If you live in Asia you will be familiar with Korea’s cultural explosion, or Hallyu (the Korean Wave), outside of its borders. From the K-Pop craze to the cosmetics revolution and even the Korean BBQ meals so common of main Asian cities, everybody wants to imitate the Koreans. On TV, several programs try to teach the audience how to be more “Korean” through brighter skin, adjusted looks (aka cosmetic surgery or light treatments) or having the right manners.But it is not just their looks which most Asians are after but also their lifestyle brands, the shopping in Seoul, the way of life and the work hard/play hard mentality. Is the hype true? A short stay in the capital reveals why Seoul is the best shopping destination in Asia bar none.
1. 24hr shopping malls are mecca for any shopper
Shop till you drop has a new meaning in Seoul. The city enjoys night shopping in the Dongdaemun area where art and fashion are intertwined. More than 10 shopping malls with over 5,000 shops are open in the evening until late, or shall we say early, morning hours for shoppers to indulge their whims, and they are full. At 2am the alleys are still packed with Koreans of all ages fulfilling their shopping needs, stopping for some refreshments and the pervasive shaved ice. From clothing to accessories everything can be found in this shopper’s paradise.
Lotte, is one of the many Department Stores in Dongdaemun. You could spend all night there, but most likely you will drop in one of the city’s popular relaxation night spots for a hard earned massage and some sauna or steam bath in the wee hours joining the hordes of teenagers looking for some tranquility and “couple’s” time.
During the day, many wander the cute and European style streets of some of the other shopping areas. The famous Itaewon is home to many expats and busy night life, Myeongdong’s packed pedestrian streets or Garosugil’s hipster retro stores.
2. Wholesale malls are easily accessible
And if the many of Dongdaemun malls are not enough to satiate your hunger for maxing out your credit card, the same area shares the space with another shopper’s mecca, this time, for wholesalers. The malls are open to the general public although you may want to come with a few friends as you are likely to be asked for a bulk purchase, meaning 2-3 pieces. Savings are significant and totally worth the trip. The malls look much like the regular ones only they are more packed and can be a tad overwhelming to the inexperienced shopper. So have a hearty meal before tackling this challenge.
3. Affordable prices with high quality
Apart from being able to shop all day long, Seoul is unbeatable for good value. Prices are reasonable for the latest trends in fashion. What you will find in the high streets stores in town can be found in Dongdaemun at a lower price, if you can brave the craze. So look for the clothing that you like from the nicer, calmer and more stylish shops in town and then hunt the pieces down in Dongdaemun for that soul soothing discount. Totally worth the endless walking through the maze-like aisles when you snatch your lovely top 50% off the first price you saw. There is no trick. The high-street stores also source their goods from the large malls so you are paying a premium for shopping in the more pleasant and fashionable retail spaces. Essentially you pay a premium for a better retail experience.
You should also look out for major discounts at a hidden gem known Munjeong Rodeo Street, not to be confused with the high-end Apgujeong Rodeo Street. A few minutes away from the 123 Building by bus, this street has all the high end brands with massive discounts. And the best part, it is like a tumbleweed town compared to the throbbing hustle and bustle of Dongdaemun and Myeongdong. While this street and its back alleys are mainly focused on sporting goods and hiking gear, you will also find names like Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren and Guess – all 100% real.
4. Trend setting
To make things even better, Koreans not only follow the latest trends but they also set them. Looking for that catwalk look? You will find it there. Many of Asia’s best designers and trend setters are based, come from Seoul or are available in the stores giving the city a fashion renaissance. There is a historical reason for this. Korea ranks 4th in the world for textile production and used to be a major super power in the industry in the 70s. Today, it is no surprise that the city still plays a strong role in the fashion industry. Look out for fashion brands such as Low Classics. If what you are looking for is to splash on that high-end bag, know that Louis Vuitton has its only airport store in Seoul. Or you could hit the boutique style clothing stores of student area Hongdae (Hongik University) or waffle-haven Samcheong-dong for the latest trends.
5. Pervasive online shopping culture
Walking around the up and coming neighborhoods you are sure to come across models and photographers taking shots for online fashion stores. In the early mornings, when the high street areas, lined with trees, are still quiet and the sun is illuminating the beautiful backdrop of Seoul’s streets providing the perfect spot for those shots. Many stores act as both showroom and collection points for some of the online brands but you are likely to find them empty with staff going about the administrative tasks of an online business less mindful of the odd sale they might make on the customer facing store.
6. Beautiful retail experience
Once you drift away from the malls and into the cosier shopping areas, you will step into a well-thought out perfectly designed retail experience. Shops are airy, clean, pretty and welcoming. Store fronts and display areas are cleverly designed, warm and stylish. Stores have their own personality and they invite you with their sometimes quirky or sometimes modern look and feel. There is no doubt that a lot of thinking and effort has been put into having the right retail design and packaging. It is the ultimate expression of the brand and Koreans put a lot of emphasis on this. Shops feel unique. Brands matter. Appearances are important.
You will also find that the service, even at smaller stores, is amazingly on point. Whether you walk into Uniqlo and hear the staff shouting their welcomes or you are approached by a genius at Apple, you will find the staff always busy, yet compulsively helpful. There may be an English barrier at times, which produces some shy employees, but they will still go out of their way to help you in fractured sentences and hand gestures.
7. Everything is unisex
You may be forgiven for being confused with the sizes, designs or the organization in some stores. Men and women apparel and accessories are mixed up. Sometimes you are not sure if a bracelet is for men or for women and frankly, in Korea, it does not matter. In the street, the fashion styles are interchangeable and women wear chunky military shoes as much as men wear hats and girlish tight pants or accessories. Self-expression knows no gender in Seoul and you won’t be judged for trying on that undefined bracelet you are not sure is meant to be for you.