While most will recognise Seoul as the capital of K-pop, I learnt on a recent visit that there is more to the city than meets the ear. After two all-consuming days of business meetings about technology transfer, I was ready to hit the streets and sample (OK, consume) more of the local culture.
It is hard not to be overwhelmed by options in this megacity of 10 million-plus that also happens to have the world’s fastest internet and most engaged users. Indeed, when it comes to retail, virtual navigation is highly recommended before setting out. I say this with the wisdom that comes with hindsight.
Arriving by taxi at Dongdaemun market, recommended by my hotel concierge as a shopping experience that would make me forget all others (how could I resist?), I nearly collapsed from sensory overload. This “market” actually spans 10 city blocks and has 30,000 speciality shops and 26 malls, many open 24 hours a day. In my first hour at the market, I watched a modelling competition, perused plumbing supplies, ogled a wide range of oddly coloured contact lenses, snuggled with tiny furry animals in myriad pet stores, and sampled an array of hyper-sweet street desserts.
After this prelude, I was ready for some real shopping and zeroed in on some of the clothing stores. It had not occurred to me that being a westerner might limit my choices but it didn’t take long to realise that the Korean equivalent of a US clothing size 4 was an XXL, and not stocked by the majority of merchants. Overly polite and keen to be helpful, shop assistants kept pointing me in the direction of scarves, jewellery, baseball caps or other sizeless options, and, after umpteen such diversions, I decided to move on to a more tourist-oriented shopping area tailored to international body types in the popular Gangnam district.
After several failed attempts at hailing a cab in a near static line of traffic, I managed to find my way to the metro station, on to Line 3 and eventually, the Sinsa stop. Since most street signs are in Korean, it took a few left turns and road crossings before I stumbled into the retail area, at which point I felt obliged to enter the first clothing store I saw.
Yenissi is a tiny sliver of a store no more than 10ft wide, but the two eager shopkeepers quickly produced a half dozen items for me to try. Their conclusion: I shouldn’t wear shorts, don’t look good in light colours, and probably should avoid anything with lace. In spite of that, I purchased a blouse with guipure lace-lined shoulder cut-outs and poufy three-quarter length sleeves for the bargain price of Won64,000 (£37). They then graciously directed me to the city’s “it” street, Garosu-gil.
All hype aside, the street actually felt a few degrees cooler than the city itself (a sweltering 32C), thanks to the ubiquitous iced coffee and shade from ginkgo trees along the sidewalks. Street vendors occupy almost every nook and cranny along the footpath and hawk inexpensive on-trend jewellery, accessories and handicrafts. For Won10,000 I bought a black and multi-neon striped cotton scarf, two stackable statement rings with black plastic flowers, and a beaded macramé friendship bracelet.
The dearth of international boutiques was unique for the main shopping drag of a capital city – and exciting. While global brands were in some of the stores, the majority of retailers were local or regional in origin (alas, no English websites), which put my shopping prowess to the test once again.
In White, for example – a clothing store with an all-white interior and virtually no white clothing – I bought a black silk long-sleeved blouse emblazoned with the words “Why So Serious?” for Won80,000 and a black short-sleeved tunic with a gold mesh V-neck for Won65,000. And what can I say about Spicy Color? An honest moniker, but with most items labelled unfairly as “one size fits all”, when in fact that means “one size fits all Koreans”. Luckily, I spotted on the sale rack a black T-shirt covered in metallic paint for the bargain price of Won25,000.
Speaking of bargains, Samsung’s latest fashion venture is called 8 Seconds, and, according to a sign at the entrance aims to be “cheaper than Zara and trendier than Uniqlo”. After eight minutes waiting to get in, I gave up.
My final stop for the day was a store called Farmer, with a frilly white cupcake display in the window. Much to my surprise (but consistent with the day’s adventures), there were no baked goods inside; instead the store was filled with handmade hair accessories. I walked away with an assortment of headbands priced from Won20,000 to Won60,000, including a thin gold band with tiny metal spikes; one in neon yellow with miniature Lego people; and a black satin band with attached good luck charms. Pity I hadn’t found the charms a little sooner.