“Forty years ago we were still wearing traditional Korean clothes! These days it’s a Uniqlo T-shirt and a Chanel jacket with a Fendi bag. Seoul has become a very, very trendy city, and everything is changing so fast,” Korean fashion designer Demi Choonmoo Park tells me as we sit in her showroom in Apgujeong-dong, surrounded by racks of her abstract, architectural creations.
Park, who has fingernails painted black and sports a modified mid-period Liza Minnelli hairdo, has been a famous avant-garde designer in South Korea since the early 1990’s. It’s my first day in Seoul, and she is explaining the local mores to me, ably translated by her 30-year-old son and business associate Mo Choi, snug in a black tee and dark Tom Ford sunglasses.
They decide to take me on a quick tour of their neighborhood before we settle in for lunch at Grano, a fashionable Italian restaurant (Italian food is everywhere in Seoul, I will soon learn) with a Beverly Hills–worthy outdoor patio. In fact, Mo describes the neighborhood as Los Angeles (the terrain; the wild mix of building styles; the valet parking) meets Tokyo (long, treelined shopping boulevards; an insatiable appetite for designer labels).
First impressions, based on an evening spent staring out the 21st-floor windows of my room at the Park Hyatt, itself a design triumph by the Japanese firm Super Potato: Seoul is silvery and soaring rather than conventionally pretty. But what it lacks in a unifying aesthetic it makes up for with a spectacular commitment to what’s next in art and architecture.
Evidence that this is Seoul’s moment? Everyone from Phillip Lim to Tory Burch can’t seem to open gigantic, ambitiously designed outposts fast enough; Prada collaborated with Rem Koolhaas’s OMA to create their Prada Transformer, a 66-foot-high steel structure that drew an international coterie of gawkers at its debut in 2009; and perhaps most telling of all, Rain, the floppy-haired Korean pop phenomenon and style icon, recently topped a Time readers’ poll of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Some observers have compared Seoul’s obsession with high-end products, fueled by new money and a burgeoning upper-middle class, to the Japanese hunger for cool consumer goods, dubbing Seoul the new Tokyo. And Seoul does indeed boast a staggering 9 million–plus citizens (spread over 235 square miles), many of whom appear to be on a continual prowl for Rodarte and the Row.
But the city strikes me as also having much in common with Beijing or Shanghai, where the voracious desire for style has an almost liberating character, as if old rules about how one must dress and act are being thrown off in favor of a new way of living, a quest for self-determination cloaked in leather trousers and glitter cardigans. (This yearning for freedom, sartorial and otherwise, not incidentally can also encompass a struggle for expanded civil liberties and a larger role in society for women—but that is another, far more complicated story.)
I have long been fascinated by the far-ranging effects that a powerful, seemingly irrational love of getting and spending can have on a formerly hidebound culture, so I am deeply curious about this new, much-talked-about Seoul. I can barely contain my excitement as Mo and his mom lead me down streets bereft of pedestrians—something else in common with L.A.—but filled with shops crammed with ersatz Birkins rendered in a riot of colors. Here, stores with names like W Concept Red offer Korean interpretations of British schoolbags and chopped-off gray sweatshirts with pearl-buttoned epaulets and a street nicknamed Rodeo Drive is home to a popular hole-in-the-wall where ballet flats sell for $20 a pair.