Because Kwon has insisted that everyone on Garosugil will speak English (“You’ll be fine!” he says), I am surprised by what I find. Perhaps something about me is deeply intimidating, but for whatever reason, no one in any shop will utter a word of my native tongue, and in some places they even refuse to hand over a business card. This total lack of communication does not prevent me from enjoying Garosugil, a fun area of outdoor cafés, vintage shops, and street vendors selling everything from hippie jewelry to pastel-colored soaps shaped like bunnies.
No one speaks a drop of English at the chic shirt shop Victoria Bay, despite the fact that scrawled on the wall is: “In the traditional sewing technique of dress shirts we are making for women, we are doing our best to make the best shirts.” And indeed the blouses, soft and floppy and with interesting twists and details, are lovely. At Les Choix de Caramel there are champagne-colored tanks with beaded necklines; at Mogool millinery, a blue-and-white-dotted hat, halfway between an oversize baseball cap and a cloche, is around $130. Behind a restaurant courtyard I discover the resale shop ILMO, where that rarest of birds, Azzedine Alaïa on sale, is spotted—it’s not Korean, but at 50 percent off, a sleeveless maroon skating dress is too good to pass up. (Or is it? Alas, it is still around $2,000.)
Any number of Korean fashion boutiques offer what appears to be this season’s version of the national dress—a frock with a cotton knit top and a long tulle tutu skirt—usually for less than $100. This item shows up in abundance at the unfortunately named Sophie Powderrooms Paris (a moniker that nevertheless pales in comparison to the faintly disgusting, completely nutty Z.I.T. by Zoom in THE).
Though I am told this neighborhood is even cooler at night—and a lot of the stores are open until 10 p.m., another plus for the acquisition-minded—I am back at the Park Hyatt by eight, delirious with jet lag but nevertheless greatly anticipating the day ahead.
On Saturday, I meet Michael Reyes and his partner, Aidan Cowling, at the stone fountain outside Shinsegae, one of the only department store buildings still standing from the prewar period. The pair, both in their late twenties, came from Toronto to teach English for a few years. “There was nothing for us in Canada,” Reyes, an aspiring arts writer who has a black stud in each ear, tells me as we set out to explore the jewelry department. I fall in love with an $8,000 pendant by the South Korean house Minetani, a combination of diamonds and white sapphires arrayed in a floral plaque reminiscent of early Cartier.
The spectacular elegance of this necklace stands in stark contrast to our next adventure: a stroll through the gaudy, densely packed Myeong-dong, a pedestrian shopping area where the occasional car nevertheless barrels through and threatens your life. It’s an exuberant streetscape bursting with kids and laden with tables groaning with faux Fendis and pretend Pradas. Suddenly, Cowling asks a guy in a Garfield costume for directions—it seems there’s a cat café nearby, a quintessentially South Korean institution the boys think I need to see. It’s on the fourth floor of a building, and I am satisfied to merely peer through the glass at this place, where you can bring your feline friend to frolic with other animals while you sip a coffee. (There are also dog cafés, Cowling tells me, and they are a lot more frantic.) Then he confesses that his own favorite ironic watering holes are the uniquely South Korean restaurants known as Ann House, whose whimsical cottage décor is said to evoke Victorian-era dollhouses crossed with Anne of Green Gables. (It turns out that the novel’s plucky orphan heroine, “redheaded Anne,” as she is called here, has an enduring popularity in South Korea to rival that of Jerry Lewis’s in France.)
Alas, there’s no Ann House nearby, so we head to Samcheong-dong gil, a boulevard near the Gyeongbokgung palace, where we visit a shop called Korean Traditional Folk Dress Museum that is not a museum at all, but will custom-create and ship to you a traditional hanbok, Korea’s high-waisted, spun-silk version of the kimono. Elegant wood cabinets bearing bolts of every conceivable hue and heft of silk line the shop, and a photo of Hillary Clinton adorns one wall. But this old-fashioned place is an anomaly in Sagan-dong. Far more typical is a shop like MenuNsauce, where a bright orange cotton dress is around $400, or Z. I. Gallery, from the South Korean actress Zia Kim, which this season has apple-green silk coats with orange trim and muslin blouses that close with tiny beaded buttons.