After lunch, we head to the store-choked neighborhood of Cheongdam-dong and Boon the Shop, a Korean fashion boutique so glorious that it literally makes me catch my breath. (This sharp intake of oxygen will occur often in Seoul, where the stunning array of goods allows even the least distinguished merchandise to seem suddenly desperately desirable.)
“It’s Boon the Shop—you know—like Felix the Cat,” Kyungho Ian Kwon, the store’s creative director, explains, giving me a quick tour. Margiela and Libertine; Gareth Pugh and Vionnet—all are displayed around an atrium dripping with a vast sculpture by French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel called, suitably, Ivory Double Necklace. “This store is not about Chanel and Dior, not about what other people wear,” Kwon says, and, indeed, in an area he dubs “Confident Day Life” I see a Marni coat that is elegant despite seeming to have been made of woven straw.
Kwon, resplendent in slightly floppy Rick Owens corduroys, a Chrome Hearts chain looped around his neck, takes me on a short stroll to visit Boon the Shop Men’s Store, on the way passing the Seoul branch of Chrome Hearts, a sexy/goth extravaganza so massive and seductive that, he informs me, Japanese shoppers regularly make pilgrimages there.
In Boon’s men’s store I admire a faux-leopard backpack enhanced with mirrored tiles by MCM, the German accessories house that was recently bought by a South Korean company and is experiencing a spectacularly successful second life.
Kwon and I hop in a taxi—cabs are plentiful and cheap, a good thing in a town that is so spread out—and go to Dosan Park, a long street anchored by Hermès and Rick Owens. (Owens, for some unfathomable reason, put a larger-than-life statue of himself in his Paris store. Here, at least, it’s only a bust.) Any assumption that one Hermès is like every other is dashed when you arrive at the store’s lower level, where a mesmerizing display of archival Hermès pieces—riding crops and clocks; gleaming boots and silver cups—is arranged in Joseph Cornellesque tableaux and hidden in the windows of treelike columns. (So haunting are these arrangements that, in my fevered, jet-lagged state I will dream about them that night.) The writing on the walls may be in Korean, but the objects speak the universal language of desire.
Dosan Park is the Madison Avenue of Seoul, if that street were lined with architectural experiments. Kwon describes the shops here as being “like matchboxes thrown together.” At the Ann Demeulemeester store, for example, the exterior is covered in grass. You descend a steep stone staircase between two mossy walls to Tom Greyhound Downstairs, an underground recess awash in beaded Ashish minidresses from London and clear Perspex wing-tip shoes. At Daily Projects, a Ping-Pong table greets you at the entrance (which is on the second floor); inside, there are purses shaped like giant silver lips.
At this point, even the least astute shopper will have noticed that Korean fashion lovershave an obsession with the finest and most rarefied of European and American labels. But did you really travel all this way to purchase Céline and Chloé at even higher prices than in the United States, albeit displayed to magnificent effect?
In search of homegrown brands, I head for Garosugil, which Kwon assures me is delightfully trendy and full of local boutiques. As with every other destination I will seek out during my time in Seoul, I arrive by car (personally, I am not inclined to master the metro on such a short trip, though it is by reputation excellent) and have to hand the taxi driver a slip of paper with my destination written on it in Korean. This system has distinct drawbacks: if you are headed for, say, the Hyundai department store and decide halfway there that you’d rather hit Supernormal, you have no way of conveying that fact to the driver.