of chandeliers and other décor.
If you want a more personalized, intimate buying experience, try one of Seoul’s less-traveled dongs (neighborhoods). Insadong, an area long revered for its artisans and craftspeople, is still a great place to pick up things like tea sets, jewelry boxes, and art supplies. Simply walk along the main Insadong-gil and check out the many small booths and stores along the way. The three-story Ssamzigil store is a collection of stores that sell original art from native Korean artists, including modern clothing inspired by the traditional hanbok and some of the calligraphy that the area has been known for since the days of the Joseon kings. It also has a great roof deck where you can have some noodles or an ice cream while looking out over the neighborhood. Even if shopping’s not on your mind, the building itself – with sloping ramps instead of stairs and a theater called the Living Museum. – is worth visiting.
The narrow streets of Samcheong-Dong. (Photo: Lilit Marcus)
Lovers of traditional Korean culture should also head to Samcheong-Dong. This scenic neighborhood in Seoul houses the onetime village of Bokchon, where the Joseon dynasty housed their personal servants. Many of Samcheong’s traditional hanok houses have been restored to their original condition and are open during the day for visitors who want to get a sense of what life was like in imperial Korea. Samcheong is famous amoung Koreans for its accessories shops, so if you want handbags and fun inexpensive jewelry this is a great place to begin. The National Folk Art Museum is also here, meaning you can get a fair amount of both the modern and the historic. And, if all the walking up and down the Samcheong-gil hill is starting to wear you out, the neighborhood is also famous for its many hip coffee shops.
Head south on the #3 subway line to visit Sinsa-dong, a neighborhood bursting with hip young Koreans. Famed for the fragrant ginseng trees that line the main street of Garugo-sil, this neighborhood offers cool boutiques, trendy bars, and bespoke clothing stores. Some trendy young Western brands like Paul Smith are here, but you should also be on the lookout for local Korean shops like Around The Corner, where you can pick up everything from cartoon-printed stationery to European-style coffee. If you have friends back home you’d like to pick up souvenirs for, Garugo-sil is a great place since you can find cute one-off items (alarm clocks in animal shapes, cutesy kitchenware, and brightly colored school supplies).
For a more budget shopping experience, hit the trendy Myeongdong district. You can start shopping without even going above ground, as the subway station is packed with closet-size boutiques and beauty counters. But once you surface, be ready to empty your wallet. The streets of Myeongdong are jam-packed with Western chains like Forever 21 and H&M as well as homegrown ones. All you need to know if you get lost is that the Korean word for street is “gil.” Say “Myeongdong-gil” and any local should be able to point you in the right direction.
You can’t talk about Korean style without mentioning beauty, though, and Myeongdong is a product junkie’s paradise. Korean girls take great care of their skin, and the beauty industry is booming – the country now officially holds more beauty-related patents than France. Some of the industry’s most popular products, like BB cream, started out in Korea before catching on in the rest of the world. The “look” is neutral eyes and bold lips in colors like coral and hot pink, plus a hint of blush.
But underneath it all, the #1 focus is skincare – Koreans buy plenty of sunscreen and use BB creams to even out their complexions for a simple, streamlined look. You also can’t visit Seoul and not experiment with sampling the disposable paper masks. Korean chains like The Face Shop and Holika Holika sell these masks by the boxful, and there’s almost always a 2-for-1 deal or a gift with purchase. Almost every mask will have at least a little English writing on it so that you can tell what each mask focuses on – redness, dryness, acne, dark circles, etc. And obsessing about beauty isn’t only something women do. There’s a large demand for men’s products in Korea, and several young male K-Pop stars have endorsement deals with skincare brands.
Adorable beauty products line the shelves of shops in Myeongong. (Photo: Lilit Marcus)
If beauty’s your thing, you’re in luck here in Myeongong. Pick up boxes of paper masks (they usually come in packs of 5 or 10), lip glosses shaped like cupcakes, and tiny bottles of hand lotion shaped like penguins or panda bears. If you’re on the lighter side of the skin spectrum, this is the place to get BB cream, which will probably have a higher SPF than any of the BBs made by American brands. Many of the store employees will speak at least some English and will be willing to throw in freebies in order to make their sale and keep you from comparison-shopping at another store down the street. If you buy a box of face masks, expect them to throw in one or two more at the register. And even if it’s not advertised, there’s always a convenient 2-for-1 or 3-for-2 deal popping out of nowhere if you really look like you might walk out.
For a truly Korean bargain-shopping experience, check out the Gwangjang Market in the central Jongno neighborhood. It’s known as a “bridal market,” since it’s customary in Korea for the groom to handle the house and the bride to be responsible for furnishings and stuff like sheets and towels. Inside Gwangjang, you’ll see plenty of housewares, but you’ll also find clothes, shoes, and traditional Korean dresses known as hanbok – dresses with fitted tops, full skirts, and a large bow around the waist. Be prepared to negotiate. You can finish off your afternoon of bargain-hunting with snacks from the many food stalls, which include everything from noodle soup to kimbaps, the Korean version of a California roll (no cream cheese). If you’ve been lusting after traditional Korean dresses and slippers, this is the best place to get them – few foreigners come here, so you’ll get a much better deal than you would at an airport shop. Just make sure you bring cash, since this place is not always credit card-friendly, especially when the card is from outside of the country. The sheets, towels, and linens are lovely, but unless you see something truly remarkable or unusual, you can get that stuff back home.